Salvatore Forestieri began his aikido training under Fumio Toyoda. After his passing, Forestieri became an understudy of Steven Seagal. This is a transcript of an interview conducted in the spring of 2019, discussing the current state of aikido and its place in the martial arts industry. All images provided by Salvatore Forestieri.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello Forestieri Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk about aikido in the martial arts industry of today!
Salvatore Forestieri: Thank you! I am honored to be here!
MAYTT: When you first opened your Tenshin Shinjitsu Dojo, how did you acquire new students? What types of methods/outlets did you use? What advertising methods were the most successful and when did your dojo see its greatest growth in membership?
SF: What worked best for the dojo was word of mouth and the dojo website – the website by far has been the most successful. Sadly, other forms of advertising have been very unproductive. Through our current form of advertising, the dominant age of members is between age thirty and fifty. We do have some older member join. The least has been younger than twenty-seven. In previous years, spring and summer have been busy times with newer members. Most recently, the Presidential Election and the resurgence of the economy showed improvement of newer members.
MAYTT: The future of anything that is passed down are those who make the transition from student to teacher. How does your dojo address developing new/future instructors?
SF: I first teach assistant instructors how to teach detailed technical movement. From there, I teach them how to build a class structure, how to talk with people and guide them. I also review their classes and provide feedback to help them grow as an instructor. I feel that developing future instructors has to be done at the dojo level.
MAYTT: I see. In addition, French aikidoka Christian Tissier suggests allowing younger instructors to teach classes more often in an effort to attract and draw more of the much-needed younger demographics into the dojo. Do you feel this is a valid method of addressing the age demographic issue? What other options might you suggest, or have you tried?
SF: It could be; however I have never had a young student at a teaching level. I think it depends on the dynamics of one’s dojo. If you have a large dojo with a big population of younger people, this might inspire them. In a smaller dojo, it may not work so well. Middle-aged folks may be apprehensive from learning self defense applications from a younger, less experienced instructor.
MAYTT: On the topic of instructors, what, in your opinion, separates a good instructor from a great instructor?
SF: Good instructors meet the requirements; great instructors take the extra effort to seek and refine the serious individuals, developing them physically and mentally. Great instructors never show favoritism to anyone and are always open to what students may have to say. Great instructors are always learning something.
MAYTT: In the last few years, Josh Gold of Aikido Journal along with other martial arts writers claimed that aikido has been on a decline since 2004, with a massive drop occurring in 2012. Has this been your experience and has your dojo been affected in any way?
SF: No, not really in my experience. I think aikido has been on a decline since we have lost so many Japanese shihan, especially in America prior to 2004. Less aikido on the Hollywood screen may have also decreased its popularity. I also believe that Mixed Martial Arts has taken a big percent of the population because of its popularity in the media. Aikido gets little to no exposure to our population in comparison to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA.
MAYTT: I can see, as BJJ and MMA are has become popular in the last decade. Those same writers also contend that the younger population, the eighteen to twenty-nine age group/demographic, is almost vacant in aikido as well as other traditional martial arts dojo across America. Besides MMA and BJJ, as you previously mentioned, what do you think is contributing to the decline and can these traditional martial arts survive without those specific age demographics? How have you and your dojo adapted to such a change, if any?
SF: I have found this to be true. I think this age group understands that aikido classes don’t offer quick results and that causes a lack of interest. Also, some people really don’t want to deal with learning a new martial art with etiquette and language to some extent. To go one step further, at that age they want to learn to fight.
I teach a pretty practical form of aikido and, of course, the organizations syllabus. I offer this type of instruction for the people that want to feel like they can apply their aikido and maintain traditional aikido as well. I think this is what keeps them motivated. This is how we have adapted.
MAYTT: In your opinion, how can traditional martial arts, such as aikido, adapt to the changing modern martial arts landscape and the American industry model? Is there a way for schools to maintain tradition and integrity while staying current with the times?
SF: In my opinion, you have to maintain your integrity and tradition if you are teaching aikido. I don’t really think it is going to change that much if you let go of traditions. The reason why I say that is because there have been aikido styles that use no Japanese language to identify anything and do no sitting techniques, and they run into the same setbacks as everyone else. Also, there are other arts that are very similar to aikido technically and have similar problems. So, if you change the art to meet what people want, there will always be a problem. There will be people that want to do aikido and hopefully we can attract them to the art.
MAYTT: Martial arts writer Nick Porter asserted that aikido’s curriculum has remained the same from its inception and asked the question, “why aikido has not changed or modified its curriculum as time went on, especially in relation to more modern styles that have seen a rise in popularity and numbers?” Do you feel that the overall curriculum of aikido could be updated for today’s modern era and martial arts industry? If so, in what ways?
SF: I do feel it could be changed to attract more interest. I say changed not updated because the founder of aikido had so much to offer. A lot of that seems to be gone unfortunately.
MAYTT: Speaking of which, has your dojo’s curriculum made any additions or subtractions to stay current?
SF: For our dojo, a syllabus is a basic standard that needs to be disseminated to provide a learning form. Students coming up need more than this, in my opinion. So additionally, I teach them more, and also how to deal with traditional and nontraditional attacks by applying aikido elements. This helps them stay current to the different possibilities. I really haven’t subtracted anything.
MAYTT: I see. In some ways, the membership numbers of judo and karate remain at least consistent compared to aikido, how do you think judo and karate adapted to such changes or why have they not experienced the same decline in recent years as aikido?
SF: I think that a lot needs to be said about competition, and how these judoka and karateka practice. These are also arts that have specific forms and physical demands, unlike aikido, and results come quicker. One example, in aikido everyone grabs you with a different force. In karate, you know to break that board you need power. In a judo throw, you have to initiate a certain power.
MAYTT: When martial artists, particularly dojo owners, discuss the changes within the industry, many point to the rise of MMA and BJJ as two of the major factors. Do you feel that MMA and BJJ are contributing factors to the decline of traditional martial arts? If so, what do these arts offer in what comparison to aikido and other Japanese martial arts like judo and karate?
SF: Not really. I think if aikido had more exposure, it would help increase practitioners. In these other arts, the student starts to spar right away. To some aspect, there is no form of grabbing in your attacks; you are not being controlled how you attack. You get into action right away. In aikido, for a lot of people, practitioners tend to grab certain ways only, especially when beginning aikido. In addition, practitioners strike a certain way. The way that many aikido practitioners practice may hinder potential members’ interest.
MAYTT: Besides competition, is there something that judo and karate offer that aikido does not?
SF: Results probably come sooner in these arts than in aikido. Energy levels are higher. Judo and karate are well known compared to aikido. Their exposure is higher in the media, so people can see where it can take them. Example, judo matches are in the Olympics. Very seldom do you see aikido getting that kind of exposure.
MAYTT: Very seldom indeed. Aikido is centered around an idea of unity. How would you describe your dojo community? In comparison and from your perception, in what ways does your dojo community culture align with the worldwide aikido community culture of unity? How does it differ?
SF: Our dojo community is friendly and close group. To some extent, the dojo community and the worldwide aikido community are very similar. I don’t think any two dojos are the same in this manner. We are close but our time is focused on training. Unity is a byproduct of our training.
MAYTT: Based on your opinion, in what ways does the overall aikido community compare to other Japanese martial arts, such as judo and karate, excluding the same cultural origin? What would be some of the differences, if any?
SF: In my opinion, they present themselves overall as being more aggressive with ki and atemi waza. Competing offers recognition and prizes – it’s really clear what their objectives are. They have specific forms they follow. In aikido, there are no competitions or prizes, but there is that freedom, which is really good, but if it is not used properly, it can become proactive. So, it’s kind of a double-edged sword.
MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. With over forty-five years of training and teaching aikido, what advice would you give to someone who wants to open a dojo today?
SF: To always lead by example. Work hard and treat people fair with equality. Show integrity on and off the mat. Continue your aikido training and continue to grow, especially as an instructor. Always be consistent at the dojo and be there for your students’ needs.
MAYTT: Thank you again for coming out and talking with us!
SF: It was an absolute pleasure!
To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.