Interview with Longtime Aikidoka Jesse Spears: Obstacles Facing The Art of Peace in the United States

This is a transcript of an interview with South Austin Aikido head instructor Jesse Spears in the spring of 2019. Here, we discuss the obstacles facing aikido in the United States.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Spears Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today!

Jesse Spears: Thank you for having me; I’m looking forward to your questions!

MAYTT: To begin, when you first opened your dojo, South Austin Aikido, how did you acquire new students? What methods of advertising did you find were most successful for your age- dominant demographic?

JS: I’m not sure this is a question I can answer. I’m the third head instructor of South Austin Aikido, and only took over last September (although I’ve been a member since it was formed in 2006). As far as I know, word of mouth and a good location were the only things that grew our membership early. Advertising on Google and Facebook were helpful in obtaining our current demographic, which is definitely men in their forties and fifties. We’ve never had many women of any age, unfortunately.

MAYTT: When did your dojo see its greatest membership growth? Was there a particular time or year? Why do you think that was a significant point for growth?

JS: The early years of our dojo had the greatest membership growth, right after it was started.  Mostly, I think it was because we were in a great location (directly on South Lamar, a main thoroughfare of South Austin). That location was torn down about seven years ago, and we were forced to move. Our current location is a nicer space, but much less visible to foot traffic (hidden away in a “mall”).

MAYTT: Instructors help further the art and keep it alive. How does South Austin Aikido address developing new/future instructors?

JS: We let our ikkyu level students fill in for other instructors (we have six regularly scheduled classes per week, each normally taught by a different person, so there’s usually three to six classes a month that need someone to fill in). Teaching is one of the best ways to learn aikido.

MAYTT: In your opinion, what separates a good instructor from a great instructor?

JS: Since everyone learns differently, a good instructor can teach the same material in a number of different ways, depending on the students.

MAYTT: I see. The late Stanley Pranin as well as Josh Gold have suggested, in Aikido Journal, that aikido needs instructors that can teach the art well and can offer insightful development and innovation to the art. One method they offer to achieve this is developing the instructor with in-house/dojo programs to discuss and implement teaching methodologies and strategies. Do you feel that this in-house development is the way to go or does this need to be done on a larger scale, possibly through organizations?

JS: In-house development definitely needs to happen. That is where most of your instructors are going to come from. Having classes to help instructors refine their teaching is also a good idea, but without continuous improvement on a weekly/daily timescale, no amount of external help will make better teachers.

MAYTT: 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?

JS: Yes, I agree with this. Allowing younger and more junior instructors time to teach will help them improve. I hope it will also bring in a younger demographic. Unfortunately, at the moment, we only have one student under thirty that’s teaching. We have a teenager (sixteen) that will likely be ready to teach within the next few years, and I’ve had him help me out with the kids’ class on several occasions.

MAYTT: Interesting. Recently, 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?

JS: I’m not sure exactly when the decline started, or any particular point where there was a massive drop off. But there are definitely less people interested in it than there were ten years ago. I’ve suspected the Great Recession had a fair amount to do with it (if you don’t have disposable income, paying monthly dues probably doesn’t seem like a good use of your money).

MAYTT: Those same writers also contend that the eighteen to twenty-nine age group/demographic is almost vacant in aikido as well as other traditional martial arts dojo across America. What do you think is contributing to the decline and can these traditional martial arts survive without those specific age demographics?

JS: I wish I knew the answer to this. I really can’t. Can we survive without that age range? If it’s a permanent loss, then no. We have one twenty-eight-year-old training right now, but he started when he was fifteen or sixteen. We have had a few others that started training but had to stop because of work (or lack of work). That seems to be a fairly common reason for people to stop training (conflict with work schedule, or lack of income because of losing a job).

MAYTT: You mentioned that the Great Recession began to create some change in your dojo. How have you and your dojo adapted to such a change, if any?

JS: Not well. I’ve been trying to bring in more people, of any age range for the last six or seven years. It’s really hard to get people interested, and even harder to keep them interested. Now that I’m head instructor, I’ve tried a number of new things, but so far nothing has worked.

MAYTT: I see. 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?

JS: As long as people are more interested in “winning” than learning and growing, I think all traditional martial arts will continue to shrink.

MAYTT: Given that 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?

JS: I’m really not sure about the relative numbers of these arts, or how they’ve declined. Karate (or at least arts that call themselves karate) seem to cater to children more than adults. Same goes for Tae Kwon Do (a much more popular art than any of the Japanese traditional arts). Have they been any better about retaining their kids as they age into teens and adults? I have no idea, but I suspect the answer is probably that they probably lose a similar percentage of students, as they age, as aikido does. If we could keep all of our kids till adulthood, that would be a huge gain for us, but I suspect we will be lucky to keep one kid out of five through their teen years.

MAYTT: When martial artists, particularly dojo owners, discuss the changes within the industry, many point to the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (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 comparison to aikido and other Japanese martial arts like judo and karate?

JS: Yes. MMA and BJJ are focused on competition and winning. They also have incredible marketing (UFC and other televised MMA competition). This was a long-term vision and marketing plan by the Gracie families to make BJJ more popular, and it was highly successful.

BJJ is easy to understand in terms of competition. And it’s often championed as being more “effective” than other arts (including Aikido) even though the sport form is basically worthless as an actual real world defense (unless you are in a fight with a single BJJ/MMA competitor and neither of you “cheats”). But if you spend any time on Youtube watching aikido videos (and bother to read any comments), it’s pretty clear that the BJJ fans don’t see it that way.

MAYTT: Competition seems to be the new thing everyone is looking for in a martial art, making it harder for non-competition-based martial arts to grow. Besides competition, is there something that judo and karate offer that aikido does not?

JS: Once again, it’s easier to understand the point of those arts. Judo is all about getting your opponent to the ground with big body throws and leg sweeps. Karate is about punching, kicking, blocking, etc., and is also easy to score in a match. Aikido has no way of “winning”, just slow improvement over time. For a culture that’s unhealthily focused on competition and winning and quick results, aikido doesn’t have a lot to offer. 

Also, most of the people that probably would get something out of it often see it as too martial, and are doing Yoga, or (non-martial) Tai Chi, or meditation instead.

MAYTT: 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?

JS: We are more focused on connection than most aikido practitioners that I have trained with. We are not particularly interested in throwing people down. We are opposed to any kind of pain compliance. We do focus on being safe, and martially correct, but we are probably some of the least physical practitioners in the aikido world. Technique is purely a means to learning aikido for us, but most of the aikido world seems to treat it as the main point of 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?

JS: I don’t think I have enough exposure to judo and karate to have an opinion.

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?

JS: I’m not sure what style(s) he has in mind with that assertion, but I’m not sure that statement applies to us. I don’t teach aikido the way my first (or second or third) head instructors taught it. As I mentioned before, we’re more focused on learning connection, with technique being a tool to learn the connection.

We definitely focus more on paired weapons work than my first head instructor did. She only used weapons when working on takeaways.

MAYTT: With aikido’s curriculum in mind, how has your dojo’s curriculum made any additions or subtractions to stay current?

JS: I’m not sure what “stay current” means in this context. But since I can’t define it, the answer would probably be no.

MAYTT: Final question. Given your time in the martial arts, what advice would you give to someone opening a dojo today?

JS: Find some place you can afford, now and well into the future. That’s been the biggest challenge for us over the last ten years. Rent and property taxes keep going up, and the number of students has stayed the same, or gone down each year in the last eight to ten years.

MAYTT: Thank you for talking with us today; it was an interesting conversation!

JS: Thank you having me!

To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.

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