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Demographics and the Future of Aikido

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #95 (Spring/Summer 1993)

Aiki News is busy preparing a totally new reference book tentatively titled The Aikido SourceBook and Dojo Finder. In our effort to gather extensive information concerning the present state of aikido, w have contacted nearly 1,000 schools in over twenty countries requesting detailed profiles of individual dojos. The response so far has greatly exceeded our expectations and we would like to sincerely thank those who have cooperated by sending in their completed data forms. The huge amount of data we have recently received added to our existing database has revealed several statistical patterns that contradict common assumptions. Based on this information, we now feel confident in making a series of observations about the present and future of aikido, which may come as a surprise to many.

Leading aikido nations

First of all, setting aside the thorny issues of technical standards and level of training, it is clear that France has by far and away aikido’s largest practicing population. The U.S.A. seems to have taken over the number two position in recent years, whereas in Japan the growth of the art has flattened out. Fourth and fifth places are occupied by Germany and the United Kingdom, although at the present time we don’t have sufficient data to provide more specifics beyond that. Other nations that have sizeable aikido populations are, in alphabetical order, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, FInland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

France: Number One

First let’s take a look for a moment at some of the factors which have resulted in France having achieved its numerical superiority. France was the first Western nation to host a Japanese aikido shihan when Minoru Mochizuki introduced the Yoseikan style there in 1951 during his two-year stay as a judo instructor. Mochizuki was followed by Tadashi Abe, Masamichi Noro, Mutsuro Nakazono, and later Nobuyoshi Tamura. All of these well-known Japanese instructors were successful to varying degrees in promoting the early growth of the art not only in France, but in many other European and Scandinavian nations as well.

Aikido in France received an early boost by virtue of its affiliating with the French Judo Federation and steadily spread throughout the country. In fact, this phenomenon was repeated all over Europe. Many judo practitioners wanted to continue martial arts training after their competitive days had ended, and for many aikido provided the perfect answer. Initially, aikido’s close ties with judo led to government subsidies and, more importantly, it became possible to rent excellent sports facilities at low rates. With large numbers of practitioners and easy access to training facilities, scored of French instructors opted to become professionals. The resulting network of dojos reached to every corner of the country and well-attended “stages” or seminars have proliferated. These factors have provided French practitioners with virtually unlimited training opportunities. Recent estimates based on the member lists of the two large French aikido organizations show approximately 50,000 active practitioners training in more than 2,500 dojos throughout France.

U.S.A: Coming on Fast

Although aikido was introduced to Hawaii by Koichi Tohei as early as 1953, its spread to the mainland was slow to occur. Personally, I began my training in Los Angeles in August of 1962 and remember being told that there were only two of three dojos in all of California at that time. It was not until the late 1960s that aikido’s growth began to accelerate in the United States. Much of the credit for the art’s early development in the Western U.S. must be given to Tohei and his American supporters, while Yoshimitsu Yamada and Mitsunari Kanai, followed later by other Japanese shihan and early American teachers, did much to spread aikido in the Central and Eastern States.

A different situation existed altogether in the United States. In the European countries strong judo infrastructures already in place served as fertile ground during aikido’s formative years, but the sprawling size of the U.S. and the independent ways of its people produced a sporadic and uneven growth of the arts in its early years. However, the huge population vase and long-term commitment of many practitioners eventually led to the establishment of hundreds of dojos by the 1970s. As in France and elsewhere in Europe, many experienced American instructors opted to turn professional and opened up storefront dojos. Those who were successful began to offer extensive training programs, often with multiple classes daily, which tended to improve the overall technical level of students. Also, the availability of numerous seminars, or “camps” as they are often called, provided frequent training opportunities particularly for practitioners residing in larger cities. Some of these events have become annual affairs and attract several hundred participants who plan their vacations expressly to attend.

In compiling the data readers have submitted to us for the Aikido SourceBook it has become apparent that many U.S. schools run by professional instructors have more than 100 active practitioners. Given economic realities, an aikido professional usually must attract a minimum of fifty or so students in order to eke out a living. Obviously, there is a strong incentive for professional instructors to work hard to provide high-quality instruction, an attractive training environment, and acquire adequate business skills in order to ensure their success.

It is very difficult to estimate the number of dojos operating in the United States at the present time. Our database figures suggest a range of between 1,200 - 1,500 schools, although the actual number could be even higher. Many colleges and universities offer classes or maintain clubs that are hard to keep track of due to their irregular schedules and exclusive nature. It must also be kept in mind in interpreting figures for the U.S. that the dojo count by itself is misleading in the sense that it does not reflect the high average number of practitioners per school.

Japan: At a saturation point?

Although many aikidoka automatically assume that Japan, the birthplace of aikido, has the largest number and most skilled aikido population the actual data suggests a rather different picture. France probably pulled ahead of Japan in numeric terms somewhere in the 1970s, while the total of U.S. practitioners is likely to have surpassed Japan’s figure sometime during the 1980s. What has happened to account for the recent slowdown in aikido’s growth in its birthplace?

Let us first make it clear that although there are a number of medium-sized aikido groups in Japan such as Yoshinkan aikido, Tomiki aikido Shinshin Toitsu aikido, Yoseikan aikido, and various independent dojos, the Aikikai Hombu Dojo organization under present Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba dwarfs all others. If our overall estimate of 1,300 to 1,600 for Japanese dojos based on Aikikai statistics and our own internal database is correct, more than 1,100 of these belong to the Aikikai network. Not surprisingly, most dojos in foreign countries are directly linked to the Aikikai Hombu or trace their origins to the Hombu style.

One might be prompted to ask why Japan is ranked third if it has more dojos than the U.S. If Japan does indeed have more schools - no one really knows for sure - it is the relatively small average dojo membership that accounts for its third-place status. There are few private dojos in large Japanese cities due to the astronomical costs of real estate which make the rental or purchase of property suitable for a dojo out of reach of all except the wealthy. I know of only a few dojos in Japan with more than 100 active members and most of them are the world headquarters of their style. Indeed, some of these would have trouble functioning at their present levels without the substantial private financial support they now receive.

The vast majority of aikido groups in Japan meet in public and private sports centers or school on a once-, or more infrequently, twice-weekly basis. The result is small classes where participants have little chance to develop good technical skills. An enthusiastic aikidoka desirous of more training is obliged to join two or even three dojos, an expensive and time-consuming proposition in which few can afford to indulge. Participation by more than one family members is unusual in Japan and dojo conditions in general do not favor the development of the tightly knit social groups so common in dojos in foreign countries.

Further, the aikido seminars open to members of outside dojos which are ubiquitous in Europe and America are few and far between in Japan. Even the large annual All-Japan Aikikai and Yoshinkan Aikido Demonstrations are primarily promotional events designed to foster solidarity within the organziation rather than training affairs.

Future development of aikido

It may be that aikido in Japan is simply nearing its saturation point. There is a limited number of facilities suitable for training and many of them already have aikido clubs. Also, the thought of becoming a professional aikido instructor is not something that many young Japanese would take seriously. Martial arts are looked down upon by many in society - a legacy of the excesses of the military class before and during the war - and the social and economic conditions we have alluded to above make such a career a risky one at best. Our feeling is that Japan will continue to maintain its position as the organizational and symbolic center of aikido for the foreseeable future while its growth will remain muted at best.

In numerical terms, France is sure to hold on to its first-place honor for some years to come. Nonetheless, the sheer size of the United States, its much larger population base, and the ever-growing corps of professional instructors may in the long run propel it into the number one position. Aikido in European nations will continue to progress, albeit at a slower pace, and Australia and Canada show considerable growth potential despite their small populations.

A feeling shared by many Japanese shihan, and I would have to concur, is that foreign aikidoka tend to take a more serious approach to aikido than the Japanese, viewing it as a tool for self-defense and personal development. O-Sensei’s aikido and ethical beliefs hold deep meaning for practitioners in foreign lands who seek nonviolent alternatives for their lives in turbulent societies. The Japanese, for their part, regard the art more as a hobby or system of exercise, and their participation tends to be of a more casual nature. Ironically, it may be Japan’s economic success and social stability which have obscured the unique promise the art holds for those who choose to set out on the aikido path.