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Can Traditional Martial Arts like Aikido Grow in the Age of MMA? PART 1 of 2

Updated: Dec 12, 2023


by Antonio Terrone

There has been much clamor in the aikido world about a recent study suggesting that practice of the traditional martial art is shrinking in the modern world. Based on Google Trend data, the Aikido Journal published a special report on the art’s demographics, and it too indicated a dramatic decline in aikido in America.

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The take-aways are several. One is that aikido in the United States is not popular among the younger generations, especially in comparison with Europe. A mere 4.8 percent of aikidoka in the United States are in their 30s, while more than 80 percent are age 40 or older. Evidence of gender and ethnic asymmetries are also cause for concern.

As in many other fields of human endeavor, while there are some conservative views on how to cultivate aikido, others push for a more progressive approach that is based on adaptation to a changing world. Conversations on this issue are not new, but they tend to raise questions rather than suggest solutions, and consequently there is little consensus on how to move forward.

As if this was not bad enough, the long and unexpected pause in group aikido practice brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has had dire consequences in the aikido community. Many members will not return to their dojo, many dojo will not reopen soon and some have closed for good. But beyond that, if we are seriously concerned about the future of aikido — and, by extension, the future of all traditional martial arts—the current slowdown is a precious opportunity to reflect on how to restart on the right foot.

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Identifying the Problem

Rather than the decline of aikido, it is more accurate to say that what we are witnessing is the rise of martial sports and nontraditional fighting systems. A casual search on the internet reveals that the

number of pages pertaining to mixed martial arts, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate and even self-defense far surpasses the number of pages devoted to aikido.

However, to aikido’s credit, if we look at the numbers for the past decade only, it seems that the art has experienced more stability—albeit stability at a low level — than is indicated by the dramatic drop it

experienced in previous years.

There is little doubt that new forms of fighting and new combat sports are the hot topics in the martial arts. The popularity of UFC videos on YouTube and in social media offers undeniable proof of this.

Clips of “new” martial arts — including MMA, BJJ and, to a lesser extent, krav maga, systema, Muay Thai and even Navy SEALs hand-to-hand combat — dominate the internet. As aikido instructor Christian Tissier recently said, “Traditional martial arts have lost their magic.”

Although disappointing, to a certain degree, his comment is true. The high kicks, the semi-contact competitions and the full-contact matches that were popular in the recent past have been replaced by

events that feature vicious low kicks, knee strikes, strangulations and barroom-brawl-style punches, often coupled with visible blood loss and occasionally life endangerment. Style, form and ethics have been supplanted by brutality and muscular strength.

The heightened violence, the extreme realism and the spectacular athleticism displayed by modern warriors are difficult to compete with. But should traditional martial arts leaders try to match that? Or should aikido and other forms of budo find new ways to adapt to the changing circumstances?

These questions lead to an even bigger issue:

Are traditional martial arts still relevant?

I would argue that traditional martial arts like aikido continue to be relevant not only because of the content they convey but also because they offer the physical and sociopsychological development everyone should have. Physical prowess is only one portion of traditional training. The philosophical and ethical benefits practitioners enjoy are equally important. 

Consider the following:

Recent scientific research has demonstrated that because of the violence seen in some of these new martial sports, namely MMA, exposure “may not be suitable for at-risk youth to practice, whereas

traditional martial arts and sports with a healthy philosophical foundation may be effective in reducing anti-social behavior while enhancing socially desirable behavior among young people.” (pubmed

Clearly, traditional arts like aikido are worth preserving. The question now becomes, What can aikido

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Suggestion 1: Retain the Aikido Curriculum

There is nothing inherently wrong or outdated in the tradition oriented content of aikido, and there is little or no need to change or innovate the waza (techniques). Aikido is effective as a budo just the

way it is, and we all know it.

What can and should be improved are the efforts to popularize aikido among young people. Unlike in Japan, aikido in America is predominantly an adult martial art, and most qualified instructors are middle-aged or older. Perhaps the younger generation is not attracted to a martial art because it is powerful in some abstract sense. Perhaps they would be attracted to a martial art that is represented by young, fit fighters who are dynamic and effective. It has been observed that many young students relate better to young instructors. The age of an instructor should not be an issue when it comes to attracting younger students because, as we all know, experience matters. That said, the fitness, agility and enthusiasm of instructors need to be inspirational. The credibility and charisma of the dojo leader and his or her immediate assistants depend on their ability to offer themselves as role models, and with the right approach, young instructors can achieve that goal.

Suggestion 2: Ensure Classes Meet the Needs of Students

In Europe and the United States, aikido’s popularity is not stable, and membership lacks renewal. Because the art does not include competition, intense cardiovascular activity or fighting, aikido in

the West is geared primarily to adults.

Aikido is not naturally selective when it comes to physical skills — unlike martial sports. In aikido dojo, it is not uncommon for senior practitioners to struggle with aging, physical fitness and stamina. Taking the ukemi (falls) and tobi ukemi (breakfalls) is not required. Many dojo do not regularly include ki no nagare (continuous practice), jiyu waza (freestyle techniques) and randori

(free sparring) in their classes. There is frequently a mix in terms of students’ years of experience, making training somewhat slow and often unattractive to advanced practitioners.

Dojo owners should do some soul-searching regarding expectations and age distribution in their classes. With the prevalence of hybrid training — in terms of skill level, age and fitness — more skilled and capable students often find that opportunities for high-level workouts are inconsistent. Such hybrid classes can be less gratifying for younger practitioners, as well. One solution to this shortcoming involves organizing classes according to age and experience, perhaps with separate sessions for children, beginners, intermediates, advanced students and black belts. Although this might be challenging for small dojo with low enrollment, schools should, when possible, offer classes at different levels multiple times a week to give all students the opportunity to train at their level and to create an environment of natural motivation for junior practitioners to improve toward advanced levels and classes…

Part 2 coming next week. 

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Antonio Terrone began aikido in Italy in the late 1980s under Tada Hiroshi. He continued training in France and the Netherlands with Christian Tissier and Wilko Vriesman, and on several occasions, he trained at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo under Ueshiba Moriteru, Endo Seishiro, Yokota Yoshiaki, Yasuno Masatoshi and Miyamoto Tsuruzo, among others. Currently an Aikikai yondan, he teaches at the Evanston Aikido Center in Evanston, Illinois. He also teaches in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at Northwestern University. His first book was The Moon in the River: The Budo Path to the Empty Mind (2020). To read his blog, visit

This article was originally published in a 2022 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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