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Can Traditional Martial Arts like Aikido Still Grow in the Age of MMA? Part 2/2

by Antonio Terrone

Last week we published part one. Part two offers final suggestions for keeping traditional martial arts alive. 


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.

Suggestion 3: Maximize Exposure to the Public

Given the prime-time attention the aforementioned new martial arts and combat sports are enjoying in the United States, there is little hope for budo-based martial arts to attract similarly large audiences. Even though tournaments, full-contact fighting and media adoration are unlikely to proliferate in the aikido universe, there are alternative ways for dojo to stimulate and energize membership.

Aikido instructors should be encouraged to visit other dojo when possible to expand their experience and familiarize themselves with different teaching styles and practice methods. They should urge their students to attend local, national and international seminars to improve their technical skills and network with their peers.


Further, students and teachers should find ways to participate in local or national demonstrations, fairs and summer camps because they offer excellent opportunities for good publicity. Public relations, advertising and demonstrations can be game changers for aikido dojo. Open-house events and public tryouts, general advertising campaigns, and outreaches in schools, community centers and colleges also can raise awareness at the local level.

Other possibilities include offering more demonstrations in K-12 schools and summer camps, creating after-school programs that combine aikido practice with homework and study sessions, and offering sliding fee scales in an effort to surmount financial barriers faced by locals who are interested in learning.

Suggestion 4: Emphasize the Intangible Benefits of Training

The final point pertains to the psycho-spiritual component of aikido specifically and budo in general. Some budo-based arts are popular in Japan because many parents include martials arts in their children’s education to expose them to traditional Japanese culture. Modern budo are considered ningen keisei no michi, “ways to human development,” which is a concept that does not have much meaning in the United States.

In Japan, many high schools and colleges have martial arts clubs that teach judo, kendo, karate and aikido. This is, obviously, not the case in American educational institutions.

One of the major drivers for the development and success of budo in Japan was and, in a way, still is shugyo, “self-development” or “selfcultivation,” a concept that has been refined in modern Japan. Aikido fits into this category based on founder Morihei Ueshiba’s philosophies.

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Reading the works of Ueshiba and other great masters of the past will help anyone understand how aikido can function as a “technology of the self.” In other words, it fosters the quest for well-being and the development of one’s physical, spiritual and ethical awareness. Aikido is a method for controlling power and gaining agency over one’s own transformation into a state of perfection through working on body, mind and conduct.

While in Japanese culture, most of the spiritual elements associated with aikido are embedded in social norms and etiquette, the same cannot be said for the outside world. Many concepts pertaining to aikido practice constitute the essence of Japanese ethics, customs and culture. They include ki, kokyu (breathing), mokuso (meditation), rei (bowing), zanshin (awareness), shinshin toitsu (mind-body unity), gaman (perseverance) and seiza (proper sitting). Western dojo have assimilated some of these norms, but there is no consensus when it comes to others that are more internal and psychologically charged. There is even less agreement on how to convey them to the next generation.

Instead of avoiding or neglecting to address psycho-spiritual elements, Western aikido instructors should consider introducing the relevant cultural, literary and ethical content in their classes to help students understand and contextualize aikido in the broader world of budo. This, in essence, will help students appreciate the true value of the art.


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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