Guest Article, Josephine Fan: Perceptions of the Aikido Community

Since my hand is still goofed up, my writing volume will decrease a bit over the coming weeks after surgery. I’ll still be writing (and dictating, and maybe God-help-us-all making some YouTube videos) but will also be reaching out to folks for guest articles. We’re gonna start off big with a guest article from a friend, Josephine Fan, continuing the discussion about Aikido and its place within the greater martial arts community.

Josephine Fan owns and operates the Long Island Aikikai (www.liaikikai.com) with her husband Adam Pilipshen. LI Aikikai is the home dojo of chief instructor Edward Hagihara, 8th dan Shihan and one of the founding members of the NY Aikikai, is located in Bay Shore, NY. Her first love is cooking and hospitality, so visitors, regardless of affiliation, are always welcome. In her spare time, she writes about her adventures in garden-to-table recipes (www.dearjuneberry.com)

For the Aikido world, the overall velocity of new students joining has been receding steadily, and the existing student base shrinking–there’s been talk (and lots of it) in my particular parent organization as to the causes of this decline, and how we as an organization could mitigate it. I know a bit more about this particular issue, due to the fact that myself and my husband were asked to write a proposal on using data analysis to put forth initiatives for both student enrollment and student retention, which was presented this past year at the meetings in camp.


We went through the usual things–what types of data to collect, where to do it, how to do it, what can be done from these analyses. At home, it’s one of the more common dinner topics as he pulls out his textbooks on surveys and educational data mining, psychometrics, hypothetical questionnaires. Are we measuring what we want to measure, are the questions accurate, are they objective, do they provide causation or just correlation, how to weight each query, and so on ad nauseum.


On top of that, I run experiments with our social media accounts, burying myself deep into the world of professional social media management, which before last year I only knew peripherally since one of my childhood friends is a social media personality, and who gave really great tips on how to run them. Managing social media, among other things, is all about consistency and user perception–there are actions and so called “equations” that give measurable results.


In the course of doing so, a particular question continued to pop up in my research: “Why do people have such a poor impression of Aikido?” I couldn’t understand it just from the superficial point of view in which people argued in terms of “Traditional” Martial Arts and Mixed Martial Arts–there are lots of TMA’s that, while they do get ragged on and their forums trolled, none so harshly as Aikido. Our ideas of what types of data to capture began to shift–we originally wanted to check age and the possible correlation with family life, injuries, distance from schools, finances, class times etc. While those are still on the docket, a new area opened up for us. What is driving the perception of Aikido and how can we change it? To answer this question would help answer a large part of the issue of how to market to new students and how to keep old ones.


There’s a really unfortunate hypothesis that’s been brewing in my head, one that I have to confess I had an inkling of but pushed into the deepest recesses of my heart, and locked it away as only someone in denial could. I didn’t like where it could lead, since my experience in my little sheltered goldfish bowl was a positive and warm one, a kind one, one that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I locked it away, avoiding forums that could trigger this thought, actively choosing to turn a blind eye in order to keep the false sense of peace I held. But it was there, and it continued to push and prod until I couldn’t ignore it any longer, and I pried open what was sure to be a festering wound–taking in my experiences from understanding how social media worked, the simple answer was that the Aikido community itself gave a terrible perception and impression to the outside world. Coupled with the fact that in this day and age, online research is done extensively well before anyone commits to anything, the online community presence would be the first view into what anyone who was interested would want to look at.


And it’s ugly. To the point of when I first allowed myself to really go through the nitty gritty, I felt a sensation I rarely come into contact with in my adult life–I wanted to cry. This is not the Aikido community I fell in love with, this is not the kind of people who I proudly called my family, my brothers and my sisters unrelated by blood, but bonded with a common experience, a common love for a beautiful art.


So I grieved. I grieved for months for the community I had built in my minds eye, and once I finished grieving, I began to flesh out my thoughts with younger, less established, less chaotic forums in an attempt to make a connection with the outside world that (eventually I would find out rightfully) rejected us so. To make the connection was to find out truly, beyond the catfights, beyond the hissing and spitting and posturing, what it was that irked the world about Aikido so.


And the results were very surprising, simple in the most complicated way–the world rejected Aikido because face of the Aikido community rejected the world.


I summarized it below which was a response to someone who like me, couldn’t understand why, given that Aikido trains body mechanics and has many health benefits, would receive such a bad rap. Each of these next lines I could write a paragraph in itself, and perhaps I will write them another day, but for now it’s an apt summary.


“I wrote about this on the Aikido subreddit, but the reason Aikido has become the target of so much criticism is more about how the community has become–personally, I never realized how toxic it was until I started participating in the different forums out there. There’s so much infighting (“My sensei is better than your sensei, my style is better than your style, the way I train is the best way to train”) and lashing out against anyone that is different or new. It has very little to do with whether or not there is anything worth learning in it, since we know there are benefits to doing so.
The perception of the Aikido community has amounted to a joke, and it’s entirely deserved. Excusing poor behavior and mean spirited conversation as long as one is “on your side” promotes the growth of toxicity. At a certain point, the art and the people become one, and this is where the issues truly are–when the outside world can no longer differentiate between the art itself and those who practice it, and when those who practice are nastily infighting amongst each other, exiles those who voice their criticisms, lash out whenever anyone on the outside attempts to discern for themselves what is “real”, is it literally any wonder it’s become a group to troll and joke about, the same way the Westboro Baptist Church has become a meme?
For practitioners of an art that theoretically promotes peace, support, and conflict resolution, our coping skills seem to be greatly lacking and therefore our ability to come to an understanding with people who may hold a different view is nil. The velocity of new students joining and the current student base is shrinking and we’re blaming BJJ and MMA when the actual matter is that the face we present as an online community is one that is disparaging and highly unwelcoming. It bristles any time anyone has a critique, rather than calmly and kindly welcoming discourse–we take ourselves far too seriously which makes it easy to become a target. Yet for some reason we happily, gleefully, and even obsessively critique, put down, and disparage our fellow practitioners whenever they post or talk about something they’re proud of. In the current (and future) generation where online research is done before trying anything, it’s imperative to create a network that practices what we preach. 

Change begins at home, but I worry it might be too late.”


Judging by the amount of upvotes and likes, there’s a silent group of people in the Aikido community who seem to feel the way I do, but probably felt the fear of ostracism if they were to voice it. If this was the case, then how many of these practitioners have left or will eventually leave because they don’t want to be put into the same category as this toxic community that has now become the representative? What will become of Aikido if, eventually, the only kinds of people who do it are what is represented there? (I may have an actual quantifiable answer for you in the next year or so.)


In the past, I looked at it as “Not my problem.” My dojo and our network of friends were as far from this warped representation as could be, but I eventually realized the awful truth in that being “the exception” and just the exception is not good enough. That, in order to truly affect change, someone has to take individual responsibility.


I am happy to report that my attempts of forming a connection with people who once rejected Aikido based on their perception of the community (which they understandably confused with the perception of the art) has been a very kind learning experience. I made friends with practitioners of both traditional arts and other sparring, grappling arts who were originally very vocal in their dislike, and it further solidified that which I know of people in real life, and that the principles of what I have learned applied:


Unhappiness and conflict is directly the result of missing a meaningful connection.


When Nick first approached me about providing guest posts on some of the topics we’ve been kicking back and forth in the forums, I was hesitant. I let his message sit for a few hours while I stewed on the pros and the cons–when I recognized that what I felt was fear, I became angry since why should a community, my community that believes love to be its ultimate base cause me fear? And if it causes me, someone who often accidentally and foolishly stumbles into obstacles, fear, then what does is it doing to others? To my precious family who continues on this journey with me?


So I decided to go forward with this, and hope it resonates with the readers. For those who have felt the same discomfort of where the community is heading, you aren’t alone. And for those who possibly recognize a bit of themselves in what I have written, it’s not too late to become a catalyst of change–regardless of my moment of pessimism. Do we still have a future? Maybe, but it’s up to us to carve one that we’d like to live in.

4 thoughts on “Guest Article, Josephine Fan: Perceptions of the Aikido Community

  1. My aikido sensei was very hard on me, and left some lasting emotional scars. many people literally told me that they loved the martial art, but couldn't stand the instructor; heart breaking as that would be every time i would hear that, i was powerless to do anything as the instructor could not be challenged or i would likely be kicked out of a dojo of a martial art i loved. i believe that part of the reason why the community has been set up for toxicity is the involvement of the omoto-kyo cult in the development of aikido, which imparts on it a spirituality that can be easily manipulated to in turn manipulate people A LA scientology. I find that there are often quite alot of similarities between scientology and the Aikikai association for example. the way they isolate them selves from alternate view points or the out side martial arts world in general (you can't ask them questions, you can't experiment, you can't spar, \”we don't do that here at this dojo\”)it is highly toxic for example, that prestigious Aikido instructors have gained the reputation of being incredibly petty and angry, which cliche's having been formed such as an instructor never talking to you again if you for example, are late meeting him somewhere. In addition, Aikido was largely set up to fail because of the influence of the role model for it that is Steven Seagal, he presents his aikido in a rough and \”practical\” way in his movies that involve intense brutality, this contrasts what you would see in 95% percent of dojos ( not that it couldn't be in dojo's, but this highly contrasts what you will wind up actually seeing). As well, reports abound of Steven Seagal being abusive to women and to fellow actors during acting scenes and lots of other terrible things (like getting married to a woman in america when he was still married to a woman in japan)so you have people who give the impression that aikido is something like what steven seagal presents as, and then you have people who present aikido as what the Aikikai society presents it as, and both are toxic in their own right, and the presence of both gives very mixed signals, and it creates chaos and tension and negativity that gets in the way of people even getting to experience just the martial art and decide for them selves if they actually like it.

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  2. It's too bad that you encountered that, but those kinds of egos are not rare in aikido (or in martial arts in general). Having been through that fire (I resigned from an aikido organization over such politicking and egos when I was only 17), what I learned is that it's like a breakup: no matter how much it hurts at the time, you're always better in the end by getting out and going somewhere that's better for you.Omotokyo was bonkers, to be sure, and I think a lot of the \”spirituality\” is a case where it offers just enough vague platitudes to be appetizing to someone looking for something vaguely Eastern (emphasis on the \”vague\”). Steven Seagal did a lot of good bringing Aikido to the forefront, and his representation of it in movies is fun to watch (I loved Above the Law). However, Steven Seagal is a lying, adulterous sex trafficker, so even 100% divorced from Aikido I'm glad he's no longer anywhere the limelight.The truth is that there are more good options than ever now for martial arts training. The toxicity within the community, and the lack of identity (as you said, Seagal vs Aikikai, etc) send mixed messages to prospective students. That coupled with easily found negativity are sending otherwise interested people to other schools. Thanks for the commentary!

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  3. To the poster who believes that the art is more like a cult, because it closed itself off (because it doesn't spar and Steven Segal is a 'role model'. The first point i'd like to say is that there is an aikido style that \”spars\”. If that is what you want to do, then seek out shodokan/tomiki aikido. Secondarily, Steven Segal is not a role model. He is a marketing tool for the Ueshiba family's business. That is how he got his rank. Beyond that, you'll never see the Ueshiba family with him, or any of the other famous teachers with him. He is only concerned with himself. Clearly the writer above, didn't spend any significant time training in aikido. it is not a combative art like karate, Muay Thai, or some forms of kung fu. If this new generation of people with the money change it into some mixed up, confused fighting art, then so be it.

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