Dojo: Aikido Eastside
Location: Bellevue, WA
Join Date: Jun 2000
The "Death" of the Traditional Organization
I have lately had the pleasure of attending and participating in a number of so-called Aikido "Bridge" Seminars. These are events which cross over stylistic and organizational boundaries allowing teachers of very diverse backgrounds, who might otherwise never have encountered each other, to share their Aikido experience with any willing student, regardless of level, style or affiliation.
Last year, at one of these events at which I was honored to be invited to participate, I sat after hours with a room full of teachers whose collective Aikido experience was more than three hundred years between us and had the realization that this was really the future, that we were participating in the death of the traditional organization as we have know them.
Back when the first Japanese teachers arrived on our shores there was no structure for the transmission of our art. These Aikido pioneers created any number of organizations designed to provide that structure. The original function of these organizations was to a) support the teacher(s) at the top of the organization's "pyramid" and to b) provide a structured access for large numbers of folks from within the fast growing Aikido community to their teachers in a way that promoted some sort of uniformity and quality control over the end product.
It became apparent, almost immediately, that the one organization, one country model propagated by the Aikikai Hombu Dojo wasn't going to work... As different organizations and styles back in Japan developed, so they were started here. After the death of the Aikido Founder, organizations developed reflecting each of these new directions taken by these teachers who felt compelled to strike out on their own. Since many of these "branches" off the original tree were actually "breaks", there was a political element that was always there, with various teachers competing via their organizations for students and influence.
Somewhere along the line, I think things went awry. It became more about supporting a given teacher than it was about the Aikido or the training of the members. I really believe that we have reached the point at which many of not most of the large organizations have actually become the limiting factor in the development of their members. When the Aiki Expos happened ten years ago, a set of events which I personally think will be looked at by future Aikido historians as pivotal moments in American Aikido, there were major organizations which simply chose to ignore the events and actively discouraged their students from attending. One famous Japanese Shihan actually did attend but told his students not to attend any other teacher's classes, which not only was totally out of sync with the spirit of the event itself but indicated an arrogance that I really had no time for, personally.
Over the years, as our organizations have grown, each has developed a core group of seniors, now 6th and 7th Dans whose "access" to the larger community was largely through their own organization by way of seminar invitations and appearances with other seniors at the large camps held by the organization. Since the Shihan in charge of thee organizations controlled who was put forward, they were able to maintain "control" politically be granting or denying "access". If you toed the line, you were put up front, if you didn't you found yourself ut in the cold.
One friend of mine was a hugely successful teacher, prominent within his organization. He travelled frequently all over doing seminars, appearing at the various events held by the organization. When he broke with his teacher, it all went away. The folks that had previously been enthusiastic supporters, now stopped inviting him. He ended up having very little interaction with the whole Aikido community until just recently.
Another good friend, prominent in another organization, one that considers itself to be representative of a certain teacher's "style", started to work with a broader range of teachers than was available from within the organization. This person's Aikido started to make a real jump. But when this teacher taught at an organization event, the teacher was informed that they were not to teach that new stuff at their event. Their event was to teach the specific style and they simply did not want to know about anything else.
What I see, is that at some point, it became more about personalities than the art. What is the point of making a fetish out of the "style" of some particular teacher, now actually passed on, as if that style had some intrinsic value in and of itself as opposed to simply being an approach to training for students to develop themselves, which was the purpose of the art in the first place.
When an organization is more about power, influence, money, or anything else that isn't first and foremost about the transmission of the art, it has outlived any usefulness it might have had. It become a detriment rather than a benefit to the training of the members, especially the most seniors teachers, who find themselves limiting their exposure, having to hide their own advances in approach to not offend some person at the top who controls their access to the members and their hopes of future promotion etc.
In the age of the internet and globalization, this is simply not a maintainable model any more. We have American home-grown teachers who have forty to fifty years in the art now. Increasingly thee teachers are no longer willing to stay in line. They don't wish to limit their Aikido so as not to threaten their teacher, they refuse to allow their teachers to dictate who they associate with or call their friends. Increasingly they are starting their own organizations and are actively trying not to duplicate the dysfunctions of the ones they came from originally.
Simultaneous with all this, out steps a Japanese teacher who refuses on some level to act Japanese. He starts inviting people from outside his organization to teach at the organizations major events. After a number of years doing this he expands the concept... he has his students, who are now international in scope, to organize so-called "Bridge" Seminars to which a variety of teachers from different organizations and styles are invited to co-teach. This is so un-Japanese as to be quite shocking. Yet the idea is so powerful that it not only expands and grows but is taken up by others who use the same model to create their own events.
The teachers who participate in these events get to share their Aikido with other folks who have different approaches. This generation of teachers understands that there is a synergy to this approach that has the potential to lift then as teachers and the whole practitioner community beyond anything they'd attain under the old model. The exchange of ideas, the exposure to new approaches, the mutual respect that comes from watching one's peers be the professionals they were trained to be, all of this is incredibly powerful stuff.
As the old guard passes away, as the founders of these large organizations either fade away or lose their influence, things will be changing. The community of practitioners will be looking for another generation of leaders. I really believe that the next time around, they are going to insist on teachers who actually are trying to get better themselves. These teachers will have to have both the ability and the confidence to back it up that they won't be threatened by other teachers or by other approaches. The folks in the pipeline, the future teachers of this art will not be willing to accept the kind of self serving controls and limitations that has been the norm in many organizations. Their awareness of what is out there will be greater than any generation's before. They will simply not be willing to accept a teacher who becomes the limiting factor in their training.
One can already see it happening. It's right there before our eyes. Teachers are developing friendships totally outside what had been their traditional range of exposure. These teachers are more inclined to form their support networks based on respect for skills and character rather than simply because some dysfunctional individual has been a student of the same, often dysfunctional teacher as he or she has had. When the old Shihan have passed on, I don't see organizational identity having much sway at all. I think the teachers who have managed to establish their reputations in their own right will naturally rise to the top and the ones that have simply coasted on their association with some famous teacher will be totally marginalized. No one is going to care who their teacher was when that teacher is gone. And the folks who have the character and the ability to be leaders will all know each other. It's starting now and will only continue.
The next generation of leaders will not be imposed from outside. They won't have their status granted from on high. Rather, it will be the community as a whole which decides who it invests in and who it doesn't. Reputations will be built on the mutual respect of one's peers for what one has achieved, not because one had the ability to hang tough for decades with some difficult teacher in exchange for some authority which could be withdrawn any moment.
I see a time, which is already starting now, when teachers will have their own small organizations, really designed to facilitate the "transmission" of the art. There will be far more fluidity to these entities with other teachers who have their own small organization going back and forth teaching at each others events. The future leaders of Aikido will be networking like crazy with the folks they respect and simply ignoring the ones they don't. It will be highly de-centralized and nowhere near as hierarchical as our traditional organizations have been. And success will be based on the ability of the folks at the top to deliver the goods to the folks on the bottom. No one will put up with us just because we trained with the Aikido Founder because none of us did. Authority will be earned, not conferred. And I think the folks who do have "the goods" so to speak, will have the freedom and the inclination to work together to make something greater than has previously existed.
I have to say that I feel both excited and honored to be a teacher at this time... change is in the air and so far my experience of the possible future has me more optimistic than at any time I can remember. I have been making amazing new friends and renewing friendships that had been neglected. I see much that was stultified and stale simply passing away before my eyes and new and creative ways of doing things replacing them. I see signs that the next generation of folks will be willing to support each other in ways that they either never did in the past or simply couldn't.
Change is coming and it will be happening at a speed that many will find challenging. But it's coming anyway so folks can either go with the flow or even actively embrace it and help it come. The folks who resist the changes coming will simply fade away, no one will care. At least that's my take on it...