Minoru Saeki’s lifelong passion for karate

Saeki Sensei shares a smile with students while helping teach a class at the dojo. Photo: Gabrielle Dallaporta

By Sue Stefko

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Ottawa Japan Karate Association (JKA). Its founder, Minoru Saeki, first came to Canada from Japan as a tourist in 1973. While here, his mastery of and commitment to Shotokan karate was obvious, and he was convinced to stay in Ottawa to teach the art. “The students literally begged me to stay and teach them the art of karate. So I stayed,” he reflects.

He taught in several different locations in and around the downtown core before setting up a permanent dojo on Cambridge Street South in 1986. The dojo’s official opening was graced by the presence of the father of modern Shotokan karate, the late Masatoshi Nakayama Sensei – a great honour for the fledgling dojo.

Saeki’s lifelong passion for karate started when he was just 14. He enrolled in the JKA world headquarters in Tokyo, training with his eventual mentor, Tanaka Sensei, a former world champion fighter and one of few people who have earned their 8th-degree black belt. Today Saeki (Saeki Sensei) himself holds a 7th-degree black belt and is the most senior ranking JKA instructor in Canada, often travelling around the country to teach karate instructors and students from around the world. He sees this as his obligation, noting that, “it is essential for me to go and teach all of our members throughout Canada to maintain the standards that are established in our organization.” Saeki’s wife Denise has been by his side, involved locally, nationally and internationally for over 40 years. She is among the few women internationally to achieve the rank of 6th Dan level in the JKA.

Seiji Saeki, leading a class at the dojo on Cambridge Street South. Photo: Gabrielle Dallaporta

While Saeki continues to be involved with the dojo, his son Seiji is now the head instructor. Seiji has trained in Japan at the Chiba Institute of Technology and after a successful competitive career, he was admitted to and graduated from the JKA Headquarters Instructors Training Program in Tokyo. Only a handful of foreign instructors have completed this exclusive program. Seiji met his wife Yulia there. A native of Kyiv, Ukraine, she was studying in Japan at the time and is now a Japanese language teacher with a master’s degree in Oriental Philology: Japanese Language and Literature. Together they settled in Ottawa in 2017 and run the dojo at 475 Cambridge Street South.

The karate dojo at 475 Cambridge Street South in the 1980s. Source: Ottawa JKA

The dojo is a family tradition with two generations of the Saeki family training children, youth and adults. Shotokan karate is one of four major karate styles developed in Japan. It is the most widely practised form of karate around the world and is known for its long, deep stances, focus on mental clarity and effective self-defence. Training at the dojo includes regular classes and summer training camps, cultural exchange events as well as Japanese language courses. During 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the dojo pivoted to conducting online classes to keep the spirit alive, maintain continuity and to support its members, many of whom heavily rely on karate as an outlet for their physical and mental wellbeing.

JKA instructors Masao Fujihisa (left) and Minoru Saeki Sensei (right), training karate in Dow’s Lake in 1974.   Photo: Ottawa JKA

For the Ottawa JKA, karate is a tool to enhance personal development and self-improvement. This is reflected in the mission statement, which encourages students to push themselves to discover their true potential to “become better equipped to overcome challenges and obstacles in real life and become positive contributors to the society.”

Preserving those values throughout the years, Saeki Sensei received a letter of recognition from the Prime Minister on the 25th anniversary of his arrival in Canada for his contributions to the community and for having passed on the spirit and skill of karate.

Sue Stefko is president of the Glebe Annex Community Association and regular contributor to the Glebe Report.

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