Martial arts schools promote culture, create inclusive space for newcomers
By: Callum Denault
Published on: September 09 2022
Whether it is through the exciting choreography of an action film, a tense match between two opponents fighting in the ring, or even just by hitting a punching bag in the gym, martial arts bring joy to a lot of people. But outside the apparent focus on combat, martial arts help maintain deep cultural traditions and provide a way for newcomers to adapt to life in Canada.
The Ottawa Japan Karate Association
The Ottawa Japan Karate Association (OJKA) was founded by Minoru Saeki 40 years ago, and he built it similar to how Karate schools are made in Japan. For instance, the dojo’s entrance has a special area called a genkan, which in Japanese custom is where people can remove their shoes before stepping into a building.
Another custom the school preserves is the seiza, a form of kneeling with a deep cultural meaning in Japan. OJKA students do a brief meditation before practice to leave behind everything from the outside world. They also have a second meditation at the end of class, to signify the practice is over and they can return to their regular lives.
Minoru is now the club’s technical advisor, while his son Seiji Saeki is the OJKA’s head instructor for both the child and adult class. Seiji’s wife Yulia Saeki manages the dojo; she also teaches a Japanese language course and launched a kids’ Karate program two years ago.
Yulia Saeki believes the Ottawa Japan Karate Association to be the only school in Ottawa which teaches Shotokan Karate, which is a traditional style from Okinawa. Shotokan is different from other Karate styles with its focus on low stances, fast transitions between them, and how students manage distance.
“I have quite a few kids whose parents are Japanese,” said Saeki, “and who were either born and raised in Canada or who emigrated to Canada.”
Japanese parents bring their children to the OJKA to encourage a cultural knowledge of their home country, by exposing their kids to Japanese culture and customs.
“The general feeling when you step inside,” Saeki said, “is that it’s clearly a Japanese dojo.”
June Takahashi—who founded Takahashi Dojo alongside her late husband Masao Takahashi—said her judo school is in close contact with the Japanese embassy in Ottawa.
“They’ve supported us 100 per cent,” she said. “Whenever there was a demonstration or anything that was sponsored by the community, we were always asked to do a judo demonstration.”
Takahashi added that members of the Japanese community send their children—many of whom are fourth or fifth generation Canadian—to train at her dojo.
Marcelo Sarkis is the headmaster instructor of BlueWave Taekwondo in Peterborough. He also has a full-time job as a professional chemical engineer and registered patent agent.
A non-profit school, BlueWave Taekwondo only charges enough to cover overhead costs. They offer a free year of classes to families who are new to Peterborough, particularly Syrians and people displaced by the war in Ukraine. The school also paid the entry fees for students entering in virtual poomsae tournaments during COVID-19.
“Taekwondo is practiced globally,” said Sarkis, “and you should be able to go into any taekwondo dojang [school], put on your dobok [uniform] and train. If the school is using the Korean nomenclature, then you should be able to follow regardless.”
Sarkis’ teaching is inspired by courses and advice provided by the World Taekwondo Headquarters known as Kukkiwon. He does this because Sarkis believes all taekwondo schools should follow a certain standard, and said Kukkiwon updates their guidelines on the best training practices through continued scientific study of Taekwondo.
“I was born in Brazil and we emigrated to Canada in the late 60s,” Sarkis said, “I know what it is like to be in a new country, there’s a new language, a new culture, etc.”
“You hit a certain point growing up where you possibly have an identity crisis.”
Sarkis was a former director the New Canadians Centre in Peterborough, and said there was a lot of discussion on how to help newcomers assimilate to Peterborough. He offered free classes to a youth group in the centre and said the kids loved it.
Martial arts: Something for everyone
June’s eldest son Allyn Takahashi said while there is a larger number of Japanese people seen at Takahashi Dojo than is proportionate to the rest of Canada, they make up a small number of the overall student body. He added over half of the dojo’s students are newcomers from various backgrounds.
Takahashi said judo makes practitioners feel confident, which is one of the main reasons why it is popular among newcomers. He added the martial art is accessible not only because it is reasonably safe to practice, but that it requires teamwork.
“You can’t do judo alone,” said June Takahashi. “You need a partner, so that you have to respect your partner. It shows you in all aspects of your life, helping each other, and it benefits them and yourself too. You can’t do things alone.”
In addition to Takahashi Dojo’s many international competitors—including Allyn Takahashi himself—the club trains Paralympic athletes as well. Allyn said Tony Walby trained at their school for decades ever since he was a child. Gradually, Walby’s vision and hearing degraded to the point that he was eligible for Paralympic judo. Among many other tournaments, Walby and Takahashi partnered together at the Kata World Championships.
Priscilla Gagné—a Paralympic judoka who is blind—transferred to the dojo from a club in Orangeville, ON. She is currently training with the national judo team in Montréal.
Allyn Takahashi said, “We have high hopes for her in the 2024 Olympics.”
Similar to judo, taekwondo has Paralympic opportunities and Sarkis completed a Kukkiwon course on how to teach para taekwondo. Earlier this year, BlueWave Taekwondo was able to perform at the Peterborough Capable Con.
“We had individuals who were blind, who were deaf, and in wheelchairs.” Sarkis said, “We were able to adapt certain movements in taekwondo so they could at least experience a little bit of taekwondo.”
One student in a wheelchair enrolled with BlueWave Taekwondo. According to Sarkis, her mother said she “couldn’t stop talking” after breaking a board at the Capable Con demonstration.
Opening doors for immigrants and emigrants
With a major in Japanese, Yulia Saeki started a Japanese language course during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Being able to control the amount of people entering their dojo, the goal of these courses was to provide a safe, in-person space for people to learn and continue studying the Japanese language.
“I was very surprised how popular the Japanese language is in Canada,” she said, “and Ottawa in particular.”
A lot of Saeki’s students want to live, study, or find work in Japan, and they want to have at least a basic understanding of Japanese before travelling there. Most of them are interested in Japanese pop culture, including anime and manga. However, Saeki said she has students of all ages, and the middle-aged students have different interests. Some people just want to learn Japanese to communicate with people, or speak with friends and family.
“Primarily, for some reason,” she said, “they are interested in that culture and want to travel and live in Japan.”
Sarkis said taekwondo helps “open eyes” for Canadians to understand the experiences of people from different cultural backgrounds.
“Once they start seeing the training, and if there’s Korean student next to a non-Korean student, you’re sweating the same sweat. […] People are typically afraid of what they don’t understand or what they don’t know.”