Sensei soprano

Karate teacher Natsuko Minegeshi in her Richmond Dojo. Photo: Joseph Lam.

By JOSEPH LAM

Natsuko Mineghishi removes her shoes. She steps into an old brick hall with wooden floors and bows. A group of students with colourful belts and white uniforms all stop and bow to her before resuming their class. 

At the age of 20, Minegeshi studied a Bachelor of Science and engineering at the University of Western Australia (UWA).

One day, her roommate, who insisted she was not flexible enough to continue training, offered her the use of his dogi – a uniform used to train martial arts – and a recommendation to join UKC. The University Karate Club was run by sensei Kyoshin Kayo, now 81, one of the pioneers of Australian karate.

Growing up, Mineghishi was always fond of Jackie Chan, samurai movies and martial arts but she knew her parents would never really allow her to practise something unfeminine.

In school, sport was her worst subject, but for the then-first year university student fresh from Tokyo, training with sensei Kayo provided a way to stay in touch with her roots. The UKC was a traditional dojo –  a “place of the way” or training hall – which employed an old-fashioned, often repetitive training style that reminded her of Japan.

Natsuko Mineghishi performs in her other role, as a soprano. 

In university, Mineghishi says she was more of a “study nerd”. A gymnast but not sporty, she found karate training bridged a cultural gap. “Being in touch with my culture was really uplifting,” she says. 

At 24, she moved to Melbourne to study classical singing at the University of Melbourne, a time when she describes herself as having been a dojo gypsy. In Perth, she had trained in shobukan karate, a blend of shito ryu karate and shotokan karate, but shobukan wasn’t taught in her new home. For the next year, the then green belt travelled around the city going from dojo to dojo in search of a similar style.

Natsuko Minegeshi practices kata alongside Dara Clear (right) and Timothy Colgan (back) in her Richmond Dojo. Photo: Joseph Lam.

At 23, Mineghishi took a rest from karate. As her singing career began to unfold, she thought, “Bruises are not a good look for a singer”. Over the next two years she sampled  squash and a few other sports, but none quite quenched her karate thirst.

For scientist and researcher Timothy Colgan from the University of Melbourne, his most significant memory of Sensei Natusko was the first time he saw her perform a concert – also the first time he had seen her out of a dogi (a martial arts uniform).

“She came outside to the reception area, spotted me, and immediately grinned before executing a perfect mae geri as a greeting.” A mae geri is otherwise known as a front snap kick and is usually aimed at the stomach. For karate student and blackbelt Colgan, seeing his sensei in a such a “beautiful, elegant dress” was a shock in itself.

After realising karate was something she couldn’t live without, she returned at 25 as a white belt and trained under sensei John Haitidis. Sensei Haitidis taught shotokan karate in Coburg, and this was the style closest to shobukan karate that she could find.

Mineghishi trained with sensei Haitidis until she reached the final chapter of her brown belt before returning to Japan for 10 months. In Japan, she trained under Kancho Hirokazu Kanazawa, the founder of shotokan karate International, a style very close to the shotokan she learnt in Melbourne.

An image of Shotokan Karate International founder Kancho Hirokazu Kanazawa hangs beside dojo kun (training hall rules) in the Richmond Dojo. Photo: Joseph Lam.

Mineghishi opens the cupboard door. Inside, are several Japanese clay vases, each with a defining print. The vases are passed around and students practice exercises with one hand placed over the large opening. Mineghishi explains that holding the heavy clay structures will improve a block practised earlier in the class. There are no kettlebells in Mineghishi’s dojo, instead more traditional items are used as training equipment.

After obtaining her black belt in 2002, Mineghishi moved on the Netherlands to further her classical music studies at the Amsterdam Conservatorium. During the years she spent in Europe, she continued to train in shotokan karate international under Sensei Biagio Ridolf and competed regularly throughout Europe.

Natsuko Minegeshi hands a medal to a winner at the Victorian Shotokan Karate International State Championship at Darebin Community Sports Centre on Sunday Sep 17. Photo: Joseph Lam

Tania Hung, the mother of orange belt Hayden Hui, 7,  brings her son to train in karate to improve his reflexes and to help with bullying. Since training here, she says he gained much more confidence, especially after winning a gold medal at his first karate competition.

“I think they put heart in [training] here so you can see they really like karate. It’s good for kids so they can be more into it and have respect,” she says.

In 2007, the Karyukai Karate Richmond dojo was born. When asked about one of the difficulties of running a dojo, Mineghishi gives an example of a difference between male and female sensei. Often a male instructor is seen as a tough father figure, but female instructors are not, she says.

“I had to change the tactics in order to establish command,” she says. “I don’t have to physically challenge them in terms of power. Usually, western students are much larger than myself.”

Instead, Mineghishi has found other ways to challenge students. An example is by putting two students together and praising one on their stance. This will usually draws out a competitive side in the other student. Karate can be used to overcome tough situations, she says.

In 2012, Mineghishi brought a world title from Sydney to Melbourne. She won gold in both the kata and yaokusoku kumite divisions at the 12th Shotokan Karate International World Championship in Sydney. While this is her most significant win in karate, it is not the highlight.

This month Karyukai Karate celebrates its 10th anniversary. “The dojo turning 10 is the highlight of my karate life, really.” Mineghishi says winning a world championship is a win for the dojo, but the 10-year anniversary is a win for the community karate has made.

Mineghishi exits her dojo. Around her waist is a thick camouflage-coloured apron. When she arrives at her vehicle, a plum-coloured Vespa, she looks at a pair of black oven-like mitts attached to the handlebars. “Ah, just another Japanese gadget,” she laughs. They keep her warm as she leaves for her South Yarra home.