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Capitol Hill Sensei celebrates 25 years at Emerald City Aikido


(Image: CHS)

Riding on the martial arts belt of “The Karate Kid” movies of the 1980s, a wise sensei laid down mats in a Capitol Hill storefront. The slap of the padding hitting the floor called students to the door where the sensei taught them the martial art of aikido.

For 25 years now, Emerald City Aikido’s chief instructor and founder Joanne Veneziano Sensei has been teaching children and adults aikido — a martial art that uses a lot of circular movements and encourages connecting with others, including attackers, instead of blocking or forcing something on them.

“People like the idea of peaceful resolution of conflict and they like the idea of using the energy of an attack to turn it around safely for both people,” she said.


Emerald City Aikido’s chief instructor Joanne Veneziano Sensei

Veneziano actually began her journey in aikido with karate, but eventually, she came across an aikido demonstration in Massachusetts where she was living at the time.

“There were these three women and they were throwing each other around and it just looked like so much fun, and I was captivated. It was kind of like falling in love,” Veneziano said.

She ended up attending the New England Aikikai in 1976. Aikido was all Veneziano did and talked about, becoming a self-proclaimed fanatic. Veneziano spent about three years training at that school, and then Mary Heiny Sensei, a Seattle-based aikido instructor, came and taught a class.

At that time, Veneziano told CHS she was looking to move. Heiny and the Seattle School of Aikido, one of about three in the Seattle area, drew her west in 1979. She studied under Heiny until 1985.

The following year, Veneziano traveled to Fukuoka, Japan, aikido’s home country where Morihei Ueshiba created it based on his martial training, philosophy, religious beliefs and focus on peace in the 1920s and 1930s. Veneziano studied under Suganuma Sensei there.

She returned and took over the Seattle School of Aikido for a while, but it wasn’t a good fit.

Eventually, she decided to open her own dojo. Students from her aikido classes at Microsoft agreed to make the move with her and one gave her a loan to move into the space at 604 19th Ave E.

While Veneziano started with only one student in her children’s program and six Microsoft employees in the adult program, in 1991 it didn’t take long for more students to find the dojo — everybody wanted to be The Karate, er, Aikido Kid.

“It was kind of like that baseball movie, ‘if you build it (they) will come,’” she said.

Today Emerald City has about 60 kids and 40 adults taking classes — not quite as many as in its heydays, and the student base has ebbed and flowed throughout the years. But aikido seems to be increasing in popularity again during the past couple years, Veneziano said.

“The fitness craze has taken a lot of different avenues, and I think that’s, in some ways, taken away from a lot of martial arts,” Veneziano said. “And the aikido population has gotten older, but what I’ve seen in recent years is younger people are getting more interested again.”

But unlike the dojo’s neighboring shops, which have changed throughout the years, Emerald City has remained, even after the storefront flooded last year, requiring a lot of renovating.

“In aikido, we talk about something called misogi and it’s purification by water so we talked a lot about it was a purification for the space and for us,” she said.

During the coming years, Veneziano hopes to see Emerald City’s student base grow and believes it will — especially now that the dojo’s immediate area is becoming increasingly trendy.

When Emerald City first moved in, Veneziano said the block was very sleepy, but shortly after that more businesses started coming in. As Capitol Hill changes, she hopes the dojo will stick around for a while.

“I’m not going to be the chief instructor forever, but I’d like to see it carry on in some way,” Veneziano said.

But it’s harder to run a martial arts business these days. During her 25 years running Emerald City, Veneziano has also been working part-time as an emergency room social worker at Harborview Medical Center.

“It’s not a big money-making business, but I think it costs a lot more money now to start up in a small storefront than it did 25 years ago,” Veneziano said. “I do feel grateful that the timing and the people and things just came together for me to do that.”

Emerald City will celebrate 25 years Saturday October 29th with a demonstration with all age groups starting at 11 AM with an open house with refreshments to follow.

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