The Sensei’s Sensei

Southwest’s Robert Fusaro is a trailblazer in the world of karate

LOWRY HILL — Above the landmark Burch Pharmacy, in a small, sunlit studio shared with a Middle Eastern dance company, karate instructor Robert Fusaro led one of his advanced classes through its exercises.

In a booming voice, Fusaro began counting to 10 in Japanese — “Ichi! Ni! San! Shi! …” — and watched the eight students advance in a line, kicking and punching the air as they moved across the room. When he called out 10 — “Ju!” — the students flung themselves into their final poses and shouted back, “Yaahhh!”

Among the hundreds of students to receive karate instruction from Fusaro at the Midwest Karate Association, these were among the most dedicated. The black belts among them had all spent at least a decade — and some 20 or 30 years — studying under their “sensei,” or teacher.

During his nearly 50 years of teaching karate, hundreds of students have called Fusaro sensei. At 73 years old, Fusaro looked the part with his short, white beard, tight ponytail and sinewy body still capable of quick, exact strikes.

As a teacher of karate, he was calm and encouraging. During that afternoon class, he watched his students closely, urging them to be more precise in their
movements.

As a practitioner, he could be fearsome. Demonstrating the proper way to confront an opponent, he nearly knocked a student over with an intense stare.

A seventh-degree black belt, Fusaro is one of the highest-ranked non-Japanese black belts recognized by the American Amateur Karate Association, the U.S. branch of the International Traditional Karate Association.

A veteran of the Korean War, Fusaro was one of the first Americans to bring karate back to the U.S. after seeing it demonstrated in Japan. His influence is particularly strong in Minnesota, and a number of his students now teach at their own schools, or dojos.

For that reason, Anita Bendickson, an instructor at the Midwest Karate Association branch in St. Paul, called him “the sensei’s sensei.”

Her husband and fellow instructor, Joel Ertl, said it was hard to sum up Fusaro’s immense talent.

“I’m a sixth-degree black belt and I’m 25 years younger, and he’s better than me,” Ertl said. “His physical performance is on par with most athletes in most fields [as] 30-year-old[s].”

‘Captured by karate’

In 1955, Fusaro was a young man in the Army stationed in Japan. It was the right place to be at the right time for someone with an interest in the martial arts.

“I knew there was judo, but I never really understood what karate was until I went to go see it,” he said. “Luckily, I hit the best dojo there was.”

That was the headquarters of the Japan Karate Association, newly built in 1955 by followers of Gichin Funakoshi, the man who popularized the Okinawan martial art in mainland Japan. An acquaintance brought Fusaro there one day for a demonstration.

“I was watching these old men on the floor and they were 49, 50, 51 (years old),” Fusaro recalled. “To me, at that time, that was old, and I thought, ‘God, they’re moving just tremendously. That’s what I’d like to be. I’d like to be in that kind of shape.’”

“I fell in love with it,” he said. “I was captured by karate.”

When he was discharged from the army, Fusaro stayed in Japan to continue his training. But before he could earn his first-degree black belt, a hand injury and family emergency brought him back to Minnesota in 1958.

Only about a month later, Fusaro was teaching classes in the basement of his mother’s Lynnhurst neighborhood home. He continued his personal training, as well, practicing alone and mailing reports back to Japan.

It became easier to train as the popularity of karate in the United States grew and Japanese karate masters began moving here, including Fusaro’s sensei, Hidetaka Nishiyama, in 1961.

Fusaro’s students were also growing in numbers. He opened a Downtown dojo in 1960 and in 1965 began teaching an accredited karate course at the University of Minnesota, where he still instructs today.

Darrell Fusaro, 43, the younger of Robert’s two sons, said his father spent long days teaching and practicing, often leaving home at 10 a.m. and not returning until 10 p.m. In those early years, few people understood his father’s dedication to karate and Japanese culture.

“Back then, everybody kind of pooh-poohed it and laughed at it,” Darrell Fusaro said.

Still, Darrell said, both he and his brother, Michael, started training with their father as teenagers, in part to spend more time with him. Now, both advanced black belts, they may one day take over the family business.

Fighting for women

Bendickson remembered the first time she watched one of Fusaro’s karate classes in 1975. She recently had been attacked, and a police officer friend recommended she take karate lessons.

“There was no place else where people were that powerful, especially women,” she said.

From the beginning, Fusaro said, he taught karate to anyone willing to learn. This was at a time when women were still discouraged from participating in certain aspects of karate, especially kumite, or sparring.

“Specific Japanese instructors did not want women to fight,” Fusaro explained. “(But) I was developing women … who wanted to compete.”

Decades after he took on his first female student, Fusaro’s openness would help bring about an important change in American karate. While Fusaro advocated for gender equity at the highest levels of the American Amateur Karate Federation, a group of women, including some of his students, forced karate’s leaders to recognize their skill.

When a national tournament was held in Minnesota in the early 1980s, Bendickson and several women managed to get a sparring demonstration on the program — immediately before the men’s kumite finals.

“Afterwards, the judges decided it was just as good,” she said. “The next year, we had women’s fighting in the tournament.”

Karate for life

In late June, Fusaro was slowed but not stopped when he underwent minor medical procedure common among older men. Fusaro said his doctor told him he was recovering quickly, a diagnosis he could only credit to the mental and physical benefits of karate.

“It’s great for your cardiovascular system and for your general well-being,” he said.

In interviews, Fusaro’s students and fellow instructors said Fusaro understood the technical aspects of karate like few others. He has made a lifetime pursuit of understanding the body mechanics behind every movement.

Fusaro would say it was not just daily exercise and a healthful diet that kept him young. It was also being sensei to so many.

“[My students] get better and better, and they know it,” he said. “I always correct them, but when I see there’s a breakthrough, I always tell them.

“[Teaching] karate is very satisfying, just like any sport, if you’re a coach.”

Asked about retirement age, Fusaro jokingly suggested 95.

“Now, I realize that karate is a nonstop learning curve,” he said. “I still feel like I’m growing; I’m getting better and I’m improving.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected] or 436-4391.