Diana Ninomiya is a mother of two, second-degree black belt, teacher at Enshin Karate, and co-owner of the dojo that will open at the Stanley Marketplace in late March. One of her earliest memories is of hearing the words, “Run! Don’t look back! Keep running!”
Diana is a Dreamer, and she recalls these commands more than two decades after waking up in the desert outside of Tijuana. She ran until arriving at a waiting vehicle and—exhausted—squeezed in with other children. She did not recognize the woman driving, and worried how she would reunite with her family, but did not ask questions. “As a kid, you just listen to your parent,” she reminisces. Uncertain and confused, she knew only that she was hungry after the long journey through the desert, and that somewhere ahead, her mother anticipated their reunion.
National boundaries are meaningless to a child, and Diana lived unaware of her undocumented status in the U.S. while her parents worked long hours making clothes in southern California’s sweatshops. Though initially her lack of English left her feeling lost, within two years her ESL classes allowed her to be fully bilingual. She speaks with measured pride of her mastery of the language. “I just applied myself. I wanted to understand people.”
At age 14, her family relocated to Aurora, where she attended Aurora Central High School. As a senior, she earned a full scholarship to the Denver Art Institute to study photography. Her mother greeted this wonderful news with the devastating words, “You can’t accept it.” In this moment, Diana recounts, she learned that she was not wanted in the country that had been her home since age 7.
Unable to pursue her dream of higher education, Diana worked a variety of jobs, fueled by the same determination and fighting spirit that had driven her to master English ahead of her peers. A chance encounter in 2009 led her to a karate class, and she fell in love with the art form.
Though for many the discipline associated with martial arts is intimidating, Diana says of those she teaches and trains with, “There’s nothing special about us. If you can come through the door, you can do it.” She cites the example of a 64-year-old grandmother testing for her black belt in April. A visit to the Enshin dojo that has been a fixture on East Colfax for three decades confirms this: all ages, races, religions and genders train together.
Diana envisions the new space at Stanley as a bridge that will connect people from distinct communities. Growing up in a family that did not have money for extracurricular activities, she understands the need on a deeply personal level. “I want this school to give that opportunity to the children from both neighborhoods to come and learn, and to not be judged, to be accepted for themselves.” Her husband, Mike Ninomiya, echoes her vision, emphasizing the fundamental equality inherent to martial arts, and adding that at its core, training is about “the ability to transcend conflict and limitations; it’s about empowerment.”
Empowerment is also their objective in establishing a nonprofit—Awaken—which will provide scholarships to low-income youth who wish to train. This desire to lift up others originates both in Diana’s history and in the ethical framework of “bushido,” the warrior code, which calls on one to behave morally and not just exercise power blindly.
Diana is now a legal resident and, together with her husband, co-owner of the new Stanley location of Enshin. The literal meaning of “Enshin” is “heart of the circle,” but as Mike explains “it’s not just the one that pumps blood but also the one that connects us to everyone.” His father, Kancho (grandmaster) Joko Ninomiya, emigrated from Japan in 1974 at the peak of his martial arts career. He embraced the freedom of expression unique to the U.S., and integrated the disciplined mindset of the samurai from his homeland when he created Enshin in Denver.
Since establishing Enshin in 1988, people from around the world have come to train and compete each April in the World Sabaki Challenge. Sabaki describes the ability to efficiently use an opponent’s energy and momentum against them. Diana took second place in the World Sabaki Challenge merely three months after giving birth to her son in 2016, but when asked, she proclaims without hesitation “Being a mom has given me the most strength.” Dreamer, mother, and warrior, Diana soon adds the title of entrepreneur to this list with the opening of the Stanley dojo.