Sawtelle Judo Dojo History


Begun originally in 2011, I thought this would be a short history project of Sawtelle Judo just covering when the place opened and some highlights of Dr. Jigoro Kano and Judo.  But, when a place has been opened since the late 1920s and Judo’s origins date back centuries, there’s a lot of interesting history to uncover.  This is a story of our Dojo, Judo, and the people who stood here in the past.  I discovered that there are many people, “the old-timers,” that we need to interview to get their stories of this place. I have only scratched the surface and uncovered some of the more accessible history found in published photos, articles, and books.  There is more, a lot more.  The history will not change.  It just needs to be revealed.  However, rather than waiting to finish this project, I decided to post Sawtelle Judo’s living history in an unfinished, raw yet fascinating form.  This preserves some of the history of the Dojo’s history before memories and people fade away. 

This historical piece will have many parts culminating with our 100th Anniversary in 2027. Follow along and take in some history. Nothing lasts forever. However, we strive to maintain the legacy of our founders, forefathers, and Judo in this place called “Sawtelle Judo Dojo.”

-Jerry Hazemoto-

President, Sawtelle Judo Dojo

How do you get to Sawtelle Judo Dojo?

Lost in translation- “So–te-ru” Nihon Gakuen.

or Sawtelle Japanese Institute

At the entrance to the school parking lot

There are no flashy signs.  It is just an unmarked beige-colored building.

One day, a curious passer-by stop-in to see what all the kids are screaming and yelling about.  Tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood just a stone’s throw from the intersection of Olympic and Sawtelle Boulevards, from the driveway, they saw no other signs.  The area, once predominately populated by a Japanese American farming community, is called Sawtelle Japantown or by its nickname, “Little Osaka.” But all the noise was coming from a large, unmarked, beige-colored building.  As they enter the spacious auditorium, the kids dressed in white clothes that look like pajamas with different color belts tightly wound around their tiny waists.  They stand on top of a used, but very heavily worn canvas mat.  Their parents line the near wall seated in metal folding chairs watching as the head instructor, wearing the same clothes with a red and white sash wrapped around his waist.  If they get out of line, it is not time out.  But it is push-ups for them.  And they do the push-ups without question.  That is strange.  With over thirty kids in a spacious room, you might expect chaos.  But, one adult has the full attention, eyes, and ears, of all of children.

Sometimes, they sound like ducks quacking, “Quack, quack, quack…”  And they look like they are waddling down the heavy canvas mat in procession, “like ducks in a row.”  Other times, they are yelling, “Hai!”  But they are not waving hello to anyone.  With their notebooks and pencils, but, without desks or chairs, while standing, the kids even take notes and recite some odd words, “O Uchi Gari, Harai Goshi, O Soto Gari?”  The passer-by begins to wonder what kind of class this is.  They look on with startled eyes and hear the loud “thump” or “WHOOMP!” as kids roll and fall to the auditorium floor hard.

But it is not a typical gymnastics class.  There are no crash mats around.  She asks an older man with thin-rimmed glasses at the door, “What is this place?”  He answers, “This is Sawtelle Judo.”  She sighed, “Hmm, I would have never known.”

If you did not know about this place and you walk by the front gate, you would probably think it is Japanese school.  On the side of the building in the front, it reads, “Japanese Institute of Sawtelle” or JIS. 

Japanese Institute of Sawtelle

(Photo courtesy of Japanese Institute of Sawtelle)

But, for those of us who know, most of us arrive by car coming from Santa Monica, Olympic or Sawtelle Blvds.  The children just hitch a ride with their parents for their practice.  Others drive directly from work.  But, once you make the right turn off Olympic onto Corinth, you just look for the real, cool-looking, and airbrushed catering truck, go right pass it and turn right into the narrow driveway.   

Fine art-Sensei Thierry’s old catering truck

Parked along the street near the Dojo. Sensei Thierry now runs a crepes stand at Alana’s Coffee in Venice.

By the way, the artist used to practice Judo at Sawtelle.

Valet Parking Only

We have openings for parking valets.  Please contact our administrator. 

“Who has a GMC?  Is this your white Nissan?  Not me, I rode my bike.”

We slowly fill every inch of the parking lot three nights a week, twice each evening.  Some of us ride in by bus.  Some trek the miles in by bicycle.  However, a few still walk right over to the Dojo, as others did when the doors of the Dojo were first opened. Back in the day, many just walked from their homes in the neighborhood over to the Dojo.

The Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, or “JIS,” was the home of Sawtelle Judo Dojo since 1927. However, in January 2023, we moved out due to the planned renovation of the property into a Japanese language immersion school and program. Since the move, we have moved from place to place and continued to practice at the following locations.

Venice Judo Club, Venice January-February 2023

Flip1stGymnastics, Santa Monica-February-August 2023

Ocean Grown BJJ, West Los Angeles-September 2023-Present

We now continue to practice Judo at Ocean Grown BJJ, which has opened its doors to us as we search for a more permanent and dedicated location. We are eternally grateful to the following individuals for their genuine generosity to assisting us in a time of need.

Marshall Lipps, owner of Ocean Grown BJJ,

Dan Levi, owner of Flip1stGymnastics

Trace Nishiyama, head instructor at Venice Judo Club.

This begins our story behind Sawtelle Judo Dojo.  So, who or what is Sawtelle?  Where did Judo come from?  What is the history of Sawtelle Judo Dojo? In the next part, we will discuss the history of the Sawtelle area.

For “The Road to Sawtelle Judo Dojo, Part 2”

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