Japanese Institute of Sawtelle: Honoring its past with a vision toward the future

Japanese Institute of Sawtelle. courtesy of Japanese Institute of Sawtelle

Japanese Institute of Sawtelle. courtesy of Japanese Institute of Sawtelle

LOS ANGELES — Nearly 100 years ago, an Issei named Gisuke Sakamoto founded the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, and began teaching the Japanese language to four students out of his house in West Los Angeles.

This was in 1925, and today, Gisuke’s grandson, Randy Sakamoto, is keeping his grandfather’s flame alive by helping to raise the renovation funds needed so the institute can keep going now and into the future.

“My grandfather was never a rich man, but he was always giving his money to the community,” said Randy Sakamoto, who added that his grandfather was also a founder of the West Los Angeles United Methodist Church.

Located in Sawtelle’s Japantown near the University of California, Los Angeles, the original vision of the institute was to teach Japanese language and culture and it did just that for the growing Nisei generation in West LA. In three years, the school grew so fast that they were able to purchase three lots, and built four classrooms to give its Japanese school a home of its own.

Incorporated in 1929, the institute soon became much more than a Japanese school. It was a community gathering place where Issei could socialize and their Nisei kids could learn and play.

In 1940, they built an auditorium, but after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the institute closed and it became one of several gathering places for Japanese Americans to be shipped off to World War II “assembly centers.”

Luckily, the Red Cross and a women’s club took custody of the institute. They used the space and watched over it until Japanese Americans returned from camp in 1945.

However, instead of resuming operations, JIS and its new auditorium became a hostel for Japanese Americans just out of camp.

After resettlement, the institute resumed its activities and by the 1950s and ‘60s, it started seeing its first Sansei students.

“It was a fun time,” said Judy Okita, a Sansei who grew up in Sawtelle’s Japantown. “We were all forced to go to J-School. JIS was like a community center. Movie nights. Wedding receptions. Dinner parties. It was a hub during this time.”

Okita and Sakamoto, both JIS board members, also remembered judo, Boy Scout meetings, Japanese dance and ikebana classes at the center, which became the place to be if you were a West LA JA.

In 1964, the facilities were remodeled to include a small kitchen. They remodeled the place yet again in 1978, turning the facilities into its current configuration.

And now, more than 40 years later, the institute is working toward another renovation to include classrooms for a brand new pre-school (Phase 1), an auditorium renovation and the addition of a new office and kitchen (Phase 2).

However, due to the COVID pandemic in March 2020, the fundraising campaign was interrupted and the facility was shut down. But thanks to the hard work of the school’s staff, the JIS language school — now 120 students strong — was able to pivot quickly to online classes without missing a beat. In-person classes resumed in August 2021.

And now the fundraising committee is back to work. Thus far, they have raised the $2 million needed for Phase I, thanks to major donations from the Philip and Masako Togo Kastoff Foundation and the Terasaki Family Foundation, with additional support from the Aratani Foundation and numerous individuals. Construction of the new pre-school is scheduled for this summer, with projected completion by the end of this year.

The institute is currently raising the $2 million it needs for Phase 2. The institute’s 100th anniversary in 2025 is a good target for the project’s completion, but it will depend on their fundraising campaign. They are currently contacting potential funders and alumni, and they hope to garner support from Japanese from Japan, their Shin-Nisei children and non-Japanese parents, who enroll their kids so they can learn the Japanese language, culture and customs.

“We’re handing it over to a whole new group of people,” said Randy Sakamoto. “New families who didn’t grow up here, but they want to continue the Japanese culture. The JIS is fulfilling its original charter by providing Japanese cultural training for the community.”

Just like Gisuke Sakamoto envisioned nearly 100 years ago.

“I want to make sure my grandfather’s legacy continues,” said Randy Sakamoto.

To support the JIS fundraising campaign, people may send donations to the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle Renovation Campaign at 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., Box 673, Los Angeles, CA 90064. For more information, e-mail JIS at jisrenovation@sawtellegakuin.org or call (424) 512-2110.

One response to “Japanese Institute of Sawtelle: Honoring its past with a vision toward the future”

  1. Paul Mizue Avatar
    Paul Mizue

    I attempted to leave a message to the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, but apparently the website address has changed or is inoperative: JIS.renovation@sawtellegakuin.org or jisrenovation@sawtellegakuin.org

    My message has been returned 2 times – attempted to call at 310-479-2477, left a message on voicemail.

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