In 1923, Setsuzo Ota sensei and a group of Issei’s (first generation Japanese Americans) started forming a judo club in the El Monte, California area named the San Gabriel Dojo (technically the San Gabriel Valley Young Men’s Association Dojo), which today is the registered 501c3 non-profit organization named San Gabriel Judo Dojo. Ota sensei was a direct student of Jigoro Kano’s, who traveled the world participating in professional wrestling matches. In 1929, San Gabriel Dojo established it’s roots in Temple City, California, where it continues to be today. The Dojo quickly grew a grand reputation being the home dojo to many great judoka of the time, such as Mitsuho “Mits” Kimura, Kikuo Nishii, Yoshimaro Sogioka, Kazuko Yamaguchi, Takeshi Fujimoto, Carl Shoji, Tsuyoshi and Kowashi Okumura and Hideo Munekiyo.
In 1932, the leadership transitioned to Tadasu Iida sensei, who was a school teacher and head sensei at the Coyote Pass Dojo in Monterey Park, California and Hollywood Dojo in Hollywood, California. Under Iida sensei’s guidance San Gabriel Dojo hosted many notable tournaments in Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles. The strong San Gabriel Seinen team were well known for having many judoka who were brothers. The Okumura brothers (Tsuyoshi, Takeshi and Kowashi), the Babamoto brothers (Toshio and Takeshi), and the Munekiyo brothers (Masato and Hideo) were exciting to watch.
San Gabriel student Takeo Hazama was the first Nisei to become a black belt and later to enroll at the Kodokan in Tokyo to study under Professor Jigoro Kano. Other notable judoka during the pre-World War II era were Katsuko Yamaguchi Asahi, the first Nisei women to become a black belt, and Takeshi Fujimoto, the youngest Nisei to become a black belt, at the age of 15.
San Gabriel Dojo was disbanded due to World War II and all of it’s members evacuated the area to be entered into Internment Camps. Iida sensei was taken by the FBI due to being a well known educator in the issei/nisei communities. His whereabouts was not known. Kawai sensei was sent to Manzanar where he assisted Seigoro Murakami and Shigeo Tashima with the Manzanar Dojo that was reported to have over 400 judokas in August 1942. Sogioka sensei was interned at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Relocation Center where he started the Heart Mountain Judo Club with Kikuchi sensei from Sawtelle Dojo and Inouye sensei of Seattle Dojo.
After World War II, as Japanese Americans returned to Los Angeles from the internment camps, most had very little to come home to. With lots of hard work, Sogioka sensei was able to recover 5 acres of his family’s Baldwin Park land from a trust the property was in during the confinement period, and raised crops that would mature within 90 days that could be easily cashed. As the Sogioka family’s economics improved, Sogioka sensei and Kay Kawai sensei reestablished the San Gabriel Judo program. Kimura sensei relocated to San Francisco, where he organized the San Francisco Judo Institute. Kimura sensei was inducted into the United States Judo Federation Hall of Fame in 1993. Kimura sensei passed away in 2001 as a 9th degree black belt.
In the early 1950’s, Sogioka sensei and friends started developing the East San Gabriel Japanese Community Center on land that was deeded from Nobuo Sera and Chiye Hashimoto Taneguchi. In 1958, Sogioka sensei opened a sister dojo to San Gabriel Dojo with Ed Kitamura, Masaru Harada, Keiji Horiuchi and Renzo Shibata, and named it West Covina Judo Dojo. At that time, Kawai sensei carried on the duties at the head sensei. Soon thereafter, Kawaii sensei convinced the recently retired San Gabriel Judo competitor, Kikuo Nishii to become the head sensei with Kawai sensei as his mentor and advisor. Nishii continued to be the head sensei until 1967 when he decided to start a family with his wife, Ernie Jane, daughter of legendary Ryusei Inouye sensei, the founder of the great Senshin Dojo in Boyle Heights, California and Downey Dojo in Downey, California.
At that time, Kawai sensei recruited his good friend from the Manzanar Judo program, Mr. Shigeo Tashima sensei to be the next head sensei. Tashima was the head sensei at Norwalk Dojo and he also advised instruction at Gardena and Hollywood Dojos. Tashima sensei sponsored an exchange program with Japan and brought many champion level judokas to America like Tadashi Hiraoka, Yasuhiko Nagatoshi and Renzo Shibata. Kawai sensei continued to be an advisor and big supporter to the program.
In 1974, Tashima sensei selected Tadashi Hiraoka to become the head sensei. Hiraoka was born in Fukuyama, Japan and was the team captain at Hosei University. In the United States, Hiraoka won the iconic title of Grand Champion in 1968 and 1969. Which means he was the national champion of his weight division, then he took on the champions of all other weight divisions and defeated them all to be named Grand Champion. Only a very, very few individuals have ever made this accomplishment.
In 1988, Shigeo Tashima sensei received one of the highest honors from the All Japan Judo Federation, the sacred Gold & Silver Rays Medal for his lifetime contributions to Judo in America. On March 4, 1993, Tashima sensei passed away at the age of 77 and the rank of 8th Degree Black Belt. He was remembered as the all time Giant in American Judo. Soon after Tashima’s passing, Hiraoka sensei started to transition the leadership of the dojo to Mike Noriega to become the Head Coach of the dojo and the next the Head Sensei. Noriega was a locally raised judoka who started judo with Tashima sensei and received his 1st Degree Black Belt in 1976. Noriega became a phenomenal sensei for the dojo developing several champions as well as strengthening the financial status of the dojo with several lucrative fundraising ideas. With the assistance of coaches, Butch Ishizaka and Alan Shimamoto, San Gabriel Judo placed 3rd in the 2003 National Championships. In 2004, Noriega was named Coach of the Year by the United States Judo Federation and officially became the Head Sensei of San Gabriel Judo.
After serving the Dojo for nearly 20 years, Mike Noriega recruited Richie Endow from San Fernando Dojo to be his successor as head sensei. In December of 2013, Endow officially became the Head Sensei of San Gabriel Judo Dojo. Under Endow sensei’s direction, the club’s membership boomed to over 100 students and the program produced several local, state, and national champions as well as several certified coaches and referees. In 2019, Endow sensei was nominated as Coach of the Year by USA Judo after San Gabriel Judo entered over 60 competitors in the National Championships and qualified several San Gabriel Judokas to represent USA in Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Portugal and Guadalajara, Mexico. These U.S. representatives returned with the following international medals: 1 Gold, 2 Silvers, 1 Bronze.
On January 1, 2020, a new era was born with a new Head Sensei Trio team, which is composed of Richie Endow, Taizo Sasaki and Aaron Kunihiro. Presently, San Gabriel Judo has grown to over 145 members and has consistently placed in the top ten Judo Dojos in the country producing many national and Pan American medalists.