Place of Challenge

One of the nation’s largest, and oldest, Judo dojos is right here in Nuuanu.

A new generation of future judo champions at Sobukan Judo Club.

Photo: Dana Edmunds

Ten year-olds in white gis scamper across the blue tatami mats in early evening. They tug and strain against each other. The high school kids and college students show up around seven, and mill about on the edges of the floor. By eight, everyone is sweating and panting from sweeping and throwing, and falling and falling.

Shobukan Judo Club, tucked deep in the Liliha neighborhood of Nuuanu, is a place of suffering and winning. Jonathan Spiker, Clifton Sunada, Taylor Takata: they have won dozens of junior and senior national championships between them. The latter two were Olympians in 1996 and 2008, and that’s just from this generation.

Founded by Japanese plantation workers in 1908, Shobukan will celebrate its first 100 years this November, making it one of the oldest clubs in America. The club will host a banquet at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, Manoa Grand Ballroom, starting at 5 p.m. on Nov. 7. Then there is an open house and blessing from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Nov. 8. The centennial celebration will culminate in the Shobukan Judo Tournament at the Salt Lake District Park starting at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 9.

Dr. Lloyd Migita has been the chief instructor at Shobukan for the past 29 years. Migita Sensei wears thick-rimmed glasses and his hair with a side part, even when he is demonstrating a pin or choke. But just hiding in his sleeves, his hands look cured stiff from decades of gripping and pulling. When his father, Sunao Migita, was still the chief instructor, the young Migita was finishing his doctoral research in 1964, working on protein synthesis for cancer research at the University of Hawaii. He would get back to the dojo too late for class, so he would walk back and forth through his sweeps and throws by himself, a method called kage keiko—“shadow practice.” Yet, it was enough for him to make it onto the U.S. Olympic Judo team that year as an alternate. He often says, “You have to visualize winning every night, so that when you get to the match you’ve already beaten your opponent.”

Shobukan has been in its current location, the club’s sixth, since 1957. The building catches a cross-breeze, coming down Nuuanu Valley, through the plantation-style sliding wooden-slat windows. The whole northwest wall was built to come off in sections so that parents and spectators could sit outside and watch tournaments. Professor Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, wrote “shobukan” in Japanese kanji on a banner hung across the front of the dojo. It means “Place of Challenge.” Facing the banner, on the back wall, rows of little black wooden tabs, chipped and faded, list most of the old club members by ascending rank.

While some parents sit outside and pau hana with beer and snacks, some sit inside and watch the practice; some even wear their old black belts and help teach. The U.S. Judo Federation certified Shobukan as the largest judo club in America in 2006, with 215 members.

You can find the dojo by turning makai down the driveway at 525E Kunawai Lane, or going through the back gate behind the Pizza Hut parking lot on Kuakini Street. You can call (808) 533-2014 during the usual Monday, Wednesday, or Friday practice hours, 5 to 9 p.m. Club dues are $30 per month; families get a discount.