Dignitaries cut the ribbon for the renovation of the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle. The facility has been a vital gathering place for the Sawtelle community for nearly 100 years.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The Japanese Institute of Sawtelle (Sawtelle Nihon Gakuin) held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and cultural holiday festival on Dec. 17.

The event, which took place in the school parking lot on Corinth Avenue in West L.A., celebrated the upcoming renovation of JIS’ almost 100-year-old building.

JIS Co-principal Erika Yagi gave introductory remarks, noting that the school was established in 1925, and the students sang the school song.

JIS Co-principals Miwa Takahashi and Erika Yagi

JIS Co-principal and Co-president Miwa Takahashi thanked major contributors to the renovation project, in particular the Philip and Masako Togo Kasloff Foundation and the Terasaki Family Foundation. JIS will open the Terasaki Japanese Immersion Preschool this year.

Takahashi recognized JIS teachers who, like her, have been with the school for more than 20 years: Ikuko Visco, Sayuri Takemori, Akemi Hayakawa and Atsuko Okada. To the late Dr. Jack Fujimoto, a long-time supporter, she said, “Are you joining this ceremony from heaven? We are finally making our dream come true. Thank you so much.”

JIS Secretary Randy Sakamoto said, “I’m the grandson of Gisuke Sakamoto. This organization started in his living room … Then in 1930, this was incorporated into a nonprofit. There were 15 men that were Japanese immigrants, and they got together in the middle of the Depression and pooled their money and they bought this property and they started building … They bought an old home that was here, and over the years it’s been remodeled and improved and the auditorium added.

Randy Sakamoto of JIS and Keith Terasaki of Terasaki Family Foundation

“Now the facilities are getting kind of old and we’d like to upgrade it. Today’s ceremony is the groundbreaking for that, and we hope to have another hundred years in the making as we launch these new facilities. So we thank you all for helping us and participating, and we’ll be announcing Phase 2 to improve our auditorium here in the future.”

Kenko Sone, newly arrived consul general of Japan in Los Angeles, greeted the crowd. He noted that the Japanese writing on the old school flag is read from right to left instead of left to right, showing that JIS is nearly a century old.

Consul General Kenko Sone

“I highly appreciate your hard work for promoting awareness and understanding about Japan and the Japanese American community in West Angeles through your programs and events,” Sone said. “The institute has a long history. Its roots in the community run deep … Japanese Institute of Sawtelle has been a central gathering place for many people to enjoy cultural activities … and flourished over the years with warm support from local communities. The Consulate General of Japan cherishes such institutions.”

He urged the students to “keep up the good work” and “continue studying the Japanese language and experiencing the Japanese culture.”

Dr. Keith Terasaki of the Terasaki Family Foundation said, “I want to congratulate the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle on … the official start of the remodel project. Our family is really looking forward to it …

“I grew up in this neighborhood. We lived in the gray apartment building on Mississippi Avenue around the corner, and if you lean out the back of the auditorium you can see where we grew up. When I was young, I would spend my Saturdays here attending Japanese school and other activities, including eventually judo and the Boy Scouts. And then a generation later we would bring our kids here also … so our family has a long history in this community and with this organization …

“I’m very happy that in addition to continuing the Japanese school on Saturdays, after this remodel we will be able to have a certified preschool here. I’ve always believed in the importance of education. One way to get a jump on things is to attend an accredited preschool. Kids can learn how to behave in the classroom, acquire social skills, and get a good start in reading and mathematics. I think future generations of kids will have a lot of pressures on them growing up, and really the best thing for them to do is to get a good college education, and that begins with preschool.”

Rev. Koho Takata of West L.A. Buddhist Temple and Rev. Keith Inouye of West L.A. United Methodist Church

He added, “Besides Japanese language, the kids will learn about Japanese culture. There are so many activities that are unique to the Japanese, and we need the next generation of children to learn these and pass them on.”

Special honors were presented to Kasloff and Terasaki by JIS student Hinano Mann, and to Edward Cook of McCarthy Cook/Lumen and Art Resendez of California Bank & Trust by JIS student Umika Takeda.

Rev. Koho Takata of West L.A. Buddhist Temple called on attendees to put their hands together in gassho as they come together “as friends of our community to commemorate this once-in-a-lifetime ceremony.” He asked for “the perfect guidance of Buddha” to ensure that the renovation project goes smoothly.

High school students performed a “Tonari no Totoro” skit.

Rev. Keith Inouye of West L.A. United Methodist Church said, “It is indeed a very great honor and privilege to be here today as a newcomer to the Sawtelle area. Seeing all the kids and families here reminds me of my Japanese school days in San Jose.”

He expressed “deep appreciation for the long-standing history of the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle. Since the start in 1925, it graciously and wonderfully provided Japanese-language education to our community. Today there is much to remember, celebrate, and support … We give you thanks for enabling generations in the past to stay connected to their cultural language and heritage, and for continuing to do so …

“We also ask of God for your blessing on the establishment of the newly added Japanese immersion school, which expands their hopes to provide language education to a much larger and more inclusive community that helps to cultivate and nurture bridge-building and human relationships and connection through the sharing of language …

“Today as we stand at a threshold of new beginnings, we remember those of this institute’s past who founded and established the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle. We remember the countless teachers, students, and board members that have kept this institute vibrant and growing in its mission and purpose. Today is a day of joy and celebration, of honoring and remembering the past, celebrating the present, and looking forward with vision for the future.”

Students danced to “Soran Bushi,” a fisherman’s song.

In addition to Takahashi, Sakamoto and Terasaki, participants in the ribbon-cutting were Masako Togo Kasloff of the Philip and Masako Togo Kasloff Foundation; JIS Co-president Judy Okita; JIS Vice President Don Swiers; architect Pierre De Angelis of Good Project Co.; and general contractor Andrew Satoh of Satoh Brothers International Inc.

The program closed with singing and dancing by JIS students:

Above and below: Children from the Japanese school closed the program with singing and dancing.

Preschool and Kindergarten: “Donguri Korokoro” (Falling Acorns), “Ton Ton Ton Ton Hige-jiisan” (Bearded Old Man), “Sakana ga Hanete” (Jumping Fish), “Ninja no Gojuuon” (Hiragana Ninja)

1st Grade: “A-I-U-E Ongaku” (A-I-U-E Music)

2nd and 3rd Grade: “Sekaijuu no Kodomotachi ga” (Children Around the World)

High School: Mini-skit from “Tonari no Totoro” (My Neighbor Totoro), song: “Sanpo” (Hey, Let’s Go!)

Upper Elementary and Middle School: “Soran-bushi” (Fishermen’s Work Song)

For more information on the renovation project, visit www.sawtellegakuin.org

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

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