By Andrea Camarena
On Wednesday, June 3,  family, friends, students and peers of Sam Imoto (Poston 226-4-CD) gathered to say thank you to the Judo Sensei for his 51 years of teaching the Japanese martial art to young students across the county.
Imoto, 82, is bowing out of his position as the lead instructor of the judo club at the Visalia YMCA after helping to start it in 1965.
Imoto is not eager to give up teaching although he admits when the Lindsay Kiwanis Club approached him in 1958 about starting up a club, it seemed a bit ludicrous.
Once he started teaching, he could not be stopped and at one time he was running Judo clubs in three different cities. Perhaps Imoto's dedication to the sport stems from his personal ties to it.
"I mean it when I say it, judo saved my life," Imoto said.
Learning in Internment
Sam Imoto was born and raised along with his nine siblings in the hamlet of Tonyville near Lindsay. The Imotos were farmers by trade and the children all attended Lindsay schools. But upon American involvement in World War II, the Imotos were shipped off to [Poston camp 2] Arizona internment camps with many other local Japanese-American families from the Central Valley and the rest of the State.
It was there that Sam Imoto began his study of the Japanese martial art of judo.
"Before we went to the camp, Lindsay had a Kendo Club and Samurai training," Imoto said. Sam Imoto's father enrolled him, three brothers and two sisters in the class. "They let us teach judo in the camp but we couldn't do kendo."
So, began Imoto's judo training. In the evenings, after the schoolwork was done the camp children took judo classes from Kenzo Uyeno.
While the younger Imoto children lived in Arizona [Poston 226-4-CD] with their parents, three of the brothers served in the US military. When one of the Imoto sons was discharged for a murmuring heart in 1945, he brought the family back to Tonyville from the camp.
By then Sam Imoto had finished his high school studies, he had spent four years away from home. When they returned, there was no warm welcome.
"No Japs Wanted. Japs Get Out."
Imoto remembers the signs in the store windows, and the bumper stickers on all the passing cars.
"There was only one grocery store that would sell groceries to my father," Imoto said."It was all over Every car had a bumper sticker. No Japs. Our home was trashed. There was another family living there."
As the Imoto family settled back in to their Tonyville home, Sam Imoto turned 18 and was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Judo in action
From the moment Sam Imoto reported for duty, it seemed he was defending himself each time he met someone new or changed locations.
Among his fellow recruits reporting for basic training in Virginia, Imoto sat on his duffle bag when another recruit pulled a knife on him and told another white recruit that they should cut him up.
Imoto, remaining calm, diffused the situation with his words. But his words didn't always work in fighting the racist attitude in his post-war companies.
"Judo saved my life," Imoto said. "Everybody took a turn at me. Every technique in judo is self defense. No one knew what judo was. They didn't know what hit them."
Today in his judo classes, Imoto teaches his student to always walk away from fights. Imoto believes this practice but in his service in the Army, he could not walk away everytime.
"Judo is self defense, but we tell the kids to walk away. Sometimes you can't walk away, you have to turn around and fight. In the service, I got tired of walking away," Imoto said.
Imoto recalls an incident when a 6'2" soldier challenged him. When the soldier attacked him, Imoto used a judo throw and to put him on the ground. Each time the soldier stood up to fight him again, he used the judo throw again until the soldier gave up.
"He said 'No more Imoto.' Then he made a speech in the Barracks. "You mess with Imoto, you have to come through me.' He became my friend," Imoto said of the incident.
Every time he transferred the bullying and attacks would start again until he used his martial arts to make a point. He spent two and a half years in Germany surviving the racism.
From Student to Sensei
After three years away from home, Sam Imoto was discharged from the Army and he returned to Tonyville to work on the family farm.
In 1958, he was sitting on a tractor in the fields when a member of the Lindsay Kiwanis club approached Imoto. The Kiwanis planned to start a judo club and wanted Imoto to teach. After some persuasion by the club member, Imoto agreed to it only if an instructor from Fresno was brought down to help get things started. It was then, while learning to teach, that Imoto earned his blackbelt from Kano Sensei, student of professor Yamauchi.
Imoto grew in his judo training as he raised a family with his wife Janis in the house that they have shared since their marriage in 1953. He taught his own children (Vicki, Tobi, Gordon and Sandee) and grandchildren over the years. And as students changed, so did the clubs. From the Lindsay club, Imoto helped to open clubs in Visalia, Dinuba and Corcoran. The Visalia YMCA club began in 1965 and Imoto has been the sensei there since. The program currently holds practices twice a week and competes in weekend tournaments once a month.
Imoto is now a seventh degree blackbelt and prides himself on the accomplishments of his students. His star pupil Michael Tacata, won the junior and senior national championships in high school and continued to compete at Stanford where he was the Collegiate National Champion. He now teaches Judo part time at the University of Tennessee.
Imoto is also proud of those students who have gone on to teach the sport to local youth.
Robert Ford, Greg Arnold, Janet Hass and Isabelle Negrete and Roger Wong are all assistants at the Visalia Judo Club.
Imoto himself only attempted to compete in Judo when he first began teaching. "When I first started, I tested myself," Imoto said."ìBut I was too old. I was competing against kids 17 or 18 years old when I was 30-something."
Now Imoto is semi-retiring from teaching and handing over the program into the capable hands of Tom Jay a former student and a third degree blackbelt.
His legacy will continue at the Visalia Judo Club with his former students running the program. For now, Imoto will have more time to relax and spend time with three children, seven grandkids and four great-grandkids.
"In Kendo and Judo training, I learned to be very confident," Imoto said. "I told myself I'd take care of myself and obey my instructors. I knew to never show off what I learned and knew not to use it if I don't need to use it. I try to instill the same to my students."