Jefferson City Judo Club — building respect since 1965.
“It’s not about me anymore — it’s about what I can do for others,” says Sensei Josh Lehmen as he reflects on his tenure with Jefferson City Judo Club.
Since taking over as sensei in 2017, Lehmen has shared his judo passion and enthusiasm while instilling the values of respect, self-confidence, and relaxation in his students. Today, the club also teaches jujitsu, further expanding the martial arts offered in Jefferson City at a club that has been a community staple for more than 50 years.
“Sensei Charles A. Smith started Jefferson City Judo in 1965 at Lincoln University,” Lehmen says. “In the ’70s, it moved to the YMCA and was run by Sensei Dale Otto. Later, in the late ’90s, it found a new home at JC Parks and Recreation.”
Lehmen began practicing judo as a student in 1985 at Jefferson City Judo Club. It was there where he learned how important a quality sensei could be; his sensei, Dale Otto, left a lasting impression on Lehmen’s life. Today, he is one of Otto’s last practicing students and is using his past as inspiration to train others as a first-degree black belt in both judo and Shin-Gi-Tai jujitsu.
“In 2015, I found the love for it again. I actually enrolled my oldest son at the time — he was 6, almost 7 years old — in the program. After watching him in the first practice, the love for it kind of came back. I told my wife that I was going to get back in it, and she thought I was crazy!”
In late 2017, Jefferson City Judo Club left its first home at the Jefferson City Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Department, and by March of 2018, Lehmen opened his own dojo on Missouri Boulevard.
“The program has done real well,” he says. “It started out slow, but sometimes the best growth is slow growth. I want to make sure I keep a very family-friendly atmosphere. Ultimately, we are a school. When people say they go to the dojo — that is Japanese for school. We’re teaching people, and to teach people properly, we need a good environment.”
Judo and jujitsu are martial arts that teach mutual welfare and benefit, physical and mental education, and kindness and sincerity.
“Both are primarily self-defense forms. Judo is a well-rounded martial art formed in 1882 by Jigoro Kano. He took several different forms of jujitsu and blended that all together into judo. Think of judo as a tree trunk, and the roots are all the different forms of jujitsu that Kano used to form the tree. As our tree comes up, other arts are actually developed off judo [like branches]. That’s how martial arts develop and change.”
“Judo is a well-rounded martial art formed in 1882 by Jigoro Kano.”Josh Lehmen
The learning experience is different at Jefferson City Judo Club than other clubs because of Lehmen’s instruction style. To him, the skill is in the art and the form.
“We’re in for the art and the history and wanting a complete experience of what judo is . . . and not necessarily just ‘what [are] the most popular techniques,’” reflects Wyatt Suling, the senpai, or senior student, at Jefferson City Judo Club.
“I teach [students] the martial art and they, in turn, are learning to protect themselves . . . their friends and family, and then if they want to go out and compete and test their skills on the mat with others, we teach them the sports side — the rules side — and they can go out and also use it as a competition base,” Lehmen says.
Lehmen’s teaching has brought in students from other clubs in the area, like Mady Perry. While she has been doing judo and jujitsu for 13 years, she has spent the last five in Jefferson City after finding the environment inclusive of everyone.
“I like how he instills never giving up and, even if you don’t think you can do it, to try and give it 110%,” she says.” Even if you lose, you’re still winning in the long run.”
In addition to judo on Mondays and Thursdays and jujitsu on Wednesdays, Jefferson City Judo Club offers free self-defense clinics for women.
“I’ve never charged for a self-defense clinic because I think that is something that people need, and I think if it’s something people need, people really shouldn’t have to pay for it.”
When the pandemic hit Mid-Missouri, the club was forced to close for several months. The value of judo and jujitsu, though, wasn’t lost on Lehmen. When the time came to open again in June, he offered free judo to everyone for a month. That month, 30 new students enrolled — adults and kids of all ages.
Gaining more students as the interest in the sport continues to grow, Jefferson City Judo has already outgrown its space on Missouri Boulevard and will soon open a 9,300-square-foot dojo complete with two competition mat areas. As time moves on, Lehmen hopes to expand to daily classes and additional programs like summer camps. For now, enthusiastically teaching students is fulfilling what he sees as a community need.
“Probably my favorite thing is teaching the student and seeing the student finally develop that technique, get it or use it, and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishing that goal,” he says.