Tokyo Olympics: Judo coach Yosh Uchida still inspires at 101

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Yosh Uchida made a pledge to Colton Brown in 2016, right after Brown competed in judo for the United States at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro: Qualify for the 2020 Games in Tokyo and I’ll be there.

Attending the Tokyo Olympics would have closed a circle for Uchida. The son of Japanese immigrants and raised in Orange County, he coached the United States judo team at the 1964 Games, when the sport made its Olympic debut in his hometown. The city, the country, the martial art provided him with more than memories of a lifetime.

Uchida was 96 years old in 2016. He would be a hundred years old at the next opening ceremony. People his age usually don’t make plans four years in advance. But Uchida reached her 100th birthday in April 2020 and bought her ticket to the Nippon Budokan to keep her promise.

The COVID-19 pandemic has postponed the Games for a year. Still, 101-year-old Uchida was ready to make the long journey to watch Brown – until spectators were banned from most Olympic venues.

The punch prevented what would have been a fitting conclusion to Uchida’s international judo life.

Over the decades, through tireless advocacy, he became the godfather of judo in the United States, and he still runs the legendary San Jose State program 70 years after taking office.

He pushed for the establishment of weight classes in the sport, a necessary step for his inclusion in the Olympics, and contributed to his breakthrough on the international stage. He was awarded both the Order of the Sacred Treasure and the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese government for his work.

But five years after his promise in Rio de Janeiro, Uchida will be stranded thousands of miles from his home in northern California while Brown, the 17th of his San Jose state students to reach the top competition in the sport, takes the mat Wednesday in the 90- kilogram weight class. Uchida hopes to watch the game on TV.

“I’m going to be stuck in it,” Uchida said, “unless it’s late.”

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Uchida wore a blue San Jose State Spartans jacket over a black sweater in her living room for a recent video call. With the help of his assistant, he vividly relayed his thoughts and experiences. After spending a year inside his home, he was a seasoned Zoomer – over 120 people joined him on a Zoom call to celebrate his 100th birthday, and he lectured on the history of the judo during the pandemic. Finally, COVID-19 vaccinations have slowly widened its bubble.

He asked 15 people to visit him for a barbecue in his backyard for his 101st birthday. His daughter recently traveled from Hawaii for the first time since the pandemic began, and he enjoyed his first meal at a restaurant in over a year while in town. Japanese, of course.

Yosh Uchida founded the National Collegiate Judo Assn. in 1962 and coached the first US Olympic judo team at the 1964 Tokyo Games.

(San José State Athletics Archives)

“This man will not die from COVID,” said Jan Cougill, his assistant since 2008 and family friend for 56 years. “He’ll die of boredom if we don’t get socialization.”

Uchida was born in Calexico in 1920, two years after the deadliest pandemic in modern history ravaged the country, and raised in Garden Grove. Her father grew strawberries and tomatoes. His mother pushed him into judo when he was 10 years old.

“I was a Nisei, born in the United States, ”said Uchida,“ and she wanted me to know something about Japanese culture. “

He attended San Jose State before being drafted into WWII and sent to separate military camps in the Midwest while his family was divided between Japanese prison camps. He served for four years and married his late wife, Mae, at the Poston POW camp in Arizona in 1943.

“My parents were in concentration camps because they were suspected of being spies,” Uchida said. “If you know my parents, they had very little education. They didn’t know anything about espionage.

He returned to San Jose state in 1946, graduated in biological sciences the following year, and stayed in school to coach the judo team.

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Japanese educator Kano Jigoro created judo, an unarmed combat system, in 1882. Its origins can be traced back to jujitsu. The participants – judoka – learn to use the strength of an opponent against them. The goal is to throw, pin or properly control the opponent. Strikes of any kind are not permitted. It is intended to train the mind and body.

Uchida was a small judoka, measuring 5ft 2in and 135lbs, but his presence off the mat was spreading internationally. While asserting himself as a leading businessman in the American-Japanese community – he has opened 41 medical laboratories in the Bay Area – he has championed the sport which he attributes to his identity.

I walked into the state of San Jose and thought I knew it all. He taught me that I really don’t know much.

Colton Brown, student of Yosh Uchida and American Olympian

He founded the Buddhist Judo Club in San José and another in Palo Alto. He was the director of the first Amateur Sports Union National Championships in 1953. He founded the National Collegiate Judo Assn. in 1962. A year later he helped launch the first national high school inter-school judo championships. A year later, he coached the US four-man team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

“He had a wonderful ability to organize things, and I don’t think Judo would have become a national collegiate sport, a national high school sport, a national open sport, if it weren’t for someone with the Yosh’s organizational skills, ”said Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a San Jose State graduate and one of four American judokas at the 1964 Games.“ He wouldn’t have grown so fast in the 1950s and 1960s. “

Campbell, who would go on to become a U.S. Senator from Colorado, was forced to retire from the open weight class in 1964 after tearing the ACL in his knee in his second game. James Bregman came out of the middleweight division with a bronze medal, the first of 16 Olympic medals the Americans won in judo.

Yosh Uchida with American Olympic Judokas in 1964.

Yosh Uchida, center, coached American four-man judo at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: left to right, George Harris, James Bregman, Paul Maruyama and Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

(San José State Athletics Archives)

Knowing that Mr. Uchida is not there but that he is always going to watch, in a way, that means he is with me.

Colton Brown

Mike Swain won bronze at the 1988 Seoul Games after becoming the first American to win the 1987 world judo championships. A native of New Jersey, he enrolled in San Jose State after moving to qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the United States boycotted after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. At that time, Uchida’s program was an unprecedented power. Swain hasn’t thought twice.

“He was very demanding,” said Swain, who became the program’s coach after qualifying to compete in four Olympics. “Wherever we went, you had to travel with a suit and tie, and you always arrived very early. It was all about discipline. He was the coach of the San Jose State Judo team, but he was more of a mentor. “

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Brown, also from New Jersey, met Uchida in 2009 when he arrived in San Jose state as a teenager. Uchida was approaching 90, but the two connected.

“I walked into San Jose state and thought I knew it all,” Brown said. “He taught me that I really don’t know much.

Brown visited Uchida’s office almost every day. They regularly ate meals together. Their talks were not about sport but about life. On education, on preparing Brown for the day when judo was in the rearview mirror.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games logo is seen in Tokyo on January 28, 2021.

Tokyo Olympic Games coverage

On the mat, Brown was instrumental in expanding the nation’s dominance of judo in San Jose State. The school won 48 of the 59 men’s National Collegiate Judo Assn. team championships and 24 women’s team championships since the start of women’s competition in 1975 – the most titles for a school in any U.S. college sport.

Brown was a three-time national champion. He became a team captain – chosen by Uchida – and graduated in 2015. He traveled to Brazil the following summer to represent the United States, with Uchida in the crowd. He won his first game but lost the second and was eliminated.

Six American judokas competed that year. Travis Stevens won the country’s only medal – a silver medal in the welterweight division. This time Brown, 29, is one of four Americans and the only man. He is due to fight Wednesday at Nippon Budokan against Liechtenstein’s Raphael Schwendinger. Brown, ranked 28th in the world, is the favorite over Schwendinger, ranked 117th.

Competitors are guaranteed a medal with four wins at the end of the day. Five wins and Brown would become the second American to win an Olympic gold in judo.

“Knowing that Mr. Uchida is not here but is always going to watch, in a way, that means he’s with me,” Brown said. “The fact that he’s been on this earth for so long and is consistent enough to care about me, know it and support me, that means the world to me.”

Brown has not seen Uchida since before the pandemic. He was supposed to attend Uchida’s 100th birthday celebration in April 2020 before it was canceled, and he plans to visit after the Olympics.

Uchida could be a coach again by then. He wants to return to the San Jose State Dojo – named after him in 1997 – if it reopens this fall.

Judo legend Yosh Uchida stands in front of memorabilia.

Yosh Uchida plans to return to coaching in the fall if the San Jose State Dojo reopens.

(San José State Athletics Archives)

Uchida’s checklist is not complete. He has worked in recent years with San José State President Mary Papazian to create an exchange program between the school – one of six official Olympic judo training centers in the United States – and Japanese universities. The timeline is unknown, but he would like to see his efforts pay off before he turns 110. Brown doesn’t bet against him.

“I didn’t know if he would still be here after 2016, and here he is,” Brown said. “He always kicks. He has lived a spectacular life and he continues. He’s still going strong.


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