Coach Uchida

Yoshihiro Uchida:
Judo's goodwill ambassador

For nearly eight decades, San josé state's "yosh" Uchida has been a tireless champion of judo,
while teaching tolerance and fortitude.

When Yoshihiro Uchida is asked to cite a moment that stands out for him in his nearly eight decades as a judo coach and teacher at San José State University, the question is met with a reflective “hmmm” and then silence.

This hesitation has nothing to do with age. After all, at 98, Uchida, or “Yosh” as he’s known, is still showing up at the campus dojo that bears his name to coach students several nights a week.

Rather, there have been so many extraordinary experiences in those 70-plus years, it’s near impossible for Yosh to isolate just one.

A DyNASTy BEGINS

Uchida joined the SJSU judo program in 1940 as a student-coach. After being drafted into the U.S. Army in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor and serving as a medical technician, he returned to San José State in 1946 to complete his degree in biology, relaunch the judo program and advance its status.

Back then, while there were collegiate tournaments in wrestling and boxing, there were none in judo. That’s because, as Uchida would learn, judo was not recognized as a sport.

“What can I do to make judo a sport?” Uchida recalls asking SJSU’s physical education director. “Just tell me and I’ll do it.”

Along with Henry Stone, the judo coach at University of California, Berkeley, Uchida established a weight-class system and rules for competition. Finally, in 1952, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) sanctioned judo, and the following year the first AAU National Championship was held at San José State.

Uchida would go on to organize the first National Collegiate Judo Championship, held in 1962. The San José State Spartans emerged the winners, the first of dozens of titles that have made them the most successful collegiate team in U.S. judo history.

“I was so proud to be the first judo coach for the United States, and especially for the Japanese Americans who endured so much.”

In 1952, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) finally sanctioned judo as a sport, and Uchida oversaw his SJSU team at the first AAU National Championship for judo the following year.

JUDO JOINS THE OLyMPICS

Uchida’s advocacy for judo, which he sees as an expression of Japanese culture and values, continued. He led the effort to make judo an Olympic event, and at the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, he was the coach of the United States’ first Olympic team. This was far more than a sports milestone for Uchida. Just two decades earlier, Uchida’s parents and siblings were among the 120,000 Japanese Americans confined in internment camps during World War II, even while he was serving in the military.

“The moment when I stepped off the plane in Tokyo was so rewarding,” he says. “I was so proud to be the first judo coach for the United States, and especially for the Japanese Americans who endured so much. I was glad they were able to see a Japanese American representing the U.S. at such a global event.”

There was also that mix of pride and poignancy in 1997 when the San José State athletic complex that’s home to the judo dojo was renamed Yoshihiro Uchida Hall.

Ironically, during the war years, the building was a processing center where Japanese Americans reported and were assigned to a holding center, such as a racetrack or fairgrounds, where they'd spend several months while the War Relocation Authority (WRA) finished building the 10 internment camps in the West. 

Thanks to Coach Uchida's leadership, the San José State Spartans are the most successful U.S. collegiate judo team in history.

RESPECT, HONOR, FAIRNESS, DISCIPLINE

As Uchida sees it, the campus’ judo program is one way to counter the prejudices that led to those internments. “The program gave me the opportunity to show that Japanese Americans were upstanding citizens,” he says.

“SJSU judo tends to attract students of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, from different regions and nations, and I’ve been able to teach the philosophy of the sport, which includes respect, honor, fairness and discipline. Understanding and tolerance are learned through the camaraderie and family aspects of the team. All of these are attributes for students today and in the future when they begin their careers after graduation.”

With his own successful career off the mat — first in operating medical labs and later in developing real estate in San Jose’s Japantown neighborhood — Uchida has been generous in backing the judo program.

“It was important to build the program so all students would better understand the Japanese culture,” he says. “I also hoped the program would foster goodwill and I wanted my judo students to feel as important as the athletes in football, basketball and other sports. I chose to financially support the program as best I could to help it become what it is today.”

What the program is today is a dynasty. San José State’s dominance in collegiate judo has led to 22 Spartans competing in the Olympics. Four have won medals. Among them is judoka Marti Malloy, who earned a bronze at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Her triumph is one of Uchida’s treasured memories.

“There was a very touching moment in London 2012,” he recalls, “when Marti Malloy presented me with the Order of Ikkos, given to each medalist to award to their mentor in the sport. I was remembering how Marti came to SJSU and started from scratch, then slowly and steadily improved to become the champion she was that day. I was so honored to be chosen by her at 92 years old. I realized how judo can change someone’s life and why I loved and will continue to coach judo.”

Uchida with San José State President Mary Papazian during the 2018 SJSU Faculty Service Recognition Awards, where he was honored for 70 years of service

7/9/18

Story: Shelley Levitt

PHOTOGRAPHY: PATRICK RECORD

 

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