Yoshihiro “Yosh” Uchida: The Father of Judo in America

Yoshi Uchida_NYTimes
Yoshihiro Uchida and students inside the Yoshihiro Uchida Hall, the judo dojo at San Jose State. Credit Alexis Cuarezma for The New York Times

In America, when you think of the father of baseball, you think Abner Doubleday. When you think basketball, you think James Naismith. And when you think judo in America, you think Yoshihiro Uchida.

Not only has Uchida led San Jose State University to become the most dominant force in judo in America, coaching the university to about 90% of all national championships over the past 50 years. He has officially established the sport in America from his base at San Jose State University. According to this video short by ESPN on Uchida, the Japanese American from California, helped ensure that the AAU sanctioned judo as a competitive sport in 1953, and then had San Jose State host the first national championships.

Uchida was also responsible for establishing a weight-class standard. Judo up to then was a sport where anyone could face off against any other judoka, no matter their weight. But he and others did not think that fair, and in order to make judo more competitive, and thus more popular, weight-classes, as was the case in boxing and wrestling, were established.

London Games bronze medalist, Marti Malloy, was a student of Uchida at San Jose State, and said in this Players Tribune article: “Yosh is to judo what Gregg Popovich is to the NBA. When you’ve been around judo for as long as he’s been, you’ve seen just about everything. He’s taught me classic Japanese judo, in which you manipulate the balance of your opponent using precise technique. That differs from other styles around the world, like in Europe, where judo can be more physical and resembles something closer to wrestling. Call it old-school, but Yosh has this thing about setting an example to the rest of the country about what it means to get an education and also be a judoka.”

But it wasn’t all that simple for Uchida, considering that Uchida was a young Japanese American in California, where Japanese were often discriminated against. Uchida’s family in California were treated as enemies of the State after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. While his parents were sent to an internment camp in Arizona, Uchida, who was an American citizen, was drafted into the US military. “[My parents] thought they would be thrown in there and they would be shot,” said Uchida in the ESPN documentary. “They were really scared. To think we were saboteurs, to throw us into the camp, and then to have me serving in the Army – I thought this is absolutely ridiculous.”

And yet, only 19 years removed from V-J Day, when Japan finally surrendered in the aftermath of two atomic bombs, Uchida was called on to represent America again. When Japan hosted the 1964 Olympic Games, and judo debuted as an Olympic sport, Uchida was named the coach of the US Olympic squad. “It was a great honor to represent America,” said Uchida. “Yes, America is a fair country. Look it – there’s a Japanese coach there.”

Left to right, George Harris (heavyweight), Jim Bregman (middleweight), Yosh Uchida (coach), Paul Maruyama (lightweight), and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (open weight division).  Bregman won bronze in his division. Campbell was a member of the US House of Representative and the US Senate. Uchida, Maruyama and Campbell have also been conferred the Imperial Decoration (kunsho) in Japan for their separate contributions in the promoting US-Japan relationship.

Another of Uchida’s many students was Paul Maruyama, who was a member of the US Olympic judo team that went to Tokyo in 1964. He first met Uchida at the National Collegiate Judo Championships in 1962 in Colorado Springs, and Maruyama, who was attending Loyola University, was the only judoka not coached by Uchida to win his weight class. After being led by Uchida at the 1964 Olympics, Maruyama transferred to San Jose State. Maruyama told me that he views Uchida as more than just a judo coach, but as a life mentor.

While at SJSU, Yosh (who also ran a most successful medical lab in the San Jose area) gave me a part-time job that helped me immensely in earning money while attending SJSU. Not only that, I was always welcome at his home whenever I needed a home-cooked meal!  Yosh and his most generous and gracious wife Mae pretty much treated me like a member of the family while I continued my studies at SJSU.  

Transferring from Loyola to SJSU allowed me to compete in many national and international Judo championships while completing my undergraduate degree which included my pursuit in SJSU’s ROTC program which culminated in my receiving a commission as a 2d lieutenant in the Air Force upon graduation.  

As I look back, I attribute all the good things that happened to me during my college years at SJSU in part or in whole to the kindness and mentorship of Yosh and Mae Uchida. I know that there are other former SJSU judo athletes who feel the same way I do. Yosh taught each of us that, through our involvement in Judo, we should strive to contribute productively as good citizens to our community, our nation, and to the world.

Yoshihiro Uchida turned 96 on April 1. It is Maruyama’s hope that he can return with his teammates to Japan in 2020 for the Tokyo Olympics, and to celebrate Uchida’s 100 years in this world.