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L to R: Kim Ui-Tae, James Bregman, Isao Okano, Wolfgang Hofmann

Isao Okano had all the pressure in the world on him, as did all Japanese representatives of the judo team. They simply could not lose on their home turf, in the Budokan. But Okano, competing in the 80kg weightclass, made it all look easy. The 3rd dan form Chuo University swept through the competition. And in his semi-final bout against Frenchman Lionel Grossain, Okano wasn’t feeling the pressure – he was applying it.

Watch the above video. The chilling action starts from the 35 second mark and ends very quickly after that. Okano sends Grossain down with a right leg kick. As they hit the mat, Okano spins around and gets on top of Grossain, who is kneeling, with his head facing the mat. Grossain pushes upwards, sending Okano off, his body twisting so that his body is awkwardly facing upwards, and it appears the Frenchman has an advantage, his right arm pushing down on Okano’s chest.

But while Okano’s body is spinning, his right hand has solidly gripped the back collar of Grossain’s judogi. As the two middleweight judoka twist and turn on the mat, Okano has turned Grossain’s collar into a vise. As Okano twists away from Grossain to lift himself off the mat, Grossain’s collar puts tremendous pressure on the left side of his neck. In an instant, the pressure to Grossain’s cartoid artery restricts blood and thus oxygen to his brain, rendering him unconscious.

American Jim Bregman, who won bronze in that middle-weight competition, witnessed this match. “Grossain was very tough,” he told me. “Grossain was on top of Okano trying to hold him down, and Okano reached his hand across grabbed his gi, and put Grossain out. He’s stone cold out. With Okano’s skill and mat work, he choked him out.”

Okano had just advanced to the gold medal round, but the more immediate need was to get Grossain conscious again. Fortunately, Grossain was quickly revived by Okano, likely relieving every in the Budokan.

Okano executed a judo technique called okuri eri jime, which is the employment of the judogi in placing pressure on the neck. You can see Okano in this training video, showing very clearly how to execute this powerful technique.

Okano would go on to win the World Judo Championships in his division in 1965. More amazingly, he won the All-Japan Judo Championships in 1967 and 1969, while coming in second in 1968, a tournament that does differentiate by weight. In other words, he had to beat much larger judoka. At 80 kg, Okano (and Shinobu Sekine) is the lightest ever to win the All-Japan Judo Championships.

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Paul Maruyama and Roy 2
Olympian Paul Maruyama with me!

Paul Maruyama has three wishes for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics:

  1. For the USA to do the best overall at the 2020 Games
  2. For Japan to dominate in judo in Tokyo in 2020
  3. For the 1964 US judo team to reunite and visit Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics

I had the great pleasure of seeing Maruyama, member of the US Judo squad in 1964, in his visit to Tokyo recently. A second-generation Japanese-American, he is introducing his family from America to Japan. He is also catching up with people who helped him research his book about his father, his father’s friends, and their part in one of the greatest humanitarian acts in Asia – the repatriation of over a million Japanese abandoned in China after the end of the Pacific War. See my post about his book, Escape from Manchuria.

Escape from Manchuria coverMaruyama is a retired Air Force officer in the American military. Even though he was born in Japan in 1941, Paul had American citizenship due to the nationality of his Japanese-American mother. As an American, and a member of the 1964 US Olympic team, he naturally wants America to do well in the Olympic competition. But judo is a Japanese sport, and he believes the 2020 Games will be an opportunity for Japanese judo to shine again.

“Japan is not as dominant as they used to be,” Maruyama told me. “If they are dominant again, I think judo can become technique-oriented again, not wrestling-oriented. When I watch judo today, it’s hard for me to figure out what is superior technique and what isn’t.”

“Many try to win by wrestling the guy down. But the throw is the main thing. You want the guy to stand up straight, to commit, and to pick his opponent up and slam him down on his back. But it’s difficult to do that. You have to commit. If you don’t commit and follow through effectively, you expose your back to the opponent and open yourself up to attack. My dream would be that Japan shows the world again what judo really is, throwing for ip-pon – tai-otoshi, uchi-mata, seoi-nage.”

But finally, Maruyama wants to bring the band back together again, those Americans who came to the Tokyo Olympics to compete in the Games inaugural judo competition. While judoka, George Harris (heavyweight), has passed away, Maruyama (lightweight), bronze-medalist Jim Bregman (middleweight), and former 2-term US Senator from Colorado, Ben Nighthorse Campbell (open) intend to be in Tokyo for the 2020 Games. And their hope is to bring over their coach, Yosh Uchida, who recently turned 96.

Celebrating the 100th birthday of America’s most celebrated judo coach in the land of judo during the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo – Maruyama thinks about that and smiles.

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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.
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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