Famed judo coach Yosh Uchida to celebrate 100th birthday

Yoshihiro Uchida, the legendary coach who helped make San Jose State University a collegiate powerhouse in judo for decades, will celebrate his 100th birthday on April 1. He had hoped to visit Japan later this year for the Tokyo Olympics, but those plans are uncertain because of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Yosh Uchida. photo courtesy of Yosh Uchida

Uchida was born in Calexico, Calif., and grew up in the Orange County farming community of Garden Grove. He started learning judo when he was 10 years old, and eventually earned his black belt. He started the martial art at an early age because his parents wanted him to learn about his Japanese culture. 

Enrolling at San Jose State College in 1940, he majored in chemical engineering. He also competed on the school’s wrestling team and coached police students in judo.

While his family was incarcerated at the Poston, Ariz. and Tule Lake, Calif. concentration camps during World War II, Uchida was drafted into the Army and worked as a medical technician at various military hospitals. After his four-year Army stint, he returned to San Jose State and graduated in 1947 with a degree in biological science. He continued teaching judo and helped setup a judo program on campus.

Married in 1943, Uchida and his wife had three daughters. He worked at various medical laboratories through 1956, when he opened his own laboratory. He expanded his business over the years until he had 41 medical labs throughout the Bay Area. He sold his medical laboratories in 1989, for $30 million, according to Sports Illustrated. 

Uchida started a San Jose redevelopment corporation to revitalize San Jose’s Japantown and built the Miraido Village to create affordable housing for the Nikkei in Japantown, many of whom worked at his medical laboratories, according to his executive assistant Jan Masuda Cougill.

A prominent businessman in San Jose’s Japantown community, Uchida continued to teach judo at San Jose State and worked to establish judo as a nationally recognized sport. More than 70 years later, he is still active in coaching the SJSU judo team.

Uchida helped implement changes, which enabled judo to become a competitive sport with different weight divisions, allowing judo to be practiced by anyone. Uchida helped spread judo nationwide through the collegiate ranks and in the Amateur Athletic Union. The first National AAU judo championships were hosted by SJSU in 1953, and Uchida was the tournament director.

Uchida has trained more than 200 students to attain a black belt over his coaching career, succeeded in making judo an Olympic sport, and was the first coach for the U.S. team in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. 

Explaining his success, Uchida said, “The discrimination against Japanese made me stronger. I spoke up for the Nikkei. Many of the things that happened, I had to bring to light what the Japanese had done.”

JUDO LEGEND ­­— Yosh Uchida talking to his students at the old judo dojo on the San Jose State University campus in the late 1970s or early 1980s. photo courtesy of Yosh Uchida

Uchida said he’s “proud of being Japanese … I look at my father and mother, how they worked day in, day out, they picked berries and tomatoes. They did that to help their Nisei children get an education … It’s important that we get an education. That’s why every judo guy at San Jose State must have… at least a bachelor’s degree.”

Uchida’s Tough Love
Keith Nakasone, who was born and reared in Okinawa, visited the U.S. for a judo tournament when his coach told Uchida that Nakasone could probably help San Jose State’s judo program. “Then Yosh asked me to come to San Jose State,” he said in a phone interview. “I applied to San Jose State, signed up for classes, and he got me into school, all in one day.”

That started their relationship, Nakasone said. “He’s a man who gives you tough love … and we became very successful together, me as a student-athlete and him as a coach … His philosophy is he doesn’t want just judo champions, he wants leaders who contribute to society.”

Nakasone said Uchida has two passions: One is judo and building the San Jose State judo program, and the other is the legacy of the Japanese Americans in the U.S. and how they were treated here. “He is a strong, strong supporter of ensuring that the internment camps that the Japanese Americans had gone through … should never happen again, not just to Japanese but to all races.”

Nakasone, who qualified for the 1980 Olympic Games but never got to Moscow because the U.S. boycotted, said he couldn’t have made the team without Uchida. “He was a father figure to me; we had a very strong father-son relationship, as he is to many of his students … He wanted his kids to become leaders, strong, successful and wealthy.”

Uchida’s Amazing Legacy
“Yosh Uchida is my mentor for life,” Kevin Asano, Olympic silver medalist in judo at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, declared in a telephone conversation. “I still to this day think about what he said now that I’m doing business as well as doing judo … I kind of feel like I’m continuing his legacy in business and judo.”

Asano, who was born and reared in Hawai‘i, said, “There weren’t many places in the U.S. that had a good judo program … San Jose State was my first choice. One of the guys I looked up to, Keith Nakasone, was one of the coaches … He was an influence on me wanting to go to San Jose State.”

Winning the silver medal, Asano said, “I felt like a champion because I had given it my best, even though I didn’t win the gold medal. I felt satisfaction that I stuck to my dream.”

Asano, a financial advisor who heads a company called Mission Financial Group in Hawai‘i, remembered that Uchida would always say that education was more important than judo. “He put things in perspective for us, to not only think about training and winning, but think about preparing for the future … He is an amazing man with an amazing legacy.”

Rebirth of Japantown
Uchida’s assistant Cougill reported that Miraido Village that her employer built in the 1980s, included a percentage of the 110 apartments in the project for low-income housing. “He was able to help out the community that way. A lot of seniors qualified for that.”

Uchida is always promoting education, she said. “He asked prospective athletes, ‘What’s your GPA?’ He’s thinking of the athlete’s benefit — all it takes is one bad injury and then what are you going to do if you don’t have an education as a backup? He’s very proud that a lot of his graduates became very successful business people.” 

Cougill, who grew up in Japantown and has been working for Uchida for 14 years, revealed, “Working for Yosh brought me back to the Japanese American community … At one point, it felt like Japantown was dying, but there’s been a rebirth. I know Yosh had a part in that … Now, Japantown is active and lively.”

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