U.S. Judo legend ‘Yosh’ Uchida dies at 104

Yoshihiro “Yosh” Uchida, the legendary coach who helped make San Jose State University a collegiate powerhouse in judo for decades, died on June 27, 2024. He was 104.

He was planning on attending the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but those plans were derailed by the global coronavirus pandemic.

“Yosh, as many affectionately called him … is one of the most renowned and accomplished Spartans in the history of the university,” said Cynthia Teniente-Matson, the president of San Jose State University, in a message to the “Spartan Community” on the SJSU Website. “Overall, Yosh coached the Spartans to more than 40 collegiate titles and trained nearly two dozen Olympians, including four medalists. His judo prestige extended beyond San José State — Yosh served as president of U.S. Judo, the United States Judo Federation, and National Collegiate Judo Association.”

According to Teniente-Matson, Uchida received many distinctions and awards, including:

• The Order of the Sacred Treasure of Golden Rays by Emperor Hirohito of Japan
• The building on campus now known as Uchida Hall, which houses the training facility for the SJSU judo team, was dedicated to Uchida in 1997
• San José State University Sports Hall of Fame in 1996, and “legend” status in the Hall of Fame in 2012
• San José State University Tower Award, the university’s highest award, in 1992
• Appointed to the U.S. President’s Council on Physical Fitness in 1970

According to a 2020 report in the Nichi Bei Weekly, 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 set up 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 in the 2020 article.

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. He remained active in coaching the SJSU judo team some 70 years after his initial involvement.

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.”

In San Jose’s Japantown, Uchida’s philanthropy and leadership were fondly remembered.

“During the early years, when young students started the movement for a senior center, he provided encouragement, advice and funding for its creation,” recalled Yu-Ai Kai Board President Jane Kawasaki.

“When Yu-Ai Kai needed to close a funding gap for the construction of its current main building in 1990, he was one of four community leaders who provided their personal guarantees to secure three bank loans, which were crucial in enabling the agency to build the facility. Nearly two decades later, he was the executor of the James Akiyama Trust, and oversaw the generous funds from the trust that Yu-Ai Kai received to renovate and open the Dr. James Akiyama Wellness Center building.”

According to Kawasaki, Uchida was not only a longtime supporter himself, but “he rallied his multitude of friends and contacts to help our fundraising causes, acting as an honorary committee member/chair for our fundraising gala events, and was an unofficial advisor to the board and executive directors for many years.”

Uchida is also remembered for initiating what has become the Japantown Community Congress of San Jose Bonenkai, or year-end gathering.

“‘Bonenkai’ is a tradition that (he) began for his judo students from Japan, who were staying in the United States during the end of the year holidays,” Pam Yoshida, the co-chair of the JCCsj, told the Nichi Bei News. “Yosh originally hosted the Bonenkai gathering at his home and invited the judo students to his home for this traditional celebration. In time, the gathering outgrew his home. At that point, he felt that it can best be hosted by a community group and asked JCCsj if they could carry on a Bonenkai ‘year end’ tradition.

“JCCsj has since hosted the Bonenkai tradition and continued to include the judo community with Yosh leading an end of the year ‘kampai’ toast,” added Yoshida. “The Bonenkai has also become a community event with JCCsj invited sponsors, donors and volunteers involved with the maintenance and preservation of San Jose Japantown.”

“In many ways, JCCSJ’s Bonenkai is the perfect embodiment of Mr. Uchida’s unparalleled ability to bring our community together in the name of camaraderie and merriment,” added JCCsj Co-President Ryan Kawamoto.

“While I think Mr. Uchida will rightfully be forever remembered as a legendary athlete and the ultimate of even the most inspiring and best coaches, I’ll forever appreciate Mr. Uchida for his extreme generosity towards Yu-Ai Kai, and specifically his incredibly generous support of the Dr. James Akiyama Wellness Center, which appropriately continues to bring our community together in the name of providing exercise classes and wellness programming,” Kawamoto added.

Takeshi Nakayama contributed to this report.

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