Yoshihiro Uchida, Peerless Judo Coach, Is Dead at 104

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Yoshihiro Uchida, the longtime San Jose State University coach who helped establish judo as one of the most popular martial arts in America — and who was widely regarded as the best college judo coach in history — died on June 27 at his home in Saratoga, Calif. He was 104.

His daughter Lydia Uchida-Sakai confirmed the death.

The son of Japanese immigrants, Uchida, who went by the nickname Yosh, began coaching judo at San Jose State in the 1940s, while he was still a student there.

It was a pivotal moment for the sport, which had been created in 1882 in Japan as a means of self-defense, built around a series of throws and holds that use opponents’ weight and movement against them. Americans had long incorporated elements of judo into other combat sports, and returning soldiers from the Pacific Theater brought a new level of interest in martial arts to the country.

Uchida, who had been practicing judo since he was 10, despaired over the quality of the training available, especially at the higher levels. Working with a judo coach at the University of California, Berkeley, he established standards for competition, including weight classes, and in 1953 won approval from the Amateur Athletic Union.

The first national amateur championships took place at San Jose State that same year. The first collegiate championships took place in 1962, and Mr. Uchida’s team won.

Judo became an Olympic sport at the 1964 Games in Tokyo. Uchida coached the American team, the first of many he would take to the Olympics. Among his athletes that year were Jim Bregman, who won a bronze medal, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a future senator from Colorado.

Uchida was also one of the winningest coaches ever, of any sport. Under his leadership the men’s team won 52 national championships in 62 years, and the much newer women’s team won 26. He remained involved with the team until shortly before his death.

In contrast to his success, Uchida spoke often about the difficulties of growing up Japanese American, especially during World War II, when he was drafted into a segregated unit and the rest of his family was sent to internment camps.

In the face of such experiences, he said, he relied on his training in judo, which he described as a philosophy of living as much as a sport.

“Sometimes, you get kicked around,” he told The New York Times in 2012. “But if you believe in it, just keep pushing ahead. You might have to find out how to get there by going backward and then coming back again.”

Yoshihiro Uchida was born on April 1, 1920, in Calexico, a California farm town along the border with Mexico, where his parents, Shikazo and Suye (Ito) Uchida, owned a dairy farm after emigrating from Kumamoto, a city in southern Japan.

In the wake of the Spanish flu pandemic, the Uchidas, including Yosh’s four siblings, moved to Japan, where they thought the risk of disease was lower. They returned to California in 1924 and settled in Garden Grove, southeast of Los Angeles, which at the time was a rural farm community.

There, as tenant farmers, his parents grew tomatoes and chili peppers and enlisted their children to load trucks with vegetables after school. They also encouraged them to study judo as a way to connect with their Japanese heritage.

“The parents all felt that we would come home from school and my brothers, we would talk about football, basketball,” Uchida said in an interview with the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. “And they thought we should talk in Japanese.”

He entered a local community college after high school but soon transferred to San Jose State, where he studied chemical engineering and worked part time as a student judo and wrestling coach.

Soon after the beginning of World War II, he was drafted into the Army. He served in a segregated all-Japanese-American unit, where he worked as a medical technician. The rest of his family was dispersed to interment camps — his parents to Arizona, his brothers to Northern California, his sister and her husband to Idaho.

Uchida had faced discrimination throughout his childhood, and it only worsened during the war.

While he was stationed at Camp Crowder in Arkansas, a white soldier, much larger than he was, mocked Uchida and a group of friends with racist slurs. Uchida confronted him, and one thing led to another. He took down the white soldier with a single throw.

Uchida married Ayame Mae Hiraki in 1943, while she was interred at the same camp as his parents. She died in 2018. Along with his daughter Lydia, he is survived by another daughter, Aileen Uchida; two grandsons; and one great-granddaughter. A third daughter, Janice Uchida, died before him.

He returned to San Jose State and graduated with a degree in biology in 1947. He also continued to coach judo, though the position paid so little that he had to find a second job.

Despite his degree and his experience as a medical technician in the Army, he faced renewed anti-Japanese discrimination after the war. Finally, with the help of Sam Della Maggiore, the wrestling coach at San Jose State, he found a job at a hospital; he eventually became a manager of medical technology at San Jose Hospital.

On the side, Uchida obtained a loan to buy a run-down medical laboratory. He renovated it and within a few years was doing extensive business for San Jose doctors. He eventually owned a chain of 40 laboratories across Northern California, which he sold for $30 million in 1989.

He used the proceeds to partner with a group of investors to build an $80 million complex of affordable housing and commercial space in San Jose’s Japantown neighborhood.

At San Jose State, among the buildings on campus is one that was used as a processing center for Japanese Americans being sent to internment camps during the war. It was later home of the school’s judo program — and, in 1997, it was renamed Yoshihiro Uchida Hall.

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