Judo Legend Yosh Uchida Celebrates 101st Birthday

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At his South Bay home, Yosh Uchida receives a proclamation from San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. (NBC Bay Area)

SAN JOSE — Longtime judo coach Yoshihiro “Yosh” Uchida was honored by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo on May 8.

The mayor gave him a surprise proclamation in honor of his Olympic history and for his 101st birthday. The event was attended by some of Uchida’s family and friends along with Robert Handa of NBC Bay Area.

The presentation was originally scheduled for Uchida’s 100th birthday last year but was postponed due to the pandemic.

Uchida, San Jose State University’s judo coach since 1946 and the first U.S. Olympic judo team coach, turned 101 on April 1.

Standing closer to 5-foot-2 tall today, he was a giant in his sport in America by the time he coached the 1964 U.S. judo team at the Tokyo Olympics, the first time judo was contested in an Olympics, and his presence still looms large.

Yosh Uchida in 1964

“I was so proud to be the first judo coach for the United States, and especially for the Japanese Americans who endured so much. I was glad they were able to see a Japanese American representing the U.S. at such a global event,” he said in a 2018 interview with the California State University system. The four-man team consisted of two-term U.S. Senator (Colo.) Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Paul Maruyama, bronze medalist James Bregman and George Harris. Maruyama, the 1972 USA Olympic team judo coach, and Campbell are San Jose State alums.

Born in Calexico, about 120 miles east of San Diego and 60 miles west of Yuma, Ariz., and raised in Garden Grove, Orange County, his first judo lessons were at his parents’ insistence when he was 10 years old.

Uchida was named San José State’s first judo coach in 1940 when he enrolled as a student and again in 1946 after he returned from four years in the U.S. Army during World War II. With more than 70 years of service to his alma mater, he still is referred to as “Coach Uchida” and revered as Mr. Uchida today.

The 1947 San José State graduate majored in biological science, would own medical testing laboratories in the San Jose area and become a driving force in the San Jose Nihonmachi Corporation, which invested more than $80 million into housing and commercial businesses to revitalize the city’s Japantown.

“You always want to grow up to be like Yosh,” said Ed Burke, a San Jose State alum, three-time U.S. Olympic track and field team hammer thrower, and USA flag bearer at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games opening ceremony, in a 2016 interview. “Not to be short like he is, but to be the most honored man. If you go to an Olympic Committee meeting, it’s Yosh Uchida; you go to international, it’s Yosh Uchida. And it’s all sport and it’s all his life by example. I can’t wait for the 2020 Games in Tokyo because Yosh Uchida will be the most honored man in all of Japan at that time.”

Uchida was instrumental in judo becoming sanctioned in 1952 as an official sport by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the nation’s most pervasive and powerful sports organizing body at the time. The first AAU judo championship was conducted in 1953 in San Jose.

“Yosh” also is credited with organizing the National Collegiate Judo Association (NJCA) Championships first held in 1962 at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The Spartans won the first 17 team championships and now possess more than 50 team titles.

Seventeen of his San Jose State judokas from four different countries and territories are Olympians since 1964. Americans Bob Berland, in 1984, and Kevin Asano, in 1988, each won a silver medal. Mike Swain, the first American to win a World Championship in 1987, was an Olympic Games bronze medalist in 1988. American Marti Molloy became the first San Jose State female judo medal winner with a bronze-medal performance in the 2012 London Olympics.

“Yosh Uchida is a local, regional, national, and international treasure. He has meant so much to San Jose State University; the coaching profession; the sport of judo; and people from all walks of life, particularly the Japanese American community in San Jose and the Bay Area. Yosh always has moved quietly, but his actions speak loudly and resonate well with all,” said SJSU Athletics Director Marie Tuite.

“Many of us planned to celebrate his 100th birthday … in conjunction with the National Collegiate Judo Championships in San Jose, but the ban on large group gatherings and social distancing guidelines were in effect. Still, from all of us connected with San Jose State University Athletics and the university, we wish Yosh a happy 100th birthday!”\

His many honors and accolades include:

• The Order of the Sacred Treasure of Golden Rays by Emperor Hirohito of Japan

• Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by the California State University in 2004

• San Jose State University Tower Award, the university’s highest award, in 1992

• San Jose State University Sports Hall of Fame in 1996, and “legend” status in the Hall of Fame in 2012

• Past president of U.S. Judo, the U.S. Judo Federation, and National Collegiate Judo Association

• A 1970 appointment to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness

ª The San Jose State University campus building once known as Spartan Complex West was renamed Yosh Uchida Hall in 1997 and houses the training facility for the world-renowned Spartan judo team.

“We are on this Earth for a short period of time and we want to leave a better world for future generations,” Uchida said in a 2010 interview with The Pacific Citizen.

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