Yoshihiro Uchida – An Icon of American Judo

Yoshihiro Uchida at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics with the Judo "Rainbow Team" Georges Lee Harris, Jim Bregman, Paul Maruyama and Ben Nighthorse Campbell

Yoshihiro Uchida was born on 1st April 1920 in Calexico (California), both parents were Japanese coming from the Kumamoto Prefecture (Japan Kyushu island). In the US they ran a dairy milk farm. In 1925 they moved to Garden Grove where they grew strawberries, tomatoes and chili peppers.

Yoshihiro started judo at the age of ten in the Orange County dojo. His parents, as most of the Issei, feared that otherwise their kids would grow up without the Japanese culture. The nissei were encouraged to practice sumo, kendo, judo and ikebana. The Uchida family had chosen judo as the kendo outfit was quite expensive costing $100.00, while the judogi was only $5.00

Yoshinori’s first judo instructors were Senseis Yaju Yamada, Iida and Murakami. His specials were o soto gari, seoi nage and okuri ashi barai. In 1940 he got his 2nd dan while entering the San Jose State College, where he took over the teaching position of Mel Bruno, who had left the dojo in order to enter the army.

In 1942 Yoshinori was called to his duties by the US army where he served in the medical corps for four years. In 1946 he returned to the San Jose State College in order to pick up his studies again and so judo teaching. After graduation he became Assistant Professor in the Physical Education Department at the San Jose State College promoting judo as self-defense. He succeeded in adding it into the local police program.

With over seventy years of involvement in judo Uchida has contributed a lot to the growth of this discipline. One of his greatest contribution was establishing the weight divisions. Before they were introduced judo competitions were based on age and degree. The injury potential was quite high when a huge athlete fought a small one, which was one of the main obstacle why judo was not recognized by the US Amateur Athletic Union

Yoshihiro Uchida along with Dr. Henry Stone of the University of California, Berkeley, developed a system which was based on four weight divisions: : 60kg. (130), 68kg. (150), 80kg. (180) e oltre 80kg (+180). To have this system adopted by the Yudanshakais was a problem. The Issei and Nissei Japanese traditionalists were against such divisions. After many discussions the system was accepted, but with one specific condition: the winner of each division could participate at a final which allowed him to win the “Gran Champion” title.

Yoshihiro Uchida with 1982 National Collegiate Team Champions - San Jose State University

In 1962 he was involved in getting the National Collegiate Judo Championship established and in 1964 he helped establish the National Interscholastic High School Championships. Currently these two tournaments along with the Senior Nationals and the US Open Championships  are the four major tournaments in the United States. They were all started and organized by Uchida.

At 1964 Tokyo Olympics Uchida was the trainer of the US Judo Team, which members were Georges Lee Harris an Afro-American, Jim Bregman a Jew, Ben Nighthorse Campbell a native American and Paul Maruyama a Japanese American. The four were named the “Rainbow Team” because of their different origins.

As instructor at the San Jose State College Uchida produced many National and International champions. Among his students there was also Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell from Colorado who won the National Championships of the US Amateur Athletic Union and the Pan-American games when he was a student. In 1963 Uchida took 28 students of the San Jose State College for three weeks to Japan and Hawaii. In Tokyo he met Campbell who was then training at the Meiji University.

Campbell qualified as first member of the US Judo Olympic Team along with his San Jose teammate Paul Maruyama. The latter became the trainer of the 1980 Judo Olympic Team (Moscow, URSS), but unfortunately due to political reasons, US President Jimmy Carter withdrew the athletes from these Games.

Yoshihiro Uchida at his 90th Birthday in 2010

Uchida has been President of following groups: the United States Judo Federation; the U.S. Judo Inc.; the National Collegiate Judo Association and the Pacific Association of the Amateur Athletic Union. Uchida also served as chairman of the International Judo Section of the AAU and on the boards of directors of the United States Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Training Center Committee.

Uchida obtained many National and International awards for his many years of service to the sport of judo among which to be remembered the Order of the Sacred treasure, Gold Rays with neck Ribbon by Emperor Hirohito for his promotion of the Japanese culture in the United States through the sport of judo in 1986.

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