TOKYO — Yosh Uchida made a promise to Colton Brown in 2016, right after Brown competed in judo for the United States at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics: Qualify for the 2020 Games in Tokyo and I’ll be there.
Attending the Tokyo Olympics would have closed a circle for Uchida. The son of Japanese immigrants and raised in Orange County, he was the U.S. judo team’s coach at the Games in 1964, when the sport made its Olympic debut in its birthplace. The city, the country, the martial art supplied him more than a lifetime’s worth of memories.
Uchida was 96 years old in 2016. He would be a centenarian by the next opening ceremony. People his age usually don’t make plans four years in advance. But Uchida reached his 100th birthday in April 2020 and bought his ticket to the Nippon Budokan to fulfill his pledge.
The COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Games a year. Still, Uchida, at 101, was ready to make the long journey to watch Brown — until spectators were banned from most Olympic venues.
The gut punch precluded what would have been a fitting conclusion to Uchida’s international judo life.
Over decades, through tireless advocacy, he became the godfather of judo in the United States, and he still heads San Jose State’s storied program 70 years after assuming the post.
He pushed for the implementation of weight classes in the sport, a necessary step for inclusion in the Olympics, and helped bring about its breakthrough on the international scene. He’s received both the Order of the Sacred Treasure and the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese government for his work.
But five years after his Rio de Janeiro promise, Uchida will be stuck thousands of miles away at home in Northern California while Brown, the 17th of his San Jose State pupils to reach the sport’s top competition, takes the mat Wednesday in the men’s 90-kilogram weight class. Uchida hopes to watch the match on television.
“I’m going to be glued to it,” Uchida said, “unless it’s late.”
Uchida wore a blue San Jose State Spartans jacket over a black sweater in his living room for a recent video call. With the help of his assistant, he keenly relayed his thoughts and experiences. After spending a year inside his home, he was a seasoned Zoomer — more than 120 people joined him on a Zoom call to celebrate his 100th birthday, and he held classes on judo history during the pandemic. Finally, COVID-19 vaccinations have slowly expanded his bubble.
He had 15 people visit him for a backyard barbecue for his 101st birthday. His daughter traveled from Hawaii recently for the first time since the pandemic began, and he enjoyed his first meal at a restaurant in more than a year while she was in town. Japanese, of course.
“This man will not die of COVID,” said Jan Cougill, his assistant since 2008 and a family friend for 56 years. “He will die from boredom if we don’t get socialization.”
Uchida was born in Calexico in 1920, two years after the deadliest pandemic in modern history ravaged the country, and raised in Garden Grove. His father grew strawberries and tomatoes. His mother pushed him into judo when he was 10 years old.
“I was a Nisei, born in the United States,” Uchida said, “and she wanted me to know something about Japanese culture.”
He attended San Jose State before he was drafted for World War II and sent to segregated military camps in the Midwest while his family was split among Japanese incarceration camps. He served for four years and married his late wife, Mae, at the Poston prison camp in Arizona in 1943.
“My parents were in concentration camps because they were suspected of being spies,” Uchida said. “If you know my parents, they had very little education. They knew nothing about spying.”
He returned to San Jose State in 1946, finished his degree in biological science the next year and stayed at the school to coach the judo team.
Japanese educator Kano Jigoro created judo, a system of unarmed combat, in 1882. Its origins can be traced to jujitsu. The participants — judoka — are taught to use an opponent’s force against them. The goal is to cleanly throw, pin or master the opponent. Strikes of any kind are not allowed. It is intended to train the mind and body.
Uchida was a small judoka, topping out at 5 feet 2, 135 pounds, but his presence off the mat stretched internationally. While establishing himself as a prominent businessman in the Japanese American community — he opened 41 medical laboratories in the Bay Area — he championed the sport he credits for cementing his identity.
He started the San Jose Buddhist Judo Club and another in Palo Alto. He was the director of the first national Amateur Athletic Union championships in 1953. He founded the National Collegiate Judo Assn. in 1962. A year later, he helped initiate the first nationwide high school interscholastic judo championships. A year after that, he coached the four-man U.S. team in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
“He had a wonderful ability to organize things, and I don’t think that judo would’ve become a national collegiate sport, a national high school sport, a national open sport, if it didn’t have somebody with Yosh’s organizational skills,” said Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a San Jose State graduate and one of the four American judoka at the 1964 Games. “It wouldn’t have grown that fast in the 1950s and ’60s.”
Campbell, who would become a U.S. senator from Colorado, was forced to withdraw from the open weight class in 1964 after tearing the ACL in his knee in his second match. James Bregman emerged from the middleweight division with a bronze medal, the first of 16 Olympic medals won by Americans in judo.
Mike Swain took bronze at the 1988 Seoul Games after becoming the first American man to win the judo world championships in 1987. A New Jersey native, he enrolled at San Jose State upon qualifying for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the United States boycotted after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. By that time, Uchida’s program was an unparalleled powerhouse. Swain didn’t think twice.
“He was very demanding,” said Swain, who became a coach with the program after qualifying to compete in four Olympics. “Wherever we were going, you had to travel with a suit and tie, and you always got there really early. He was all about discipline. He was the coach of the San Jose State judo team, but he was more of a mentor.”
Brown, also a New Jersey native, met Uchida in 2009 when he arrived at San Jose State as a teenager. Uchida was approaching 90, but the two connected.
“I walked into San Jose State and I thought that I knew everything,” Brown said. “He taught me that I really don’t know much.”
Brown visited Uchida’s office nearly every day. They regularly ate meals together. Their talks focused not on the sport but on life. On education, on preparing Brown for the day when judo would be in the rearview mirror.
On the mat, Brown helped extend San Jose State’s national judo dominance. The school has won 48 of the 59 men’s National Collegiate Judo Assn. team championships and 24 women’s team championships since women’s competition began in 1975 — the most titles for a school in any American collegiate sport ever.
Brown was a three-time national champion. He rose to team captain — chosen by Uchida — and graduated in 2015. He reported to Brazil the next summer representing the United States, with Uchida in the crowd. He won his first match but lost his second and was eliminated.
Six American judoka competed that year. Travis Stevens won the country’s one medal — a silver in the half-middleweight division. This time, Brown, 29, is one of four Americans and the only man. He’s scheduled to fight at the Nippon Budokan on Wednesday against Liechtenstein’s Raphael Schwendinger. Brown, ranked 28th in the world, is the favorite over the 117th-ranked Schwendinger.
Competitors are guaranteed a medal with four wins by the end of the day. Five victories and Brown would become the second American to earn an Olympic judo gold medal.
“Knowing that Mr. Uchida is not here but he’s still going to be watching, in a sense, that means that he’s with me,” Brown said. “Him being on this earth for this long and being coherent enough to still take interest in me and know that and support me, it means the world to me.”
Brown hasn’t seen Uchida since before the pandemic. He was supposed to attend Uchida’s 100th birthday celebration in April 2020 before it was canceled, and he plans on visiting sometime after the Olympics.
Uchida might be coaching again by then. He wants to return to San Jose State’s dojo — named after him in 1997 — if it reopens this fall.
Uchida’s checklist isn’t complete. He’s worked with San Jose State President Mary Papazian in recent years to create an exchange program between the school — one of six official U.S. judo Olympic training centers — and Japanese universities. The timeline is unknown, but he’d like to see his efforts come to fruition before he turns 110. Brown isn’t betting against him.
“I didn’t know if he was still going to be here after 2016, and here he is,” Brown said. “He’s still kicking. He’s lived a spectacular life and he’s still going. He’s still going strong.”