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Original Issue

The Teachings of the Master

Guided by the gentle hand of Yosh Uchida, San Jose State's judo program is in a class by itself

The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.

Bits and pieces of Yosh Uchida's life are strewn across the oak table in the conference room at his company offices in San Jose. The modest owner of Uchida Enterprises claims that he hadn't realized these photographs and newspaper clips even existed.

In truth, Uchida has been so busy during his 72 years, he has had little time to dwell on his many accomplishments. When asked if he had photos that recorded his personal milestones—perhaps something from his first year as San Jose State's judo coach; or pictures of the 10 Olympians he developed at San Jose State; or a snap of Emperor Hirohito, who bestowed Japan's highest honor for a noncitizen, the Order of the Sacred Treasure, on Uchida in 1986; or perhaps some photos of the many business enterprises that have made Uchida, the son of poor farmers, a multimillionaire—Uchida said he was not sure that he did.

He turned to his daughter, Aileen Uchida, and asked if she had any old photographs. Minutes later Aileen, who works as an executive vice-president for her father's company, appeared with a stack of yellow and blue albums. Uchida smiled sheepishly as his daughter explained that last year, when her father was given San Jose State's Tower Award, in recognition of his service to the university, she had hired a member of the judo team to compile The Life and Times of Yosh Uchida, six volumes that cover six decades.

Few people outside of judo are aware of the impact Uchida has had on the sport in the U.S. And though most San Jose State students could probably identify Bill Walsh and Peter Ueberroth as prominent alumni, only a handful would name Uchida. But this unobtrusiveness is a reflection of the man, not of his achievements. Uchida politely concedes that talking about himself is his least favorite activity, so the scrapbooks spread across the table in this conference room have to speak for him.

The albums are filled with team photos, letters and Christmas cards from his athletes. There are also clippings from local papers about their many achievements as well as those of Uchida. Articles found in the second album reveal that in 1953 Uchida persuaded the Amateur Athletic Union to accept judo as a sport and that San Jose State sponsored the first national AAU championships, in that year.

The next album chronicles a dynasty in the making. In 1962 Uchida organized—and San Jose won—the first national collegiate judo championships. Since then the Spartans have held sway over the tournament, winning 28 of 31 college titles. They're aiming for a 29th at this year's championships, which will be held on March 20 in San Francisco.

Lacking serious college competition, San Jose State's top judo players have often focused on national and international meets. In the third album there's a 1964 photo of the first U.S. Olympic judo team, with Uchida, a 5'2" sixth-degree black belt (he's now a seventh-degree), as its coach. Of the team's four athletes, two were from San Jose State—Ben Night-horse Campbell, now a U.S. senator from Colorado, and Paul Maruyama, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and the 1980 and '84 Olympic coach.

The best judo prospects in the country have come to San Jose simply because Uchida made it the place to go. In 1980 Mike Swain, of Bridgewater, N.J., turned down a number of wrestling scholarships to attend San Jose (judo is not an NCAA sport, so college scholarships are not available to judo players). Swain made the move because of what he calls "the tradition, values and teachings of Yosh," and he went on to become the first athlete to win four intercollegiate judo titles. A four-time Olympian and the only American male to win a world judo championship, Swain is the San Jose program's most noteworthy alumnus. More recently Tony Okada, a '92 Olympian in judo and a two-time California high school wrestling champion, had to decide whether to attend Oklahoma or Arizona State on a full wrestling scholarship or pay his own way at San Jose. He joined the Spartan judo team this semester.

"Judo is not just a sport," says Uchida. "It is a way of life." Judo means "gentle way" in Japanese, and it is taught in that manner at San Jose. Uchida's students learn the Japanese style of judo, which relies on technique and timing, rather than the European style, which relics more on brute strength. Men and women routinely compete against each other in practice, regardless of his or her weight class. "One philosophy of Mr. Uchida's is that you learn by taking falls," says team captain Sandy Bacher, herself a member of the '92 Olympic team.

Since judo is not an NCAA sport and is not funded by San Jose State's athletic department, the program is supported by Uchida Enterprises. Swain and Dan Hatano, a former team captain, volunteer as coaches, with Swain running the daily practices. Hatano, who was Swain's alternate in Barcelona, handles administrative duties and works as a full-time fund-raiser at Uchida Enterprises. He organizes alumni events like the annual Yosh Uchida Golf Classic and oversees the judo program's fund-raising—some $30,000 a year covers most of the team's expenses.

When alumni donations run low, "Yosh's financial assistance is a big help," says Dave Long, who graduated from San Jose State in 1972 and was the U.S. team manager in Barcelona. "Over the years he has brought the best Japanese technicians to stay for a year and help train the team."

Though judo is Uchida's passion, his business interests consume most of his time. He sandwiches practices between meetings and dinners, and he coaches in a suit and tie instead of the traditional gi. Uchida amassed his fortune by turning a small medical-testing laboratory he bought for $3,000 in 1956 into a network of 40 labs that he sold in 1989 for $30 million. With the money he founded Uchida Enterprises, a holding company for all of his businesses. In 1989 Uchida and 78 others became partners in the San Jose Nihonmachi Corp., which next winter will begin construction of an $80 million Japanese village in the Japantown section of the city. Eventually the complex will include Japanese-style apartments, gardens and a cultural center, as well as a judo facility.

Uchida, who has been called the godfather of Japantown, is the recognized political leader of Santa Clara County's Japanese-American community—though he dismisses that title with a wave of his hand. If he had his way, he would get no special credit for his achievements. He did not even attend the emperor's award ceremony in Japan. "I was too embarrassed," he says.

Much of his civic work has been motivated by the racism he faced during and after World War II. On the first page of one of the scrapbooks is a recent newspaper story on the camps in which Japanese-Americans were interned during the war. In 1942 Uchida was serving as a private at an Army base in Kansas when his mother, who had been born in Japan, was sent to a camp in Poston, Ariz. After the war he finished his degree in biology at San Jose State, but even with his diploma and the extensive training he had received as a lab technician in the Army medical corps, he had trouble finding a job. So Uchida, who had been studying judo since the age of 10, found the "gentle way" out of his difficulties. "When I came out of the service, I started teaching judo to the police students at San Jose State," he says. "I thought that if they understood the Japanese better, they would give the Japanese better treatment."

One recent evening after a team practice Uchida described a traditional Japanese New Year's pine-and-bamboo decoration, called a kadomatsu. The branches of pine, the tree that never changes color, represent longevity, and the bamboo, with its ability to bend, resilience. What will happen to the San Jose dynasty when the monarch is gone? "I'm not sure," says Long, who is also the treasurer of U.S. Judo Inc., the sport's governing body. With Uchida in charge, the university would never pull the mat out from under the program, but, says Long, "if Yosh dies—I mean when Yosh dies—the alumni are going to have a hard time continuing the program.

"I've expressed this to Yosh, and he replied, 'Don't worry, I've got it taken care of.' The university provides the practice facility and the trainer and the insurance, which I'm sure all adds up, and one unit of credit per semester for athletes participating in intercollegiate judo. But with California's budget problems...."

Uchida's promise—I've got it taken care of—should be assurance enough, that and the judo endowment he says he's setting up. But really it is too soon to ponder the final legacy of the life spread across the conference table. Yosh Uchida, no doubt, has a few more scrapbooks to fill.



Uchida in the serenity of the Japanese Friendship Garden, which is near San Jose State.



Under Uchida's aegis, San Jose State's teams have won 28 of 31 collegiate championships.



Swain, a four-time Olympian, also won a title at the 1987 world judo championships.