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Legendary Japanese American judo coach turns 103, throws giant party

San Jose State University judo alumni held a 103rd birthday gala/fundraiser Saturday evening for the school’s legendary Japanese American judo coach and community activist, Yosh Uchida. | Greg Ramar for the Standard

After blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, Yosh Uchida remained energetic even as his birthday party went late into the night.

Hundreds of judo players, elected officials and Asian American community members gathered at the Signia hotel in San Jose on Saturday night to celebrate this legendary judo coach’s 103rd trip around the sun.

Uchida, a California native who was born into a Japanese immigrant family in 1920, is considered the titan of judo in America, as he’s almost single-handedly credited with making the Japanese martial art a nationally recognized sport.

Uchida coached the 1964 U.S. judo team at the Tokyo Olympics. | Greg Ramar for the Standard

Starting in the 1940s, Uchida led the San Jose State University judo team to fame. It’s now a prestigious program, with over 50 collegiate championships. It also claims to hold an impressive record, of the most wins of any college team—in any sport.

San Jose State has produced more than a dozen Olympians in judo, and Uchida was the coach for the U.S. team in the 1964 Tokyo Games.

Yosh Uchida, center, coaches the U.S. judo team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. | Courtesy photo

In a brief speech, Uchida thanked the community supporters for showing up to celebrate him and congratulate the continued success of the school team.

“This is something we have dreamed about,” he said. 

He also said he was hoping to consult with the university to start a judo scholarship program.

Other than his coaching career, Uchida is also a successful businessman, philanthropist and community activist. He supported and united many other Asian Americans in the South Bay.

Miki Hirabayashi Bellon, the co-founder of the Contemporary Asian Theatre Scene, said that without Uchida’s early support, the organization would not have become one of the largest Asian art groups in Silicon Valley.

“He laid the foundation and opened the gate for us,” Hirabayashi Bellon said.

Hundreds of judo fans, politicos and luminaries turned out for Uchida's 103rd birthday party in San Jose. | Greg Ramar for the Standard

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, former Mayor Sam Liccardo and other elected officials wore traditional Japanese happi coats, while singing “Happy Birthday” to Uchida. Mahan described Uchida as a “true living legend.”

“You always achieved in the spirit of that great judo philosophy,” Mahan said in a speech to Uchida, “which is mutual welfare and benefit.” 

Former Congressman Mike Honda also said Uchida is the “Bruce Lee of judo.”

Liccardo also honored Uchida during the Asian American Heritage Month in May 2021.

Yosh Uchida, seated, blue tie, posed with former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and his wife, Jessica Garcia-Kohl. | Greg Ramar for the Standard

The Secrets to Long Life

When being asked by The Standard about the secrets of living a long life, Uchida laughed heartily.

“I ran every day, starting when I was 40 years old,” he said.

Lydia Uchida-Sakai, Uchida’s daughter, said her father always stays active and involved in the community to “keep his mind sharp.” She confirmed that, in his earlier years, her father ran every day for an hour.

At 102, Uchida still checked in with the judo team, getting to know the students and offering guidance. The university renamed a building in 1997 to honor Uchida.

Yasushi Noguchi, the consul general of Japan in San Francisco, said there are more than 90,000 centenarians in Japan, a number that has quintupled in only 20 years.

“I’m very pleased that Mr. Uchida keeps a healthy condition,” Noguchi said, attributing his long life to judo practice—and, potentially, a very healthy diet with a lot of fish.

Han Li can be reached at