“For him, the most important accomplishment is to finish school and get a degree. To become a key contributor to society, to give back to others some of what was given to you. Judo results are just the icing on the cake. They come after your education and your contribution to society.”
(Keith Nakasone, Yoshihiro Uchida’s student since 1974)
“As a child growing up in Southern California, judo became his strongest passion. He created the weight class system with Dr. Henry Stone of UC Berkeley, which in turn helped make the sport a lot fairer. He began teaching at San Jose State University just prior to the war and, seventy years later, is still its head coach. He fought to get judo into the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, succeeded, and became the first Olympic coach for American judo. He also opened the Buddhist JC in San Jose, which hosts the largest tournament in the United States, and has helped many other clubs. His love of Japanese culture is reflected in his art collection and the design of his beautiful home in the Saratoga Hills. He is proud to be a founding member of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. For him, the future means never forgetting the past.”
(Jan Masuda Cougill, personal assistant of Yoshihiro Uchida)
“Justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.”
(President Barack Obama, quoted in the epilogue of They Called Us Enemy, a graphic novel by George Takei and Harmony Becker, with Steven Scott and Justin Eisinger, winner of, among others, the Will Eisner Award for Best Comic Book of 2020.)
It is a matter of global tectonics. The impact of the movements of history on geography, geopolitics, the fragile state of nations and the DNA of a discipline. Reasons that pushed families to exile, to adventure, to this imperative of listening and observing that may or may not establish a sense of belonging, togetherness and identities that are full of mutual and constant respect. Firm on their stands by virtue of their pedigree. Flexible as oak and firm as a reed or vice versa by necessity. A single “non” separates “existence” from “non-existence”, and changes everything. Everything here revolves around giving, looking back and passing on. “Human life is limited but I would like to live forever” wrote the Japanese author Yukio Mishima on November 25, 1970, a few hours before carrying out seppuku. In the aftermath of a life and perhaps two, at the end of a year or so of the pandemic, and at a time when it seems increasingly clear that, for certain transcontinental family sagas, the postponement and uncertainty surrounding the Tokyo 2020 and 2021 Olympic Games have something of an intimate Tantalus torture, the time has come to look back on oneself and on a few long journeys.
From a European perspective, the question about where judo stands on the North American continent is rarely asked. If this were the case, it could be formulated as follows: why have countries renowned for being at the forefront of world sport produced, in proportion, so few renowned judokas? Why have nations that are virtually alone in disciplines such as boxing, sprinting, swimming, ball sports or puck sports, produced so few major medals in judogi? To raise the question is to take an interest in the blind spots and the silent parts of history on the subcontinent. In its straightforwardness as well as in its silence, the questioning sheds a clear light on the Canadian and American judo of yesterday and today. This is illustrated by looking back at the careers of Hiroshi Nakamura in Montreal and Yoshihiro “Yosh” Uchida in California.
½ – Yoshihiro Uchida – Mr. Mayor of Japantown
On April 1, 2020, the world of cinema has a thought for the Japanese Toshiro Mifune. He died in 1997, Akira Kurosawa’s favourite actor, the Kikuchiyo of The Seven Samurai, the Tajomaru of Rashomon or detective Murakami of Stray Dog would have been one hundred years old on that Wednesday. More discreetly, this time in San Jose, California, another man, alive and well, is also entering the three-digit club. Yoshihiro Uchida, that’s his name, blows out his hundred candles in this spring of a pandemic. For the relatives of one of the rare 10th dan of the planet, a moment of pure emotion, three years after the death of Ayame Mae, his partner born like him in 1920. Due to Covid, the party planned at the Fairmont Hotel had to be cancelled two weeks beforehand. Seven hundred guests had to be called off, but what did it matter? “We all spoke to Coach on his 100th birthday, a positive Keith Nakasone, his student since 1974, brilliantly reconverted in the civil life since. It was Mike Swain, Danny Kikuchi, Dr. Bob Nishime, Marti Malloy and I. He is the first centenarian whose birthday I am celebrating. It was an honour. His aging is rapidly accelerating, and we know we have little time left with him. My fondest wish is that Covid-19 can be fought, so Marti, the guys and I can take him out to really celebrate his birthday.”
Of a summer with Marti Malloy and what ensued… Marti Malloy, precisely. It is through the 2012 Olympic medallist and 2013 world vice-champion of the -57 kg, that we have for the first time put a name on the face of the one she affectionately calls “Yosh” or “Mr. Uchida”. From April to September 2014, we had followed the Californian for L’Esprit du judo, the time of a double spread in the French bimonthly and an English version of the website, entitled “A summer with Marti Malloy”. SMS, emails, Skype and even a final hug on the evening of her world championship in Chelyabinsk (Russia), the American took the opportunity to tell the French readers a little of the history of judo on this American west coast which is not well known on the other side of the Atlantic. Originally from Washington State, she first came to know the Uchida family through George, Yoshihiro’s younger brother, “a Judo icon around here.” It was in 2005, when she arrived at San Jose State University and a few months after George’s death, that she met her older brother, already in his 80s. It was he who brought Shintaro Nakano from Japan, the key coach in the progression of the American until her Olympic medal in 2012, Jimmy Pedro father and son taking over the position at the international level… From his mentor with an incomparable life experience, Marti gave us at the time the following to write about: “At age 94, he is still as uncompromising in ne-waza, in the wake of a majestic life that led him, for example, as early as 1956, to conceive an innovative system of weight classes with a colleague at UC Berkeley. For the sake of the story, the dojo where Marti trains bears the name of the old sensei. It is located – quiet revenge to the Japanese – in the same premises where, during the Second World War, the parents and brothers of Mr. Uchida were placed in internment camp… “
One hundred springs. On this April 1, 2020, we get the idea of checking in with the native of Calexico, California. Marti offers to act as a go-between, and to say that every answer she receives already carries the weight of posterity is an understatement – but isn’t that how it is, in a journalist’s life, with every word we scrupulously keep on record? What does it mean for the child of Garden Grove, Orange County, to reach the milestone of 100 years of age? “Sometimes I can’t believe it, because when I look at all the students I’ve helped along the way, I see that some of them are already in their seventies themselves. They were still children when I started working with them! I hope they will understand, when they reach eighty, how important it is to give back to the judo community and to be grateful for the many ways in which judo has impacted their lives. Most of all, I hope that when they reach that age, they will have accomplished something that makes them proud.”
First round. And what makes him proud? “Creating a weight class system to help judo enter the Olympic movement and be recognized as a sport was the most difficult part. At the time, many people did not realize how valuable this new system was compared to the old one. I fought to make it clear that making judo an Olympic sport would make it much more popular in the eyes of the world. And that is exactly what happened. From a martial art, judo has become a sport, and, in the process, it has become internationalized all over the world. By entering the great family of Olympic sports, judo has also entered the minds of people. This is all the more important as it brings people together and allows them to understand each other better.” Second round.
Who is the man who speaks like this? To help us in this difficult task, Marti Malloy puts us in touch with the first circle of the valiant sensei. The first to answer is Lydia, the second of the three Uchida daughters. Janice, the eldest, is unfortunately no longer with us: a graduate in applied arts and ergonomics, she had the pain of losing her husband at a young age and was also taken away by cancer in 2005. Aileen, the youngest, graduated from Berkeley with a degree in Social Work and had an academic career in Hawaii where she and her husband Steven Shimizu now devote their retirement to Animal Advocacy. In between, Lydia studied Environmental Studies at UC Berkeley and holds a chair in Education at San Jose State University. She and her husband Steve Sakai have two boys, now grown. Kyle is a mechanical engineer and Michael helps his parents with the restaurant and his mother with supporting grandfather. “I’m taking the time to list our different degrees because we all explored different fields. Just before she died, Janice, our oldest, thanked our mother for letting us follow our own pat. My mother often said, “If we had been boys, the expectations around us would have been very different.”
The Keiko Fukuda moment. Every story has its context. This is what Lydia reminds us by developing her relationship with judo and that of her father, who tied his first belt in 1930 to “get acquainted with his Japanese roots”, obtained his black belt in 1936, competed in school wrestling competitions and taught judo to police students while simultaneously studying to become a chemical engineer.. “Although we have been to just about every judo competition, we have not had the opportunity to do any with our father or any of the teachers we knew. Let’s be clear: it’s not that we didn’t want to practise. In the forties, fifties and sixties, there was simply almost no women judoka in the United States. It wasn’t until Keiko Fukuda [Jigoro Kano’s student, born in 1913 and deceased in 2013, she was the first and only woman to reach the rank of 10th dan, editor’s note] came to California in the sixties that our father’s attitude evolved in this regard. She was sent to study English at the University of San Jose by her grandfather Shoichi Shimizu, a great friend of my father. Women were always welcome to participate in the course in our state, but it wasn’t until the late sixties and early seventies that my father recruited a women’s team for good.” A (r)evolution spread over several decades, whose foundations can be summed up in two words: resilience and optimism. “Our parents were children of migrants, reminds Lydia. Life was not easy for them. They faced discrimination and those same times of extreme hardship that contemporary immigrants experience, whether they are farmers, teachers, students or entrepreneurs. Yet both were resilient enough to return to San Jose after the war so that my father [who had been drafted for four years and stationed in Little Rock, Arkansas, while his family was interned in the camps at Poston, Arizona, and Tule Lake, California, editor’s note] could complete his education. With a young wife, a baby, and little savings, my father had to work three jobs to make ends meet. Eventually, he saved enough and was able to borrow from doctors who believed in his work to open his lab. [the first of a series of forty-one, editor’s note] He always believed in it.”
Keeping your word. Did this hard relationship with living make Mr. Uchida a man with a heart of stone? No. No surprise, however, to find traces of a square background, with righteousness as the cornerstone of his value system. “Our father is old school, Lydia and Aileen admit in unison. He believes in loyalty, friendship, handshakes and keeping his word.” It is very rare to see him let his guard down, or even to let himself be moved. And yet… The youngest of the Uchida sisters has her own canine story: “When we were little, we had a little dog named Sandy. My father would insist that we didn’t take enough care of her, that she didn’t get enough exercise, that we didn’t bathe her enough. So, one Sunday he took the dog and me with him on a run around campus. The dog held on, I didn’t. She thus became the partner of his Sunday jogging, with the obligatory shower afterwards not to dirty the car. He had a real tenderness for this dog. She, on her side, adored my father. He even put baby shampoo on her so as not to burn her eyes.” [Smile]
Tough love. After blood family, sweat family. Keith Nakasone was born and raised in Okinawa, Japan. He was eighteen years old in 1974 when he arrived at San Jose State University, where Uchida Sensei had been teaching since 1947. He was a member of the American team at the Moscow Olympics, but unfortunately he was part of the sacrificed generation of 466 athletes who, on April 12, 1980, learned with a heavy heart that their country had withdrawn from the Olympic Games because of the Cold War – only 247 athletes were present four years later in Los Angeles. What does he remember about Professor Uchida? “I didn’t know him as a competitor when I arrived in San Jose because he had already switched to teaching full time. If I had to define his approach in two words, I would say, ‘Tough Love’. His technical foundation was solid. To me, as a coach, he is of the same calibre as the great John Wooden of UCLA Basketball, Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics or Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers. All of them were great leaders, great motivators, disciplinarians and most importantly great men!”
“No” is not an answer. The challenge of this unusual approach to teaching is heightened by the fact that judo occupies “only” 70% of the professor’s activities, the remaining 30% being his work with the Japanese community in San Jose. The ratio is put forward by Jan Masuda Cougill, Mr. Uchida’s personal assistant for half a century and one of the few in the first circle who is not a judoka. “It ranges from fundraisers for the judo team or politicians to projects like installing the 60-year-old trophy cabinet in the room that bears his name at San Jose State University.” This streamlining of time is reflected in his teaching. In training, Marti Malloy describes an extreme focus on floor work and a rather straightforward style when debriefing a technique or performance. “All his life he pushed athletes to be champions on and off the mat. Champions who are useful to society. He was serving as a medical technician for the U.S. Army when his family was placed in transit before being sent to the Japanese internment camps, and this very room now bears his name! He endured so much, and yet he remained loyal and firm in his beliefs, because for him judo makes the world a better place.” Intensity, tenacity, desire to outdo oneself. This guideline also applies to his studies, a subject on which he has always been meticulous. ” ‘No one will do the hard work in your life for you, so do it yourself’ he used to say. As far as achieving your goals, ‘no’ is not an answer. He also told me that I might not please everyone: “There will always be people who oppose your ideas. Under no circumstances should those people stop you.’ “
Judoka on and off the mat. Mike Swain also knows his Yoshihiro Uchida well. It was by winning the qualifying trials for the 1977 World Championships in Barcelona at the age of sixteen – finally cancelled due to the tense diplomatic relations between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China – that the native of Bridgewater, New Jersey, was recruited by “Coach Uchida”. “When I told him I was only 16, he seemed surprised. He then handed me his card and told me to call him as soon as I graduated.” The -71 kg remained at San Jose State University from 1980 to 1985. He graduated in Marketing with a minor in Japanese. Yone Yonezuka, his teacher at the time of the Cranford Judo Center, NJ, was the Olympic team’s coach in 1988 and 1992 and always looked after him despite the distance, allowing him to go frequently to train in Japan at the Nihon University where he was originally from. “Coach Uchida was already sixty years old when I arrived at SJSU, so I never saw him train. He was an advisor, a coach and a mentor. He made sure that everyone understood the philosophical significance of judo, both on and off the mat. He oversaw the program and brought in highly qualified Japanese instructors. But the most important thing for him was the studies. That came before judo, always. He was especially strict with the new students. He could ask them for their GPA in front of everyone. If it wasn’t good, he would embarrass the poor freshman so much that everyone would get the message, especially the freshman. Same thing for travel: suit and tie for everyone! We often took the first six o’clock flight, so we would have to meet him at the airport at four in the morning.” This is probably the reason for the making of one of the most solid teams of this generation. Bobby Berland, 1984 Olympic vice-champion and 1983 world bronze, Kevin Asano, 1988 Olympic vice-champion, Mike Swain, 1988 Olympic bronze and three-time world finalist for a 1987 world championship title… “Mr. Uchida’s main strength was connecting young high school students to this tough love. Becoming better on and off the mat was his motto, and he was quick to tell you so.”
A legacy of attitude. “Many people today don’t realize the importance Coach Uchida had on the history of American judo, says Swain. Like Professor Kano, he believed strongly in the political significance of his commitment. San Jose was the site of the very first U.S. Championships, the first U.S. Open, the first high school championships. It took a lot of effort, volunteers, money and expertise. He was the president of USJF, USA Judo and USA College Judo and was always fighting for anything that would help judo. I visited him after six months of quarantine. He acted like nothing happened and we had a great time talking about judo. His story really opened my eyes to the reality of what Japanese Americans of his generation have gone through. The most amazing thing is that he never complains about his physical pain, past hardships, and the discrimination he and his family have faced, unless you ask him. He is always focused on the future. He has an inner strength and a fighting spirit. He’s self-made and proud of it. He makes you want to get up and try to do better.”
“Face your fears!” The same is true of Bob Berland who, three decades after retiring from competition, still calls him “My coach”. The Chicagoan, a pure Midwesterner, wavered for a long time between American soccer and judo. At the time, for a guy from Illinois, SJSU was “the enemy”, the team to beat. So, it came as a surprise when, at sixteen, he was approached at a U.S. Championship in Chicago by Yosh himself. He declined, of course, and then went on to compete against Mike Cochran, a student at San Jose State University. “I thought he was left-handed, and he threw me in ten seconds to the right on sode-tsuri-komi-goshi. When I got off the mat, I went to Yosh Uchida and said, ‘OK, I’m coming.'” However, it was not until he lost the 1980 trials that he realized that he could no longer juggle U.S. soccer and judo. He chose judo. At SJSU, the kindness of Yosh Uchida was his first surprise. On the mat, Keith Nakasone and Mike Swain together made up 50% of the Olympic team that was being considered for the Los Angeles Olympics. To complete the picture, the 1975 and 1979 double world champion Sumio Endo arrived from Japan: “On the floor, he was scary.”
Let’s talk about the floor. “He brought me down to earth the very first time I trained there. No hitting on immobilization. You either get better or you die. For him, the priority was to eliminate weak points. I avoided the floor? So, he made me work on the floor and my ne waza became better than my tachi-waza. He said to me: “Face your fears!” That proved to be a lifelong lesson. Because the experienced sensei has his tricks to keep his troops alert. “He made us arrive well before the end of the beginners’ class that preceded ours. He asked us to let them immobilize us, and to get out of the immobilization without using our arms or legs. Good teaching.”
Impacting lives. For him, “There is more to life than judo because there is life in judo. We had to strive for excellence in school, always remembering that we had a career to build off the mat. He wanted us to succeed in business. He would come to the lab every day in a suit and if necessary, hire you as a driver to go with him… We must never forget that his parents were prisoners in Arizona while he was serving in the United States. All his life, he built bridges between Japan and the United States. The first U.S. Open in history was held at San Jose State University – and nowhere else. And, for the occasion, he brought Yasuhiro Yamashita… His goal has always been twofold: to develop judo in the United States and to impact lives. When you impact a hundred lives, you’re impacting for a thousand years.”
Mr. Mayor of Japantown. “Education is his other main concern, says Jan Masuda Cougill. As in any sport, an injury can ruin a career, hence his vigilance on this matter. San Jose is the only Olympic training centre attached to a university. This has attracted many American and foreign students. Twenty of them have been Olympians and four have been medallists. He always tells them: ‘What’s your GPA?’ You need at least a B average to stay on the team. He’s proud of his adults’ success outside of judo…” And what has changed the most between the sixties and today? For his faithful assistant, “the biggest change is that the voice of Japanese Americans is now being heard. The internment camps primarily affected the first (Issei) and second (Nisei) generation. The history and injustices of World War II were only belatedly taught to these American citizens who ‘looked different.’ The third generation (Sansei) began to deviate from the minority model that our parents had taught us, the famous Gaman (‘persevere and tolerate with patience and dignity’). Refusing to be relegated to the background in the sixties and seventies became more vocal and even a political issue on campuses across the country. They fought for the creation of Asian studies courses, worked on rectifying the injustice done to our parents and grandparents, the fact that they had chosen not to pass on our language and culture. They wanted us to be ‘more American’ after the war. Invisible and impeccable. We started to explore areas that our parents avoided like politics and the arts.”
And he continued: “Mr. Uchida always told me that if there had been more Japanese American politicians during World War II, the internment camps might not have been possible. I remember reading that Italian politicians used baseball champion Joe DiMaggio as an example of a loyal Italian, and as a result that community did not have the internment. Yosh was instrumental in getting Norman Mineta, an insurance broker, to enter politics and run for mayor. Mr. Mineta was elected and went on to become a member of Congress and the only Democratic Secretary of Transportation in the Bush Administration. He was the one who made the decision to shut down all commercial aircraft after 9/11. That’s how powerful he is! He, Yosh and a few other Japanese Americans opened the door for others to get their foot in the door of the political arena to gain leverage for Asians. I have worked for Mr. Uchida for many years. In the South Bay community, there are few candidates for Mayor or Supervisor in Congress, Assembly, City Council or School Life, who have not asked us to help them raise funds. Yosh did it for an infinite number of people he believed in, with that unofficial title of ‘Mayor of Japantown’. All of them knew that if they had Mr. Uchida with them, they would have the majority of support from the Japanese community.”
A pathway. On April 1, 2021, Yosh Uchida blew out his hundred and first candle. A birthday celebration via Zoom, to which his daughter Lydia invited us to spend some time in the circle of his closest friends. May she be thanked here for this unforgettable honour. As she points out: “For him, judo has always been a pathway to greater understanding between communities, whether it be at the local, national or international level. The many lasting friendships he has made throughout the years reflect on his students and other coaches up to the highest level of international sport. The important thing for him is to always give thanks and give back to the community. Do things you love as a job and it will stop being a job. Even if it’s not your dream at first, you can find pieces of that dream in your work.” The principles of Seriyoku Zenyo (“maximum efficiency in the use of energy”) and Jita Kyoei (“mutual help and prosperity”) have always been at the heart of his life. “In randori, as in technique or kata, you learn from your mistakes, and so does your partner, she concludes. In life our father overcame many obstacles and always looked beyond them to see what was possible. And he did it.”
2/2 – Hiroshi Nakamura – Like a ray of rising sun
“For the Japanese, the second world conflict is only a part of the ‘Greater East Asia War’, which began with the entry of their forces into Manchuria in 1931” reminds the French historian Jean-Marie Bouissou in Lessons from Japan, a very incorrect country, a fascinating exercise in comparative symmetry published in 2019… And yet. If the date of December 7, 1941, and the name Pearl Harbor sound familiar to Western ears, the Canadian aftershocks of this earthquake – whose epicentre in the Hawaiian Islands will have a planetary reach – are less known on the European side of the Atlantic. They are, however, a painful but necessary chapter of Judoka – The History of Judo in Canada, a book originally published in 1998 by Glynn Arthur Leyshon (1929-2018) and updated in 2019 by Nicolas Gill, the Chief Executive Officer of Judo Canada. “In February 1942, [ two months after the attack on the U.S. naval base, editor’s note] the Federal Cabinet enacted a law that set in motion a shameful period in Canadian history. Out of paranoia, the government ordered that some 22,000 people of Japanese descent be deported from their homes if they resided within a specified 100-mile zone along the Pacific Coast. Seventy-five percent of those affected are Canadian-born or naturalized citizens. The order will not be rescinded until March 31, 1949, although the war ended in August 1945.” What follows are some of those inglorious family photos that every nation on the globe is called upon to face one day and to which the British journalist Mark Law devoted the eighth of the twenty-eight chapters of The Pyjama Game, his erudite and exhaustive book published in 2007. The title of these eighteen pages? “The war – When the fighting had to stop.”
The shadow cast by these divisive times will take a long time to dissipate. Further south, in Hollywood, it will be one of the many problematic aspects of the very puritanical Hays Code which, from 1934 to 1968, regulated in a conservative way (euphemism) the cinematographic production of a country-continent which became a cultural superpower. For example, it was not until 1959 and Samuel Fuller’s The Purple Kimono that a Caucasian woman fell in love with an American of Japanese origin for the first time on the screen. This is what sisters Clara and Julia Kuperberg recall in The Japanese Enemy in Hollywood, a prolific documentary released in 2018. Throughout the fifty-three minutes of this formidable work of archives and perspective, the two Frenchwomen also check off the considerable markers constituted by the Loving vs. the State of Virginia ruling, which, in 1967, allowed mixed couples, and then, in 1990, the release of Welcome to Paradise by the British Alan Parker. A pioneering film since, two years after deconstructing the mechanics of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi Burning, the British director became the first to show on the big screen the reality of these internment camps of sinister memory, these rows of barricades lined with barbed wire where decree no. 9066, issued on February 19, 1942, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, confined one hundred and twenty thousand Japanese Americans “as a precautionary measure” and had daily and generational consequences for thousands of fellow citizens of Italian and German origin.
No matter the language. Born in Tokyo in this famous year of 1942, coming to judo twelve years later and arriving in Canada in 1968, the story of the 9th dan Hiroshi Nakamura begins where the story of those years of tears, defiance and fire ends. Before contacting the man who made the Shidokan the number one dojo of his adopted country – and was head coach for Canada at the 1976, 1988, 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics – to evoke more than half a century of imprinting on the unified land, this precautionary oratory with Nicolas Gill, his emblematic student: “Is it better to engage in conversation in French or in English?” Enigmatic and dry wit answer from the two-time Olympic medallist: “Mr. Nakamura speaks French as badly as he does English.” The exchange will nevertheless take place and it will be full of humanity. As for the language used, we have no memory of it to this day. The essential was elsewhere – in the laughter, the pride and the silences.
Reaching a milestone. Hiroshi Nakamura was twenty-two years old when the 1964 Olympic Games began. The Kodokan of Tokyo where he refined his o-soto-gari – “the strength of its projections makes more than one opponent lose consciousness”, reports Glynn A. Leyshon in his above-mentioned book – is already a must for any foreigner who intends to reach a milestone, a fortiori at the beginning of the sixties when, for the first time, judo is on the agenda at the Games. Among the multiple waves of visitors, there is a special connection with the Canadians Terry Farnsworth and Doug Rogers, that came in preparation for the fall’s international event. Doug (1941-2020) took the silver medal in +80 kg – “Doug was practically a Japanese, says the sensei with amusement. He trained so much locally!” The invitation to come and help in Canada is almost a natural progression. Before that, in 1966, Hiroshi Nakamura went on a few weeks tour to teach in Egypt, Sudan and Iran, sent by his Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Kodokan. The following year, he had to withdraw from the world championships in Salt Lake City because of an injury, but he had the bittersweet surprise of seeing Eiji Maruki, his replacement, win the world title. So, in 1968, Hiroshi took the plunge: to the East, all the way.
Leading by example. His arrival on the opposite continent is done in stages, from the West Coast of the United States to Quebec. Little by little, the double barrier of language and finances was overcome. In his prime, his online demonstrations became his best calling card. In this Canada where the different wings are still far from walking to the same drum beat, when it comes to talking about judo, there is soon Hiroshi Nakamura and the others. Word of mouth did the rest, in spite of a bad leg injury in 1970 that saw his savings melt away and almost forced him to restart from scratch. His determination as an exile and the loyalty of his first day students allowed him to get back on track. Dedicated body and soul to the transmission of his know-how, the fifth dan soon became “The place to be” for any Canadian who wanted to improve their skills and no longer be content with “the most important thing is to participate” dear to Baron Pierre de Coubertin. “He advocated for hard, voluminous work in randori and focused primarily on technique” recalls Louis Jani, Chair of the High Performance Committee at Judo Canada. He was the Master’s student from 1975 to 1988 at the Shidokan Judo Club, before becoming National Technical Director, Director of High Performance and National Training Centre and Head Coach for the 1997-2000 Olympiad. “The other aspects of coaching he left to others. He had a huge technical background, but the reason the best and most motivated judokas went to him was that he was perhaps the only coach in Canada who was available seven days a week. He was a professional coach who led by example.”
In the long run. Among the “best and most motivated judokas” there is, of course, Nicolas Gill, the man with five World Championships medals and five Pan-American titles won between 1990 and 2002. He and Hiroshi Nakamura are a bit like Masami Matsushita and Ezio Gamba in Italy in the seventies. “I was thirteen years old, I was a brown belt and I had no special talent except for the fact that I was a go-getter, he laughs, looking back on it thirty-five years later. It’s quite simple: when I arrived, Mr. Nakamura threw everything away. The morote on my knees that had allowed me to win a few medals until then? He told me to forget it. It must be said that my growth spurt came late. At fifteen years old, I was still fifty-four kilos. He looked at my father. He saw that he was strong and immediately knew the judo that I had to build: hand far behind the back, o-soto-gari, uchi-mata, o-uchi-gari. It was very much focused on the long run, and it took a good four years to bear fruit. The growth spurt he was banking on did happen and from there it all came together.”
A before and after. Professor Nakamura’s certainties are built on a succession of experiences and steps. When he was appointed General Coach in 1973, the Montreal Olympics were scheduled for three years from now and the average age of the team that would be lined up there was less than 22 years old. Aware that he was starting from a very long way off, Hiroshi Nakamura drew up a precise schedule. The objective is to gradually give confidence to his fighters. Of course, the success of certain individuals in the United States could give rise to a desire for close collaboration. But this would be to underestimate the distance factor, a huge factor across the subcontinent, even if the fame of Yosh Uchida has obviously reached his ears. “Going from Montreal to Los Angeles or San Jose is the same number of hours by plane as going from Montreal to Paris…” Hence his three-year plan. “The first year, I asked my fighters to just follow the training. The second year, to come and do randori at the Insep in France and Japan. The third, to take part in competitions in those countries.” Montreal 1976 [link to article Montreal seen from France: https://judocanada.org/2013/12/29/montreal-seen-from-france/] will then act as a “wake-up call”, the opportunity to measure all that still separates the judo of the best fighters in the world and, little by little, to continue the patient work of structuring and acculturation that began at the beginning of this decade. “There was definitely a before and after Nakamura in terms of high-level judo in Canada,” confirms Louis Jani. He made us aware of what the best judo nations in the world were doing. He appreciated the talented athletes as much as the less talented but hard-working ones – the ‘plumbers’ as they say in hockey. For him, mental attitude was everything. He was very generous to his athletes, sometimes helping them financially, sometimes finding them a sponsor or, for those who went to train in Japan, opening doors for them there. I myself, when I first went to train there, I stayed with his parents. When Japanese sensei asked me who my coach was and I answered Nakamura Hiroshi, they immediately knew who he was. They would say ‘yes, very good’ or sometimes ‘aaah… o-soto-gari’, referring to his specialty with which he earned the reputation of ‘ killer’ and technician in Japan. It is precisely this reputation that facilitated my access to the best university and police dojos in Tokyo, as well as the Kodokan. His accomplishments have gone beyond judo as he has been awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of the Rising Sun – Silver Rays in both countries.”
Mental scan. In a long interview published in the summer of 2020 by the Japanese Judo Federation and translated for Judo Canada by the seventh dan Yves Landry, Hiroshi Nakamura detailed the kind of mental scanner that allowed him, for several decades, to detect almost with certainty these generations of champions who have established his credibility. “I look into the eyes of fourteen- to fifteen-year-old athletes who really love judo. A child speaks with his eyes. A child who loves judo from morning to night, who eats judo and dreams about judo, that’s the first requirement. Then, the parents. What family support (moral, financial) can the parents bring to the child? Unlike in Japan, there is no monthly fee exemption, housing or special treatment system here. So, it is difficult if parents cannot provide support. Third, how well did the first teacher teach the basics of judo? There are some terrible dojos that don’t do ukemi. So, when they fall, it’s hard for them. It is difficult to correct this situation afterwards and I am sometimes discouraged even before I start. The fourth criteria is: how far can the athlete go? The coach must evaluate how far he can go as an athlete. Can he become a Canadian champion, Pan American champion or Olympic champion? The rest is talent. Ninety percent of the success of Olympic medal winning athletes is based on hard work and the four factors mentioned plus talent. The rest is luck in two or three percent of the cases, or something like divine intervention that will determine the gold or silver medal. I’m still trying to figure out what that might be…”
The path of willpower. From 1976 to 2014 – the year of the opening of the National Training Centre in Montreal – the majority of the national team trained under its roof, at the Shidokan Judo Club, thus contributing to the transfer to Quebec of the vital forces of a nation that was once better endowed with the English-speaking provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, due to their close proximity to the Japanese diaspora. Kevin Doherty, Brad Farrow, Wayne Erdman, Rainer Fisher, Ewan Beaton, Jane Patterson or Marie-Hélène Chisholm in the past, Sasha Mehmedovic, Antoine Valois-Fortier, Louis Krieber-Gagnon or Arthur Margelidon more recently have all in one way or another fallen into his hands. “He was my coach, not my teacher, says Louis Jani, who started judo and obtained his first dan in Paris before moving back to Montreal. However, when he teaches recreational judo, he has a certain charisma and his knowledge and success as a coach make his students respect him greatly.” An “old-fashioned” teacher with an insatiable and stubborn competitive spirit – “Now that he is less involved in judo, it has become very important for him to beat me at golf,” says Nicolas Gill with an affectionate smile – he follows with a lively and mischievous eye the evolution of judo on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, and leaves it to his most emblematic student to put into words what founded their common success and constituted little by little a turning point for Canadian judo as a whole. “Being very well prepared physically, mentally and tactically, says Nicolas. Even if we don’t have as many partners as our competitors, we can develop the qualities that lie within our own head. Willpower can overcome many obstacles. Mr. Nakamura began by embodying this path and then convinced us that we too, his students as well as the students of his students, had our place. It is a deep furrow that comes from very far away. It’s up to us to remember it, especially when, like today, these times seem to want to test us every day.” – Anthony Diao