2004 Honoree - Yoshihiro Uchida
[Note: The following biography was prepared and presented at the 8th Annual Asian Pacific Fund Gala by Board member and journalist Emerald Yeh.]
If I had to choose just one word to describe how our first honoree Cecilia Chiang faced life’s challenges, it would be “courage.” For Bill Tamayo, that word would be “passion.” For our third honoree tonight, “dignity” best describes how he faced, fought and rose above the obstacles of racism.
Yosh Uchida’s character is best summed up by this quote from Confucius: The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.
In writing this profile about Yosh Uchida, I was very fortunate to have newspaper and magazine clippings to rely on, because in talking to Yosh, one would never know that a university building has been named after him, that he’s been inducted into the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame, and that he was bestowed the highest honor the Emperor of Japan can give a non-citizen, the Order of the Sacred Treasure. And that’s just for starters.
As one magazine article stated about Yosh Uchida, “His unobtrusiveness is a reflection of the man, not of his achievements.” (Judo Magazine)
Yosh’s achievements span the spectrum, from almost single-handedly establishing judo as a national and Olympic sport to turning a small failing lab into a multi-million dollar fortune to seeding the beginnings of a Japanese village in San Jose’s Japantown that has served as a catalyst to turn around the entire neighbhorhood.
He is at once a judo master, entrepreneur and power broker. But there is a bittersweet undercurrent to the success stories of Yosh Uchida’s life. The sting of prejudice, and his response to it, were what laid the groundwork for these milestone accomplishments.
Yosh had parents who worked hard and made an honest living. They had come from Japan, his mother as a picture bride, and worked as dairy farmers in the Imperial Valley of California. Then turned to growing tomatoes and strawberries. Yosh was a full-fledged U.S. citizen, but he found himself segregated in a separate bungalow along with other Asian and Mexican kids in grade school.
In his high school years, there was more interaction among races in sports activities, but socially, he recalled, there was no mingling.
Meanwhile, he had begun learning judo at the age of 10. It was a way for Japanese parents in America to instill some of their traditional culture in their boys. For girls, it was ikebana. Judo, which means “gentle way” in Japanese, would become Yosh’s pathway across the racial divide.
Yosh was a student at San Jose State when he was drafted into the Army during World War II. His parents, on the other hand, were sent to camp in Arizona where they spent the war years behind barbed wire fences. His brothers were sent to a relocation center in Northern California. All the lessons Yosh learned in school about the Constitutional rights of Americans rang hollow. Not only did his government treat Japanese-Americans as threats to their own country, but most painful of all, Yosh said, was this: “No one spoke up for us.”
After four years in the Army’s medical corps where he served as a lab technician, Yosh came back to San Jose State to finish his studies in biological science, but could not find a place to live or work because he was Japanese. A friend lived on some rural property and offered to let Yosh live in a shack on the property. It was very basic, but better than nothing.
When it came to looking for a job, Yosh had the degree and the extensive training from his years as an Army medic, but no lab would hire him. He was told, “People aren’t going to want to have their blood drawn by a Japanese.” Yosh protested, “But I’ve taken care of hundreds of fellow American soldiers during the war and had no problem.” The response was “That was the army. This is civilian life.”
Yosh was indignant, but decided to use the “gentle way” of judo to create better understanding between Japanese Americans and Caucasians. He helped set up a judo program at San Jose State and got a job teaching police students there. He felt it was a good opportunity to show something positive and useful about the Japanese culture. But all the police students were war veterans and one of them challenged Yosh by saying, “I practiced my skills by bayoneting and killing Japanese. So what do you think you can teach me? What are you going to do if I pick you up and swing you around?” which the student proceeded to do. He weighed 240 pounds. Yosh weighed 130.
Now in judo, the art is not matching strength with strength. Sometimes, you have to let yourself be thrown in order to win. You don’t struggle for victory the moment you step on the mat, Yosh explains. You win through technique, timing… and humility.
So Yosh let this 240-pound student swing him around a bit until he got dizzy and finally had to put Yosh down. The moment Yosh sensed this man was unbalanced, he threw him to the floor, in front of the entire class, knocking the wind out of him. “This,” Yosh said to him, “is judo.”
From a simple notion of using judo to bridge racial differences, Yosh Uchida went on to persuade the Amateur Athletic Union to accept judo as a sport in 1953 and San Jose State sponsored the first nationwide AAU championships that year. In 1962 Yosh organized the first national collegiate judo championships which San Jose State won. Since then, San Jose State has dominated the sport nationally, winning 39 out of 43 college titles. But the crowning glory was in 1964 when Yosh, by then a sixth degree black belt, succeeded in turning judo into an Olympic event and was coach of the first U.S. Olympic judo team. The team won a bronze medal.
But back to the days when he was out of college with no job except as a judo coach for $100 a week. He had to make a better living. He was a family man now, having gotten married to Mae Ayame Hiraki and having their first of three daughters while he was in the army.
His former wrestling coach from school helped him get a job at O’Connor hospital where Yosh worked as a medical technician. He was put on the overnight shift and had to produce as much work as the day shift but got only half the pay.
He eventually ended up as a lab supervisor at San Jose Hospital, but when he went house-hunting, he learned he didn’t make enough money for qualify for a loan. So he decided to start his own business. In 1957, he bought a failing lab for $3000 with a $75 down payment. The office was so small, he recalled, that three people couldn’t turn around in it.
But within the first month, the lab turned a profit. Yosh’s secret weapon was all the doctors he had met during those overnight hours at the hospital as he conscientiously and reliably produced the results they needed. Now that he had his own business, these doctors brought their work to him and as these doctors branched out and opened their own medical buildings, they would invite Yosh to start or take over a lab in their buildings.
From that first failing lab in 1956, Yosh would end up opening 40 labs that he would sell to Unilab in 1989 for $30 million dollars.
It is a success story that was 43 years in the making. When Yosh had come home from the war, no one would let this Japanese American work as a lab technician. But he used the “gentle way” of persistence, patience and quality work to quietly tear down those barriers.
Similarly, Yosh found that Japanese Americans couldn’t buy a nice house after the war. “Real estate agents would show us junky places,” he said. “As long as we live in these types of houses and accept it, they’ll keep feeding us nothing but junk.” Obviously, things have changed over the years, but the experience left an indelible mark on Yosh.
So when he made his fortune with his network of labs, he founded Uchida Enterprises and right away started the San Jose Nihonmachi Corp with 78 other investors to build an $80 million dollar Japanese village in San Jose’s Japantown section. That vision has been scaled back a bit since because of the economy. But today, Yosh can proudly take you on a tour of Japantown and show you not only Miraido Village, a residential/retail complex with 109 apartments. But several new housing and commercial developments that run for blocks beyond the original Miraido Village. Miraido, by the way, means Road of the Future.
From hurtful experiences, Yosh Uchida has parlayed the indignities into positive showcases of the Japanese American experience and culture.
He was instrumental in forming the Japanese American Chamber of Commerce, serves as Chairman Emeritus for the Board of Trustees of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and he helped bring about American Airlines’ inaugural flight from San Jose to Tokyo in 1993. There are many, many other accomplishments as well as awards. But Yosh doesn’t mention these things on his own. As a perfect example of his modesty, when Yosh was given the highest honor the Emperor of Japan can bestow on a non-citizen of Japan, the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Yosh didn’t go to Japan to receive the medallion.
He feels more at home staying in San Jose, continuing to support judo at San Jose State, a sport he brought to the university nearly 60 years ago. That support comes in the way of his involvement as well as financially. Because the judo program is not funded by the university’s athletic department, it is being supported by Uchida Enterprises. Yosh has also quietly sponsored the education of 15 students who came from Japan to San Jose State.
So in introducing our final honoree tonight, I close with the quote I began this presentation with: “The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.”
That is the essence of Yosh Uchida.