Married After Dating Zero-Days, She Became Pregnant While Coaching the Brazilian National Judo Team ― Interview with Yuko Fujii and Her Husband #2

Yuko is a native of Obu City, Aichi Prefecture in Japan. She had been coaching the British Women’s National Judo Team in the U.K. since 2010, working day and night to achieve good results at the 2012 London Olympics.

By Hiroaki Sawada

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Coach Yuko Fujii at the World Judo Championships in 2019

With five months to go until the Tokyo Olympics, a Japanese woman, Yuko Fujii, leads the Brazilian men’s judo team. We interviewed Yuko and her husband about her truly unique career, and life of a head coach while parenting with her husband.

(This is the second of the three-article series. Related links: stories #1 and #3)  

Yuko is a native of Obu City, Aichi Prefecture in Japan. She had been coaching the British Women’s National Judo Team in the U.K. since 2010, working day and night to achieve good results at the 2012 London Olympics.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian Olympic Committee (BOC) tried to invite more than 30 foreign instructors in more than 20 events to achieve good results at the 2016 Rio Olympics. An official of the Brazilian Judo Federation approached Yuko, who was coaching the British Women’s National Team at the time, and asked if she would be willing to be the technical coach for the Brazilian Men’s and Women’s National Judo Teams after the London Olympics.

Under such circumstances, when Yuko temporarily returned to Japan at the end of 2011, Haruki, whom she had met only for a short period in London the previous year, dared to propose to her even though they had been dating for zero days. We asked him to tell us about these circumstances.

“After the Great East Japan Earthquake, I realized you were not able to tell the world what would happen.”

You hadn’t dated her at all until then, had you? Why did you propose to her?

Haruki: After the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, I realized that you were not able to tell the world what would happen. I determined I should do whatever I wanted to do without hesitation, and I also began to want to ‘marry someone I love.’ So, when I was thinking about a suitable marriage partner, Yuko came up to my mind. She is a unique person, and I thought I could have an interesting life with her. At the end of the year, I met up with her at Nagoya Station after she had returned to Japan temporarily. As we walked to a restaurant for lunch, I asked her, ‘Are you currently seeing someone? ‘and her answer was ‘No.’ So I decided to propose to her. I felt like nothing gained, nothing ventured.

“When I told him, ‘I am going to Brazil,’ he was stunned.

‐ Yuko, what did you think?

Yuko: Of course, I was surprised. But I had always thought, ‘This guy is a little different from ordinary people. That is also why I thought, ‘Maybe I will accept his reckless courage to propose to me even if we have been dating for zero days’ (laugh). I thought, ‘Maybe I can get along well with this guy even in a foreign country…’ But I had been sounded out to coach in Brazil starting in 2013, and I was going to take it. When I told him about it, he was flabbergasted.

‐ Haruki, what was your feeling at that time?

Haruki: It was beyond my expectations, and I was totally surprised. I undoubtedly thought that she would come back to Japan after the London Olympics…. Anyway, I said to her, ‘Please give me some time.’ Even though it was me who proposed, I end up holding back the answer (laugh). However, Brazil would host the Soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Rio Olympics in 2016. When thinking about these, I got also excited (laugh). I thought if I went to Brazil (from 2013), I would be staying there for at least three years. I looked into what would happen to my teaching career if I had that much of a gap. In the worst case, I might have to retake the recruitment exam. ‘Nonetheless,’ I thought, ‘I still want to marry this lady,’ and I made up my mind going to Brazil with her if necessary. We met up again, and I reiterated to her, ‘Let’s get married. I will go to Brazil to support you.’

“I thought this guy probably wouldn’t run away.

‐ Yuko, what did you think when you heard this?

Yuko: I thought that this guy probably wouldn’t run away. So, I told him ‘All right, I got you. Thank you.

‐ I see. But then Yuko went back to London, didn’t she? Haruki, how did you tell your parents?

Haruki: I didn’t think my parents would oppose me, because they had always let me do what I wanted. Before I went back to my hometown, Numata City, I had told them that ‘I have something to tell both of you,” and gave them a question; ‘Which of the following three things am I going to do? 1. get married, 2. go to Brazil, or 3. quit my job.’ My parents seemed to expect No.3. When I told them ‘All of these three,’ they both petrified (laugh). But, as expected, they didn’t object.

The Medals granted to British Judo at the London Olympics

‐ Yuko, you had strived as a coach in the U.K. At the 2012 London Olympics, the British Women’s National Judo Team won a silver medal in the 78kg weight class and a bronze medal in the over 78kg weight class. It was the first time in 12 years since the U.K. won medals in judo at the Olympics.

Yuko: I was delighted to see such a great result at the locally held Games, and the athletes, staff, and I hugged each other in joy. I strongly felt that my job as a coach was rewarding.

‐ After the London Olympics, you became the technical coach of the Brazilian Men’s and Women’s National Judo Teams, which you have been asked to do for some time. Could you elaborate on the process?

“They accepted a Japanese woman as an instructor without negative feelings.”

Yuko: In the summer of 2011, when the preliminary tournament was held one year before the London Olympics, the official from the Brazilian Judo Federation told me that ‘I saw you coaching the British athletes and I was impressed with your ability to teach the basics,” asking me that ‘We would like you to be the technical coach for our Men’s and Women’s National Judo Teams after the London Olympics until the Rio Olympics in 2016. The person explained, “Brazilian judo used to be rooted in the good aspects of Japanese Judo, but that is beginning to fade away. I would like you to teach the basics to the athletes afresh.” I thought it was a very worthwhile job and said, ‘I will positively consider it.’

‐ What was your impression of Brazilian Judo?

Yuko: The athletes are very energetic. They have a very high physical ability with a strong fighting spirit. After the London Olympics, I stayed in Brazil for about a month on a trial basis and visited various places. I was deeply impressed by the fact that Judo is a popular sport in Brazil, and even if the instructor was a Japanese woman, everyone accepted me without negative feelings. I thought, ‘I guess can get along well in this country,’ and signed a contract with the Brazilian Olympic Committee.

‐ Then you returned to Japan, did you?

Yuko: That’s right. I came back to Japan at the end of the year, and introduced Haruki to my parents, telling them that ‘I will marry him and move to Brazil with him to coach Judo.’

My mother told me that `pregnancy and childbirth were out of the question.’

‐ Did your parents readily understand and agree with you?

Yuko: No, they didn’t. My mother cautioned me that ‘It’s fine for you to get married to Haruki. However, if you get pregnant after going to Brazil, it will affect your job as a coach. If you go to Brazil, pregnancy, and childbirth are out of the question.’ In Japan, most people might think that way. But I knew that Jane Bridge had taught Judo even when she was pregnant, and I thought I could follow her suit myself. But even if I said so, my mother wouldn’t be convinced right away, and I didn’t know if I would get pregnant in the first place. So, I didn’t dare to talk about it thoroughly. After the wedding ceremony in January 2013, the two of us prepared to go to Brazil together.

‐ In May of that year, you and Haruki moved to Brazil. What was your first job?

Yuko: We traveled around Brazil, and I taught Judo athletes from children to adults. I also gave workshops for Judo instructors.

Brazilian federation officials: ‘No problem at all!’ for Pregnancy

‐ How did you learn Portuguese?

Yuko:The Brazilian Olympic Committee provided me with an English-speaking Brazilian interpreter for the first week, and also sent me a tutor twice a week. And I learned Portuguese in practice while teaching Judo. Being laughed at for saying the wrong things, I got to learn the correct way to say things.

‐ Not long after arriving in Brazil, you found out you were pregnant?

Yuko: Yes, I did. But I couldn’t tell my boss at the Brazilian Judo Federation right away. I was here as a Judo coach, but if they found out I was pregnant, they might cancel my contract… the thought bothered me. But when I was in my stable period, I took courage and told a person close to me at the Brazilian Judo Federation. Then I met with my boss and told him, ‘I’m pregnant, but I want to continue working as a coach as long as I can.’ Then he said, ‘No problem at all. Congratulations!’ I was relieved, and I promised myself that ‘I’ll return the favor.

‐ What was the reaction of the other Judo officials in Brazil?

Yuko: Everybody congratulated me and encouraged me with a smile on their faces. This made me happy. I also said to myself, ‘Pregnancy is not a sickness. I’ll work as hard as I can.’

“Reaction from Japan was harsh, but…”

 What was the reaction of your parents and other close people in Japan?

Yuko: It was very harsh there. My family and close friends said to me, “What’s on your mind?” It was hard for me. I felt like, ‘They may not understand me, but please watch over me. But the most important thing for me was the reaction at my workplace, and this one was fine. So, I figured out how to continue my work as a coach even though I was pregnant.

‐ There was physical contact as a matter of course. Was your body okay?

Yuko: I protected my stomach because I’m able to passive defense at ease. But I still move my body a lot and sometimes I had to take flights on Judo expeditions. I was also doing things that a pregnant woman should not do in normal situations. I continued to work until just before the birth, and gave birth to our first son, Kiyotake, on January 22, 2014. I couldn’t stop crying, as the delivery was after overcoming lots of difficulties. After the childbirth, I took four months off before returning to work.

‐ How did you take care of your baby?

Yuko: I wanted to breastfeed Kiyotake, so I always took him with me to all my practice sessions in Rio. My husband would take care of him, and I would breastfeed our baby in between training. When I was away from home on expeditions, I used to leave him with my husband. It was hard for me to be away from Kiyotake, but I had a job to do. If I couldn’t have worked with the reason for the childbirth, I would feel sorry for our son. That’s how I turned to have our child into my motivation.

‐ What was the reaction of the Judo officials and athletes when you took the baby to the training grounds?

Yuko: Everyone loved my child so much that he became like a mascot for the training grounds. Brazilians are very kind to children, and they often helped me in my daily life.

‐ Did your coaching work go smoothly after the childbirth?

Yuko: I learned Portuguese and began to understand the situation in Brazil and the mentality of Brazilians. My work gradually began to take off. However, an ordeal would challenge Yuko after that.

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