Stay-at-Home Dad Backs up Female Head Coach of Brazilian Men’s Judo: Interview with Yuko Fujii #1

In June 2018, the news of Yuko Fujii (then 35) becoming the judo head coach of Brazil’s men’s team shocked the sports world across the globe.

By Hiroaki Sawada

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Head Coach Yuko Fujii in 2018. Her career is totally unique.

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 first of the three-article series. Related links: stories #2 and #3)  

In June 2018, the news of Yuko Fujii (then 35) becoming the judo head coach of Brazil’s men’s team shocked the sports world across the globe. Brazil’s judo team has won total 22 medals in the past Olympics comprising four gold, three silver, and 15 bronze medals. They rank eighth in the world if you consider the Soviet Union and Russia as the same country. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Brazil ranked sixth in the world with one gold, two bronze, total three medals (total of men and women).

Brazil is a judo power nation with the number of players estimated to exceed two million, the largest in the world. This is way above 560,000 of France in second place, followed by 180,000 in Germany, and 160,000 in Japan. In sports around the world, there is a huge gender gap, and male coaches usually lead even women’s national teams. A woman to be named the head coach of the men’s national team is a rare exception. Probably the first on record in a major sport, and unheard of in a power nation. The Brazilian Judo Confederation and the International Judo Federation heralded Yuko on their websites and videos. South American and European media also reported, “Brazil’s new judo coach throws old gender barriers to the mat,” and “the judo coach overthrowing gender stereotypes.” 

Entire Family Committed, with Husband Taking on Household Affairs

However, Yuko is not fighting alone on the other side of the world, indifferent to womanly happiness. She married Haruki, four years younger, and the couple flew to Brazil. After Kiyotake (7) and Aya (3) were born, Haruki mostly took on the child-rearing and household tasks. Yuko is grateful to her husband, saying she can focus on her work thanks to his support. She is proud that “the entire family is committed to the duty”

Not many Japanese work as coaches for the top foreign athletes, while there are a considerable number of European and South American coaches who do so. The Fujii family must be a very rare case in the world, striving for almost 10 years like this.

Contributed to Medals for the U.K. and Brazil 

Yuko was born in Obu, Aichi Prefecture. She ranked high in national competitions during junior high and high schools, but her performance stalled after that. At 24, she retired as a player, and began judo coaching while she studying in the U.K. She became the coach for the U.K. women’s team, and contributed to winning medals at the 2012 London Olympics for the first time in 12 years.

In 2013, she became the technical coach for Brazilian men’s and women’s team. Rafaela Silva, who was under her tutelage, won the much-yearned gold medal for the women’s 57 kg class in her home country at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Yuko has been coaching in Brazil for almost eight years.

Her husband Haruki is from Tokyo. He then moved to Numata, Gunma Prefecture, and played as a forward on his high school soccer team. After high school, he studied sports training for two years at a technical college, then entered Tokai University School of Physical Education. When he was a sophomore, he worked as a part-time instructor at a junior high school in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. He passed the recruitment exam for elementary schools in Kanagawa Prefecture, and while travelling in Europe after graduation, met Yuko in London. Back in Japan, he worked as a teacher in a special support school in Hiratsuka. He quit to go to Brazil with Yuko, and calls himself a stay-at-home dad.  

The Dojo That Turned Out Hidehiko Yoshida and Ayumi Tanimoto

– Yuko, what made you start judo?

Yuko: When I was five, my mother sprained her ankle and received treatment at an osteopathic clinic. The doctor there was a judo coach and had a dojo. I was tall at the time and he strongly recommended me to do judo.

Yuko began judo at the Oishi Dojo run by Yasushi Oishi. The dojo is known for drilling in the basics. The place produced Hidehiko Yoshida, gold medalist of 1992 Barcelona Olympics men’s 78 kg class, Ayumi Tanimoto who is the same generation as Yuko and winner of 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics women’s 63 kg class, Ami Kondo, the bronze medalist of 2016 Rio Olympics women’s 48 kg class. Since 1992, the dojo has dispatched Olympians for seven consecutive games. 

‐ Did you like judo from the start?

Yuko: Not really. When I went to see the practice, a boy threw me and I fell head first, and I thought “I hate this sport.” But the children there seemed to enjoy the training, and my mother seemed to enjoy chatting with other mothers (laughs), so I decided to join.

What did you like about judo?

Yuko: I wasn’t an athletic type, and I’m no good at other sports. But with judo, if you practice steadily, you get better. I thought that suited me.

‐ Then after that?

Yuko: I went there until my third year in junior high school. My school didn’t have a judo team, but they had a dojo. So I practiced hard with other girls who were my good friends and competed at the prefecture competitions and national competitions as the school representative. At the same time, I practiced at the Oishi Dojo, so I did nothing but judo every day. When I was a third year a junior high, I was the runner-up at the 56 kg class in the national competition.

‐ How about during high school?

Yuko: My school teacher told me, “This is the only time you can do judo, so you should go to a school where you can focus on it.” So I went to Doho High School (Nagoya City). There, I also did judo day in and day out, and won the third place at the national competition when I was a first year. But after that, I couldn’t beat the top players of my generation, such as Ayumi Tanimoto.

‐ Why was that?

Yuko: I loved to do strenuous training and improve my skills, and people called me a practice junkie. But I wasn’t obsessed enough on winning. I guess I wasn’t the one to fight it out.

– Why did you go to Hiroshima University after high school?

Yuko: I met Hiroshima University’s judo coach and was able to apply through a sports recommendation exam.  

– How was your judo performance at university?

Yuko: Not very good. Just like in my high school days, I practice for long hours and believe I’m stronger, but I can’t win the matches. I saw Ayumi Tanimoto, a plyer in my generation, who practiced together at the Oishi Dojo, win the gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and felt frustrated.

– Why did you decide to go to the graduate school at Hiroshima University?

Yuko: To continue judo, rather than for study. I wanted to master the art. I fought in the competition for corporate teams, but still couldn’t win. At 24 after finishing graduate school, I thought I was done being a player.

Then in 2007, you go to the University of Bath west of London.

Yuko: I hadn’t decided what I would become, and I just thought I wanted to learn to speak English, and see other countries. My former professor advised me to not just study English, but also to learn the culture through judo coaching, and make friends. I did some research and found out that it was a custom for students from Tokai University’s judo team to study at the University of Bath, and teach judo while studying English. That year, there were no Tokai University students going to Bath, so I got the chance to go.

How was your life at the University of Bath?

Yuko: I studied English at a class for foreign students, and when I didn’t have class, I helped as an assistant to the German head coach for the judo team. It was a judo powerhouse, including players for the U.K. national team. I also coached children.

Did you struggle at first with the language barrier and everything? 

Yuko: I couldn’t understand what the other person was saying, and I couldn’t communicate my feelings. I didn’t know how to coach, and I couldn’t communicate well with the players. For a while, I just copied the instructions of the head coach. But in the U.K., when I tell the players to do uchikomi (repetition training) a specific number of times, even children ask, “What’s this practice for?” In Japan, it’s taken for granted that you just do what the coach says, and nobody has any doubts. I was baffled, and couldn’t give a proper explanation. In private, I had no families of friends by my side, and I felt lonely. I faced various obstacles.

How did you overcome those obstacles?

Yuko: I had this very important encounter. The university opened a course for training judo coaches, and appointed French judoka Patrick Roux and British judoka Jane Bridge as instructors. They place importance on basics, and teach very beautiful judo. When I saw that, I thought, “I want to coach like that.” I understood it was okay to teach with confidence the judo instilled in me in Japan from a young age. Since then, I followed the two around wherever they went, and learned the coaching method. I had a new goal to become a judo coach.

Both Are Major Figures in Global Judo 

Patrick Roux, who Yuko mentioned, used to play in the men’s 60 kg class, winning the third place in the World Championship and winner of the European Championship in 1987. He is now the head coach of the Russian women’s national team. Jane Bridge is the winner of the 1980 World Championship in the women’s 48 kg class. She became a coach after retiring as a player, and is currently an officer of the European Judo Union. Both are major figures in global judo. 

How did you get selected as a coach for the British national team?

Yuko: As a reinforcement measure towards the 2012 London Olympics, the British Judo Council appointed Patrick and Jane, who were instructors at the University of Bath, as the men’s and women’s national team head coach, respectively. Since then, I assisted the practice of the national team they were leading. In 2010, I got a contract as a coach for the women’s national team.

Shifting from “Force-Oriented” Style

What was your impression of the British judo then?

Emphasis on power, defensive, and ignoring the basics. Some players didn’t know the name of the techniques, or couldn’t do uchikomi properly. And not much practice. Frankly, I thought it would be difficult to get excellent results at the London Olympics.  

How did you improve the team?

Yuko: We did more randori (free sparring), and I taught kumite and newaza (ground techniques). I repeated individual coaching to boost their strong points while correcting weak points. We also worked out strategies against rival players. 

How was the effect?

Yuko: As the players practiced hard every day, they gradually got serious, and you could see it in their face. I had the feeling we could make it. 

Around this time in London, you met Haruki, your future husband.

Yuko: I was about to move my base from Bath to London and was staying at Jane Bridge’s house for a while. Meanwhile, Haruki’s mother was a former judo player and was acquainted with Jane. After graduating from university, Haruki was travelling around Europe before starting work, and also stayed at Jane’s house. We introduced ourselves, and I joined him on his sightseeing tours in and around London.

Husband’s First Impressions—a Reliable Senior

From here, we will hear from Haruki.

What was your first impression of Yuko?

Haruki: I thought she was amazing, working as a professional coach in the U.K. We were both sports-oriented types. She was older than me, and took good care of me, like a reliable senior.

Then, Yuko continued her coaching job in London, and you returned to Japan and became a teacher. So did you start a long-distance relationship?

Haruki: No, we just exchanged e-mails from time to time.

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