Japanese leading Brazilian national team embodies judo’s worldly spirit

Courtesy of Yuko Fujii
Yuko Fujii, left, the head coach of the Brazilian men’s judo team, speaks with a judoka before a competition in September 2018 at the world judo championship in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Yuko Fujii is the head coach of the Brazilian men’s judo team participating in the Tokyo Olympics. The 38-year-old from Aichi Prefecture has been coaching the squad for the past eight years, and prior to this stint, she was well regarded as a coach with Great Britain’s judo team.

Judo is considered to be one of Japan’s strongest sports, but Fujii has tailored her coaching approach to suit the national characteristics of both countries.

Breaking barriers

“Many people think, ‘It’s impossible for a woman, moreover a foreigner, to become the head coach of a men’s national team.’ But I want you to be successful and overturn such thinking.”

When the Brazilian Olympic Committee chairperson spoke these words to Fujii, her hands, holding a cup of coffee, shook because of the overwhelming pressure. Knowing that she was being given a tremendous opportunity, Fujii accepted the offer in May 2018 to become the head coach.

Judo has been a fixture in Brazil since the Meiji era (1868-1912), after Japanese who emigrated to the country brought the sport with them. According to the local judo federation, about 2 million people practice the sport there. Brazil is placing its hopes in the seven-member national team that Fujii will lead at the Olympics.

Coaching opportunity

Fujii began practicing judo when she was 5. When she was a third-grader in junior high school, Fujii finished second in a national competition. She placed third in a national contest in her first year of high school.

Ayumi Tanimoto, a gold medalist in the women’s competition at the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Olympics, practiced at the same local judo club as Fujii, who could sense the gap in their strengths even though Tanimoto was only one year older.

Fujii went to the graduate school of Hiroshima University and retired from active competition at the age of 24.

She went to England and studied at the University of Bath to learn English. There, she took a coaching job at the university’s judo club to earn money. However, she had trouble communicating in English and had no coaching experience.

“I’ve gone and done something crazy,” she thought with remorse.

One day, a club member asked Fujii, “Why do I have to do this drill?” and she couldn’t answer the question.

Fujii thought about the meaning of the drills one by one — workouts she had done since she was young — looked up the relevant words in the dictionary when needed and tried to convey the meaning of each exercise to the club members.

Fujii’s language skills improved over time, and she was eventually asked by a lecturer at the University of Bath, who became the head coach of Great Britain’s national team, to serve as a coach with the team.

Fujii was part of the coaching staff for the 2012 London Games, when British judoka won medals for the first time in three Olympics.

New horizons

In 2013, Fujii moved 9,000 kilometers away to Rio de Janeiro, feeling excited at having been asked to be part of an extremely strong team.

British judoka favor countering an opponent’s particular approach while fighting tenaciously. However, Brazilians are committed to going on the offensive.

As Fujii studied Portuguese, she kept in mind the best way to make the most of the merits of Brazilians, who are jovial and do not like to be tied down.

A Brazilian female judoka won the country’s first gold medal of the 2016 Rio Games, and the whole country was filled with joy for the athlete who had emerged from the country’s favela, or slums. Fujii had coached her intensively.

Fujii continued coaching the Brazilian national team after the 2016 Olympics and landed the head coach position for the men’s team.

About 19.34 million Brazilians have been infected with the coronavirus, and the death toll stands at over 540,000. Fujii has spent half of her days as the head coach in Brazil amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with training camps and competitions in foreign countries canceled one after another.

Yet she remains positive.

“It’s a strange twist of fate to take part in the Olympics in my home country as the head coach of the national judo team of Brazil, a country with deep ties to Japan,” Fujii said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity I’ve been given, and I look forward to the world seeing how well-trained the Brazilian team is.”