RIO DE JANEIRO – When Yuko Fujii took a job coaching judo in England after graduating from university, she didn’t anticipate that she would one day be coaching the sport at an Olympics in her home country.
Fujii is now the head coach for the Brazilian men’s national judo team. That means in just over one year she will bring the country’s top competitors to her homeland with the aim of winning Olympic glory.
Judo is a sport that was born in Japan, but is now practiced worldwide. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, 26 different countries won medals.
By virtue of being the host country in 2020, Japan will likely be expected to once again top the sport’s medal table. Meanwhile, Brazil’s men’s team won only one medal at home in Rio 2016, a result Fujii wants to build on.
“I am Japanese but I never thought about (being a) Japanese woman leading the Brazilian team,” Fujii said. “I worked for the England national team for London 2012, and I worked for the Brazilian team for Rio 2016. I am continuing to work with the Brazilian team to bring them to my home Japan. It is an interesting destiny, I think.”
Fujii, a 36-year-old from Obu, Aichi Prefecture, was recruited to coach in Brazil by one of the most important dynastic Japanese-Brazilian judo families. She was elevated to the men’s head coach by Luis Shinohara, the men’s coach from 2002-16.
Shinohara, a sansei Japanese-Brazilian, won three medals at the Pan American Games, and competed at both the 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympics.
At the Los Angeles Games, Luis was coached by his father Massao Shinohara, one of the most revered judo coaches in Brazilian history. Massao Shinohara began practicing judo in Brazil at the age of 15 in 1940, and his gym in Sao Paulo produced Aurelio Miguel, the country’s first-ever gold medalist in the sport.
Fujii says her relationship with both have helped her as a coach, and cherishes the conversations she has had with both about sport and life. Where Fujii is based in Rio “we have a very small amount,” of Japanese workers and Japanese Brazilians, and most “work for two to three years,” before returning home to Japan.
According to the Consulate General of Japan in Sao Paulo there are approximately 2 million Brazilians of Japanese descent. Approximately 1.1 million live in Sao Paulo state, although there is a sizable community in Parana state as well.
Many Japanese immigrated to Brazil starting in the early 1900s to make up for labor shortages in the country’s vast coffee plantations. At first, Japanese Brazilians tended to cluster in large communities setting up Japanese schools for the nisei generation. As it became clear that many immigrants would not be returning to Japan after arriving in Brazil, the Japanese government started hiring Japanese Brazilians to assist with connecting the community with the country of their ancestry.
Most Japanese Brazilians today belong to the sansei generation, or the grandchildren of Japanese immigrants to Brazil, but there remains a sizable nisei generation.
Today, the consulate estimates there are about 500 Japanese-Brazilian associations across the country, and Brazil hosts about 40 Japanese festivals drawing tens of thousands of visitors.
“In the world, there is no country like Brazil in which these festivals are widely held,” the Consulate General of Japan and Sao Paulo said.
To celebrate the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the Japan Foundation in Brazil will host a traveling exhibition of old photos of Tokyo across major Brazilian cities. The Embassy of Japan and its consulates will help coordinate the Sao Paulo Japan Festival in 2020 “in partnership with the local Brazilian community.”
The Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB) said it has secured six Japanese cities as hosts ahead of Tokyo 2020, and has been holding training camps in the country since 2018.
The goal, according to COB President Paulo Wanderley, is “to motivate the athletes and to build a connection with the Japanese culture and community.” Athletes will not only train, but take part in cultural activities and meet local students.
“The athletes had the opportunity to get in contact with remarkable aspects of the Japanese culture, such as discipline, resilience, sense of community and the importance of education,” Wanderley said. “We are sure the team is carrying now a bit of Japan in each of us, strengthening our bonds.”
Athletes keen for opportunity
A number of judoka on Brazil’s national team are Japanese Brazilians, but Fujii says she does not talk about the subject much. Instead, to prepare for the pressure of the 2020 Olympics, Fujii has arranged training camps in Tokyo through her connections from back home.
In January, she brought lightweight, middleweight and heavyweight men’s teams to train at three different Tokyo-area universities.
“Luckily I have a good connection with (the ) Japanese national team and the universities (and) they are very happy to have the Brazilian team,” Fujii said. “They already have a good connection between Brazilian teams and Japanese teams, so I am sure we will go [back] to Japan in January 2020.”
For Fujii, the next 15 months represent a key time to prepare the Brazilian team as best as possible to improve upon the results from Rio 2016 on the sporting world’s biggest stage. Only then could she entertain the possibility of spending time with her own family in Nagoya.
“I am sure before the Olympic Games I won’t be able to relax with my family,” Fujii said. “But after? Yes.”
Eduardo Katsuhiro Barbosa, a yonsei Japanese Brazilian, and Eric Takabatake, a sansei Japanese Brazilian, said that they both drew motivation from family while training for the Tokyo Olympics.
Takabatake said that he began practicing judo because of Japan’s “tradition of respect (for) sports.” While his heritage is not on his mind while training, sport has given him the opportunity to reconnect with his family.
“Today I only have one relative who lives in Japan,” Takabatake said. “But, if I win a place [on the Olympic team], I believe he will watch me at the Olympics.”
Barbosa said that he is “very distant” to his family back in Japan, but “feels more motivated” to perform at Tokyo 2020 because he is Japanese Brazilian. Growing up in Japan made him feel connected to friends and family that have helped him along his judo journey.
“That is why these Tokyo Olympics are very special to me,” Barbosa said.
“I wish that my Japanese-Brazilian relatives can go to Japan to cheer for me at the Olympics.”