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Brazil men's judo team coach Yuko Fujii is a Japanese woman overturning prejudice

Yuko Fujii, left, the head coach for the Brazilian men's judo team, is seen praising one of her athletes at the World Judo Championships 2019 at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Sept. 1, 2019. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

TOKYO -- Yuko Fujii, 37, is on the opposite side of the world, training the opposite sex. A judoka originally hailing from Obu, Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, she is the head coach for the Brazilian national men's judo team. Through her open but intense methods, Fujii has her sights set on the podium at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Rafael Silva, 32, is a two time consecutive Olympic bronze medal winning judoka in the +100kg (heavyweight) men's category, who for all of his 203 centimeters in height and 160 kilograms in weight, has a childlike face that brings your guard down. Fujii calls him "Baby."

One of the techniques Fujii uses to brings herself closer to her athletes is giving them nicknames. When the intensity picks up at training, she mixes the Portuguese she's learned in her more than six years in Brazil with gestures and expressions to communicate her zeal. The students reverently call her "Sensei (teacher) Yuko."

Fujii started practicing judo at 5, at the famous Oishi Dojo in Obu, which has produced multiple Olympic medal winning judoka. In the third grade of junior high school, she placed second at a national judo tournament, but she didn't manage to become a representative for Japan. When she completed a degree at Hiroshima University's graduate school at age 24, she retired from the sport and went to study languages abroad at University of Bath, in the U.K.

It was there that she started on the path to becoming a coach, when she helped teach a range of people, from university students to children on campus. One day some of the children asked her, "Why do we have to do repetition training?" They seemed tired out by the steady practice of basic throwing techniques, even though the acquisitions made from building on that training are a fast way to learn.

"I reconsidered the meaning behind every single training routine I had done up to that point, and told them what I thought," Fuji recalled.

Fujii developed a reputation for her ability to explain the fundamentals in a clear and careful manner, and ended up being selected to coach Great Britain's women's judo team. At the London 2012 Olympics, British judoka won their first medals in three editions of the games, after which she was invited to coach the Brazilian women's team. In May 2013, she moved to Rio de Janeiro, which hosted the next Olympic Games.

In 2014 she gave birth to her first child, a son. With help from her husband Haruki, 32, who serves as the family's homemaker, she continued her work, and there were times even when she would breastfeed while at tournament venues. Under Fujii's coaching, Brazil's Rafaela Silva, 27, won gold in the -57kg division at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

After the games Fujii continued as the head coach for the women's team, and gave birth to a daughter in August 2017. Then, in March 2018 she received an unexpected offer from the Brazilian Judo Confederation to coach the men's team. She was hesitant as it's not common for a woman to head a men's team in the world of judo, let alone a group of fierce athletes like those that make up the celebrated Brazil side.

But she was touched by the reasoning they gave for the proposal, saying, "As a foreigner putting in so much effort for Brazil, you have overturned people's preconceptions. Next, we want you to do the same to the old-fashioned idea that only a man can lead men." She resolved to take on the challenge.

In Brazil, the Japanese style of throwing technique is firmly rooted in judoka there, passed on by people of Japanese descent who immigrated to the country. Although the men's team did not manage to finish in medal positions at the 2018 and 2019 World Judo Championships, Fujii believes the team can find a breakthrough by improving their grip fighting skills and other abilities to seize the initiative.

"We're building up our preparations to win. It doesn't matter if you're a man or woman, you can make contributions (to the team) with what you have," said Fujii. When she's unsure of how to proceed, she listens to what her coaching staff and athletes have to say. Even with a big challenge coming next year, the atmosphere on the team under her leadership remains calm.

(Japanese original by Akira Matsumoto, Sports News Department)

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