The Story of Yasuhiro Yamashita

by Neil Ohlenkamp

Yamashita Photo Copyright by David Finch
Photo © David Finch. Used with permission.

Between October 1977 and his retirement from competition in April 1985 as a 6th degree black belt, Yasuhiro Yamashita won 203 consecutive matches making him one of the most successful Judo competitors of all time. An Olympic Champion and four-time World Champion, he also coached the Japanese Olympic Team in 2000 and is currently the International Judo Federation's Director of Education.

Yasuhiro Yamashita was born on June 1, 1957 at Yabecho, in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu, about 500 miles west of Tokyo. While in primary school he visited a class at Fujitsubo Judo Dojo to watch his friends, but was uninspired. However he learned that Jigoro Kano had founded Judo, so he borrowed a copy of "The Life of Jigoro Kano" from the library. The book impressed upon him that Jigoro Kano was not only a great Judo man, but also a noted scholar and educator. This motivated him to ask his grandfather about attending Judo classes.

In due course he attended his first Judo class at Fujitsubo Dojo. His first instructor recalled the day in these words, "Yasuhiro was a smiling, tubby youngster.... It was obvious that he had had no experience of hardship. I therefore thought it unlikely that he would persevere with Judo training for any length of time." By the time he reached junior high school, he had already progressed to black belt. From there, he went on to study at the renowned Tokaidai Sagami High School and later Tokai University. He quickly secured the reputation that he was a world judo champion in the making.

The judo world did not have to wait long for proof. He won his first All-Japan championship title at the age of 19 in 1977, making him the youngest person ever to do so. Thereafter, he effectively ruled the Judo world as he reeled off another eight All-Japan Championships in a row, as well as clinching four World titles.

"I was very big when I was a child. I'd get into fights and make my opponents cry and on the way home from school, I'd discard my bag and run around the hills and fields. My misdemeanors and obesity naturally worried my mother, so she took me along to the local dojo. This was in the spring of my fourth year at primary school. In retrospect it was, for me, a fateful encounter. Since then I have grown up with judo. What I am today has been shaped entirely by judo."

Yamashita has said he was a poorly behaved young man and that Judo helped him learn values and discipline. "When I was young there were times when I hit somebody or punched them. But I was told if I carried on this way, I would have to leave judo. So I changed my ways." Yamashita is an example to follow, as he has said, "Judo is training not only a person's body, but his heart and his feelings. A really strong person never shows that kind of behavior."

Major Championship Gold Medals:

  • 85 All-Japan Championships - Tokyo, Japan
  • 84 Olympic Games (Open) - Los Angeles, CA, USA
  • 84 All-Japan Championships - Tokyo, Japan
  • 83 World Championships (+95kg) - Moscow, Russia
  • 83 All-Japan Championships - Tokyo, Japan
  • 82 All-Japan Championships - Tokyo, Japan
  • 81 World Championships (+95kg & Open) - Maastricht, Holland
  • 81 All-Japan Championships - Tokyo, Japan
  • 80 All-Japan Championships - Tokyo, Japan
  • 79 World Championships (+95kg) - Paris, France
  • 79 All-Japan Championships - Tokyo, Japan
  • 78 All-Japan Championships - Tokyo, Japan
  • 77 All-Japan Championships - Tokyo, Japan

Yamashita has three children, a girl and two boys, and lives in Japan. Here is a video of some of his matches, and an analysis of his winning techniques.

Yasuhiro Yamashita with the author Neil Ohlenkamp at the Kodokan in 2003
Yasuhiro Yamashita with the author Neil Ohlenkamp at the Kodokan in 2003


"Plum Blossoms Open Because of the Frost and Snow"
Adversity does not cause a Judo practitioner to wither;
it helps him or her to flourish.

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