In the four walls of South Gym’s Room 134, Richard Imamura is finishing up his last judo class of the fall 2017 semester at Fresno State. A room full of eager students listen intently as Imamura speaks. Later, laughter erupts and messages of encouragement fill the air as the classmates engage in friendly competition.
This is Imamura’s first time teaching the course, but his history at Fresno State spans over 30 years – and it all began with his father, the late Sensei Haruo Imamura – a well respected icon in the judo world.
Just one semester earlier, in spring 2017, Richard and his father stood in that same room together – except this time, Haruo was the teacher. His son watched closely, studying his father’s moves and teaching style. At the time, Haruo was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for colon cancer. After teaching the course for nearly 40 years, he was not going to let his illness stop him from continuing his passion. In turn, Richard attended every single class with his father so that the students in the class did not fall behind.
“I helped him out with his class just to make sure it was going to run smoothly if my dad didn’t feel well that day,” Richard said. “I wanted to keep the same consistency of how he’s been teaching this class for years.”
“JUDO MEANS FAMILY”
Haruo succumbed to cancer on September 19, 2017 at the age of 84, but the legacy he left in the world of judo and at Fresno State, lives on – through his four sons and granddaughter, Miranda – a Fresno State student and top-ranked judoist in the country.
In August this past year, Miranda had the privilege to compete in the World University Games, representing the U.S. in collegiate judo. To Miranda and the Imamura family, judo is not simply a sport of strength or dominance – it embodies a rich history of generational ties.
“Judo means family,” Miranda said.
The Imamura family is certainly full of proud bulldog alumni, including brothers Robert, Richard, Rodney and Randy. Each walked the same school halls as Miranda, only decades earlier. Each competed in the Fresno State Judo Club, which Miranda is now a part of.
Haruo’s leadership carried onto his sons (Richard, Robert, and Rodney), who formed the Fresno State Judo Club in the early 80s when they were students attending the University. In 1985, the club made history when they beat reigning champions, San Jose State, by advancing five team members to the finals to capture the national collegiate team title. They would do it again just two years later, clinching their legacy in the collegiate judo world.
“San Jose State had always been the pinnacle of judo in the country, so beating them that year was exciting,” Richard said. “Us three brothers helped Fresno State capture a national title for the first time in the sport of judo. My dad, who was our coach, was very proud of that.”
Youngest brother, Randy, later enrolled at Fresno State and joined the club – and to this day, serves as the club instructor with daughter, Miranda, at his helm.
Today, Miranda is leaving her own unique mark at the collegiate level, but the road has not always been an easy one – especially when it comes to juggling academics with athletics. The fourth-year public health major has grown up in the sport of judo, getting her start at just 4 years old.
“When I first started here at Fresno State, I started competing at the national collegiate level, at the biggest collegiate judo tournament in the country,” Miranda said. “In order to place in that you have to go to practice almost every day, you have to add running and strength training to it, and then balancing that with classes – it’s difficult.”
Her grandfather always stressed that education took precedence over sports and that a balance between the two was needed.
Always one to heed the advice of her grandfather, Miranda took the 2017 spring semester off to focus solely on her upcoming tournaments. She started competing nationally at the age 15, in local tournaments and eventually moved on to the biggest collegiate judo tournament in the country, The National Collegiate Judo Championships (NCJC). After competing for three consecutive years, she won the senior division at the NCJC and moved on to the 2017 World University Games in Taipei, Taiwan representing not just Fresno State, but the entire United States, in judo.
“It’s like the Olympics, but for college students,” Imamura said of the Games. “I was super excited. I met world champions and I was able to see different levels of competition. Watching the Olympic hopefuls compete and how hard they train, just the atmosphere was amazing. I love being a bulldog and representing Fresno State. It was the best experience of my life.”
Miranda is now the third-generation in her family to compete in judo. While at the World Games, her family live streamed the event for her grandfather and family at home to watch. Even though they were nearly 8,000 miles apart, her grandfather, too sick to travel, watched proudly as his granddaughter took the world stage in the sport he loved so much.
THE IMAMURA IMPACT
As the patriarch of his family, Haruo instilled the art of judo not only with his family, but with thousands of children and adults in the Central Valley.
A pioneer of judo locally and internationally, he started training at the age of 10 in his homeland of Tamana, Japan. He went on to attend and train in judo at Japan’s Tenri University, the most acclaimed judo university in the world.
“Back then, when my dad was in college, he was part of a movement in judo to spread it worldwide to different countries,” Richard said. “They sent judo instructors all over the world to teach the sport and my dad decided to come to the U.S. He was the only one that settled in the Central Valley.”
In town is where Haruo met his wife, Sumiko, and together, with their young boys in tow, they would go on to grow the local judo empire. This included taking the reigns of the Fresno Judo Club, which became akin to their second home. The four boys trained there and went on to compete at the local and international level. In 1992, Rodney served as an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team.
These days, Richard and Randy now run the club as volunteers. For Richard, the ability to carry on his father’s judo legacy in the Valley and at Fresno State is close to his heart.
Haruo’s impact was widely felt, both in the community and in the classroom. A former student, Joey Jimenez, wrote on the Fresno State Judo Club facebook: “I took your class at Fresno State in the fall semester of 2015. It was the first class I always looked forward to. I always had a smile on my face when you had us do warm ups, seeing you teaching others and making the class laugh. Ever since, my love for judo has grown tremendously because of you. Your sons, Randy and Richard, have definitely inspired me to become not only a better athlete but strive to be a better person every day. Thank you for inspiring me to never quite, sensei, because there have been days where I did almost give up. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet you.”
To this day, Haruo is considered a legend in the American judo scene. Before his passing, he was promoted to ninth degree black belt, cementing his status as one of only two individuals in the entire U.S., to have that title. In 2012, he was inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame.
THE FUTURE OF JUDO
Richard plans to teach the judo course in the Department of Kinesiology for as long as he is able to. He says maintaining a strong connection to the University has always been important to him.
“I’ve been teaching judo for a long time, but there’s a different feel when it’s taught in the classroom,” Richard said. “There is a captive audience here at Fresno State. These students chose to be in this class and more importantly, they want to learn. That, to me, is makes it so gratifying to teach at the University level. For my father, judo was his life, and he especially enjoyed teaching it at Fresno State.”
Richard follows in the footsteps of not only his father, but younger brother, Rodney, who also teaches in the area of Kinesiology (exercise science) at Sacramento State.
For Miranda, her journey with judo continues to grow in ways that connect her to Fresno State and with her dreams of one day taking the world judo title by storm.
“Going to the World University Games sparked a fire in me,” she said. “Competing in the 2020 Olympics is always in the back of my mind, but as of right now I’m focusing on school.”
Currently, Miranda has aspirations of getting into the nursing program at Fresno State, with hopes of a career in the medical field in the future. However, judo will always be with her.
“Judo reminds me of my grandpa, of my uncles, my dad and all of my best friends,” Miranda said. “They all did judo together. Thinking about judo reminds me of times when I did something that I didn’t think I was able to do. I love the sport of judo because it gave me all that I have.”
- Fresno’s first family of judo reflects on decades of excellence (The Fresno Bee, Jan. 2017)
- Fresno State student vies for world judo title (Fresno State News, Aug. 2017)
- Haruo Imamura obituary (The Fresno Bee, Sept. 2017)
- U.S. judo champion was legend in local martial arts scene (The Fresno Bee, Sept. 2017)