Haruo Imamura spent nearly 60 years as the unquestioned leader of the local judo scene – first as a national champion for Fresno City College in 1960, then as an instructor who brought self-discipline to thousands of children and adults in the central San Joaquin Valley. He passed his lessons on to his four sons who have continued his legacy, and his granddaughter – herself a national champion for Fresno State and a 2020 Olympic hopeful.
Mr. Imamura died Tuesday morning after battling colon cancer since January. He was 84.
Mr. Imamura, a native of Tenri in Japan’s Nara Prefecture, first visited Fresno in the 1950s during a tour with his judo club. After easily defeating his American competition, he decided to move to Fresno in 1958 to attend Fresno City College.
In 1960, Mr. Imamura brought a national championship to the college at a time when there were no weight classes in judo competition, meaning the slightly built Japanese man often beat competitors much larger than he was. He likely would have been a shoo-in for the Olympics, but judo was not added to the games until four years later.
Mr. Imamura met his wife, Sumiko, who had sought him out after seeing his picture in The Bee shortly after his national championship. The couple married in 1961 and lived their entire lives in Fresno. Mrs. Imamura passed away in 2009.
The couple had four sons, Robert, Richard, Rodney and Randy – all of whom Mr. Imamura would train as children. He took over the Fresno Judo Club in the 1970s, turning it into the only facility that offered the rigorous training necessary for international competition. Three of his sons would win collegiate championships, and Rodney served an an alternate on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.
Mr. Imamura’s granddaughter, Miranda, brought a collegiate championship to Fresno State as the school’s only competitor in 2016. Last month, she competed in the collegiate world championships in Taipei, Taiwan, winning one match before being eliminated in the round of 16.
In January, Mr. Imamura told The Bee he hoped to live long enough to see Miranda compete for a spot in the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in his native Japan.
In addition to the high-level training, the Imamura family has trained thousands of children and adults more interested in martial arts, self-defense, fitness or self-discipline than in competition. They have kept the sport alive in Fresno – once a vibrant area for judo – as popularity shifted to sports like basketball and football.
He was elected to the Fresno County Athletic Hall of Fame in 2012.
Mr. Imamura’s judo prowess was recognized across the world. He was one of only two ninth-degree black belts living in the United States.
Born: Sept. 4, 1933
Died: Sept. 19, 2017
Occupation: Judo coach/business owner
Survivors: Sons Robert, Richard, Rodney and Randy; eight grandchildren
Visitation: Sept. 23 at Lisle Funeral Home, 2605 L St. in Fresno
Funeral: 3 p.m. at the Fresno Buddhist Temple’s Family Dharma Center, 2690 E. Alluvial Ave. in Fresno