Remembering Keiko Fukuda

The world lost a living treasure in February when Keiko Fukuda died in her sleep at the age of 99. Ms. Fukuda was the last living student of Judo founder Jigoro Kano, a quiet activist for women’s rights and an inspiration to generations of athletes, male and female alike.

The “Women’s Division”

Fukuda joined judo’s “Women’s Division”  in 1934 at the invitation of Kano, who knew her mother when she was just 21 years old. She remained in Tokyo during the bombings of World War II, driving through the ruined city to teach lessons. After the war, she represented Judo on the world stage, including a demonstration at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games that led to Judo’s induction as an Olympic sport. When Kano asked several of his students to volunteer to learn English in order to bring Judo to the west, she alone took the challenge.

In 1966, she took her art to Mills College in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. She taught Judo at the college and in her San Francisco school until her death this year.

Male Prerogative

Despite Kano’s progressive decision to create a women’s division for Judo, Japanese culture in the pre-war 20th century held women as second-class citizens. Neither Kano nor any other members of Judo leadership felt any woman needed rank above a 5th degree black belt. Sensei Fukuda remained at that rank for nearly 20 years, watching male students of hers surpass her rank due to the sexism inherent in Judo culture at the time.

One of her long-time students and friends was Shelley Fernandez, an influential member of the National Organization for Women. Starting in the early 1970s, Fernandez led a movement to get Fukuda promoted, a movement that included pressure from Yale University and the State of California.

Sacred Treasure

Fernandez’ work was fulfilled in 1972 when Sensei Fukuda was promoted to 6th degree black belt, making her the highest-ranked female Judo player in the world. In 2011, she became the first woman to receive the rank of 10th degree black belt in her art. Because of her example, and Fernandez’ advocacy, she will not be the last.

In 1990, the National Government of Japan awarded Sensei Fukuda the title of “Sacred Treasure.” Her life story has inspired many, including American Judo Gold Medalist Kayla Harrison and Bronze Medalist and UFC Champion Ronda Rousey. Even in her late 90s, “O-Sensei” (a title she earned with the rank of 10th degree) taught class three times a week and hosted both a women’s training camp and an annual tournament.

O-Sensei Fukuda is the subject of a documentary named after her life motto: Be Strong. Be Gentle. Be Beautiful. She voluntarily took on spreading Judo worldwide instead of taking a husband or having a family, but her influence lives on through Judo players and martial artists who would never have trained without her journey, and women who experienced greater opportunity because of her courage.