Despite being the highest ranking female judo master in the world, Keiko Fukuda is relentlessly modest. This year, at age 98, she was honored at the National Japanese American Historical Society awards dinner, and has been selected as the co-grand marshal of this year’s Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Grand Parade. Her achievements and life have even attracted documentary filmmaker Yuriko Gamo Romer to chronicle her life in “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful.”
Yet all Fukuda said she hopes to do is to continue teaching judo, as she has for more than six decades, and live life peacefully in a small two-story house that she shares with her lifelong friend, Shelley Fernandez.
Fukuda has, without fail, appeared at every Cherry Blossom Festival since 1968 with her Soko Joshi Judo Club (San Francisco Women’s Judo Club). While her age has limited her from participating in other activities like the Parade, she has demonstrated judo at every Festival since the first.
Fukuda holds the esteemed rank of ninth-dan, one of only four women in the world with that title. The oldest person practicing the martial art, Fukuda is also the only living student of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. Her achievements, and struggles, in judo forged a path for other women to be promoted up the ranks of judo.
“She was kept at fifth-dan for over 30 years,” Fernandez said.
The Japanese Kodokan (the headquarters for the world’s judo federations) refused to promote women past the fifth-dan. When younger but higher-ranking judo instructors visited the United States, they would often stay with Fukuda. Fernandez recalled how she questioned three visiting instructors over dinner one night about why Fukuda was ranked lower than them, despite being older and more experienced in judo. “I remember how they all looked to each other, trying to find mutual consensus over it, and all three of them agreed to say, ‘Because she is a woman,’” Fernandez said.
Fernandez was a board member for the National Organization for Women (NOW) at the time, and decided to address this sexist view. She collected 20,000 signatures from students and teachers from around the United States and the world and pressed the Kodokan to promote her. She was promoted to the sixth level in 1972 and to the seventh in 1982. She had to fight again to receive the eighth-dan, but this time judo federations from around the world petitioned the Kodokan and the United States Judo Federation gave her the eighth-dan belt before the Kodokan did. The Kodokan gave in and awarded her the rank in 2002. Four years later, a similar push allowed her to finally reach the ninth level in 2006.
Prior to arriving in San Francisco, Fukuda traveled the world to teach. America was her third stop. When she arrived in San Francisco in 1953, she met Fernandez, who was a student at the local judo club where Fukuda visited to teach. Fukuda noticed Fernandez’s dedication to judo and advised her to go study in Japan, which she did. This was the start of their friendship.
In 1966, Fukuda was personally invited to work at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., as well as City College. At the same time, Fernandez had found a new job and bought a home in Noe Valley in San Francisco. Fernandez invited Fukuda to live with her at her home, and they have been sharing the house since then.
Once settling in San Francisco, Fukuda, while still traveling around the world to teach, also started a local judo group. She first set up a judo club in San Francisco’s Japantown in the then-Sokoji Buddhist Temple, which is now Kokoro Assisted Living, in 1968. Later, she moved to Noe Valley in 1973, and has since kept the Soko Joshi Judo Club at the old fashioned Victorian building on Castro and 26th Street. Fukuda and her club helped teach discipline to young children and empowered women, including many women who were victims of violence.
Fukuda lives by a simple life motto: “Be strong, be gentle, be beautiful.” She’s fairly traditional in her teaching, opting to only teach “pure judo,” and said she finds it rather unsettling that girls can now sit cross-legged during practice.
Her years of teaching allowed her to stay in America, even after retiring from Mills College. She was forced to retire at the age of 65 in 1978. Fukuda could not stay in San Francisco without a job, and she needed to get creative to stay in the States.
“We talked with the immigration office for any way we can have her stay in the U.S.,” Fernandez said. “The immigration officer told us there was one way, but it was never approved before.”
The one possibility that was available to Fukuda was a visa that was granted to someone “vital to the national security of the United States of America,” Fernandez said. After some thought, Fernandez came up with a way to keep Fukuda in the states and to help empower women.
“At the time, the San Francisco Police Department and the sheriffs and all the local law enforcement were beginning to allow women to join the force,” Fukuda said. “So we got Fukuda-Sensei to teach all the new female recruits judo — and that’s how we argued that she’s vital to national security!”
Since receiving that visa, Fukuda has applied for citizenship and has become a U.S. citizen.