Judo legend Keiko Fukuda, 99, passes away

Keiko Fukuda. Kyodo News photo

Keiko Fukuda. Kyodo News photo

The world’s highest-ranking female judo master, Keiko Fukuda, passed away in her home in San Francisco on Feb. 16. She was 99.

Fukuda was the last living student of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, and ranked 10th-dan by U.S.A. Judo and the U.S. Judo Federation and ninth-dan by the Japanese Kodokan (the headquarters for the world’s judo federations) according to Yuriko Gamo Romer, director of her biographical documentary “Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful.”

Born in April of 1913, Fukuda started judo at the age of 21. She continued to practice the martial art throughout her adult life and later went abroad to teach after World War II.

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 Shelley Fernandez, who would go on to become her lifelong friend.

In 1966, Fukuda was personally invited to work at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. 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, where she had lived ever since.

Her achievements, and struggles, in judo forged a path for other women to be promoted up the ranks of judo.

Women in judo, prior to Fukuda, were assumed to retire after marriage. Fukuda, in defiance and wishing to continue teaching and practicing judo never married. She was also stuck under a glass ceiling.

“She was kept at fifth-dan for over 30 years,” Fernandez said.

The Kodokan 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.

Fukuda’s students, rallied by Fernandez, called for her promotion and protested the Kodokan to promote her. She was promoted to sixth-dan in 1972 and seventh in 1982. She reached eighth-dan in 2002 after judo federations from around the world called for her promotion and pushed for ninth in 2006.

Her promotion by the Kodokan to ninth-dan was preceded by the promotion of the then three ninth-dan men in Japan to 10th dan.

In August of 2011, the U.S. Judo Federation promoted Fukuda to 10th-dan. Though the Kodokan never reiterated the promotion.

“Even Japan has to recognize the promotion,” said Romer. “They have posthumously promoted, but I do not know if they will for her.”

Fukuda had, without fail, appeared at every Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival since 1968 with her Soko Joshi Judo Club (San Francisco Women’s Judo Club). She served as co-grand-marshal to the festival’s parade in 2011.

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,” Fernandez 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 applied for citizenship and become a U.S. citizen.

Her dojo, currently located at an old fashioned Victorian building on Castro and 26th Street, in Noe Valley, started out of the then-Sokoji Buddhist Temple where Kokoro Assisted Living now operates in 1968. The vibrant dojo will continue on, according to Romer.

Fukuda lived by a simple life motto: “Be strong, be gentle, be beautiful.”

“I’m sad that’s she is gone, and I’ll miss her,” said Romer. “She lived a long and beautiful life. I hope that her legacy will live on in other people.” Romer said it was an honor and privilege to work on the film for Fukuda.

A public memorial service will be held March 22 at the Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave., in San Francisco at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, donations should be made out to the Keiko Fukuda & Shelley Fernandez Girl and Women’s Judo Foundation and/or Keiko Fukuda Joshi Judo, Inc., 475 Hoffman Ave., San Francisco, CA 94114.

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