Friday Hoyden: Keiko Fukuda

I was a judo player through my university years. Judo was an essential ingredient in my personal realisation of my bodily strength and mental power. I learned that I could jump, fall, roll, lift, and throw; and I learned that I could escape a stranglehold or an armlock or a larger person trying to pin me to the ground. Women were outnumbered by men in our club, but much better represented than in other adult judo clubs: we made an effort to welcome and respect women. I competed in national Intervarsity competitions, and I helped teach a beginner’s class for women and men just starting explore judo as art or as sport. Judo was an key ingredient in the start of my adult journey toward feminism. I learned that I could be strong instead of vulnerable; that I could compete in a physical sport and not just in academics (I hated high school sport!); that I could lead and organise in a male-dominated arena; and even that it was ok to be sweaty and dishevelled and grunt and shout.

Every martial artist needs a hero: mine was Keiko Fukuda, and she’s a hero in anyone’s language.

[image credit: Judo Info]

Fukuda, born in 1913, was a judo student studying under the founder of the martial art, Jigoro Kano, and is his last living pupil. From JudoInfo:

When Fukuda began taking lessons in 1935, she was one of only two-dozen women in the school, which is known today as the Kodokan International Judo Center. Kano had invited her to study judo because of her martial art lineage. She was the granddaughter of a renowned jujitsu master, who had taught that Japanese martial art to Kano. “At that time, I was only 21 years old, being taught the ways of Flower Arranging, Formal Tea Ceremony and Brush Writing, which was customary for young ladies in Japanese society,” Fukuda wrote in her 1973 book, “Born for the Mat”.

At Ninth Dan, Fukuda is the highest ranking woman in judo, and she was also awarded one of only three red belts in the world, for lifelong dedication to the art, by the United States Judo Federation. She has flown around the world teaching judo instructors and students in the art. Her pupils talk about her sense of humour, her knowledge, her skill, her joie de vivre, her warmth, her spirit.

JudoInfo describes one of her classes:

An elderly woman sits in the only chair allowed on the light green carpet of padded mats in the judo club. It’s just a metal folding chair, but her students treat her like a queen on a throne. They hang on every soft-spoken word, every wave of a hand, every approving nod or smile.

She is dressed in brilliant white: a quilted jacket with overlapping lapels over thin white pants with reinforced knees. It is her cherry-red belt, knotted loosely over her jacket, that marks her as sovereign. The belt signifies that Keiko Fukuda, who celebrated her 90th birthday last spring, is the highest-ranking woman in the world in judo, a Japanese martial art in which technique and balance — rather than power — are the key to victory.

When words and gestures failed to get an important point across, Fukuda rose slowly to her feet. She left her sturdy black cane, with its wide curving crook, resting on the mat. In tiny, staggered steps, Fukuda moved into position in front of the student. She reached up to grab the young woman’s lapels, grasping them with wrinkled hands stiff from arthritis and weakened from old judo injuries. The room fell silent. Everyone else stopped training and turned to watch. Fukuda dropped, rolled and threw her young opponent — three times in a row. She then returned to her chair for the rest of the two-hour class.

More from a CBS story:

Her students can be 70 years her junior. The mind is sharp – her body is not. But her spirit is something else.

“She will start a sentence with, ‘When I get old,'” said friend Shelley Fernandez. “She does not see herself as old.”

[image credit: Joshi Judo camp]

Fukuda has devoted her lifetime to teaching and mentoring women. She has published books Born for the Mat and Ju-No-Kata: A Kodokan textbook. She has founded a scholarship, the Keiko Fukuda Judo Scholarship Fund, to encourage women to further their judo training and/or their formal education. And she has extended her mentorship of women by founding and running the annual Joshi Judo camp for women to gather and train.

So whether I’m looking at the smiling faces of high school judo players or of Olympians, I think of Fukuda’s legacy to them.

The Kahuku High 2003 girls state judo champions
[image credit: Kaleo o Ko’olauloa Community News]

Xian Dongmei celebrating her gold medal in the Athens 2004 Olympics
[image credit: China Daily]

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, history

Tags: , ,

2 replies

  1. I remember the first time you sent me a link about Fukuda. What a wonderful life she’s had and what a mentor she has been. A-grade hoyden, definitely.


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