For the third week of Women’s History Month we’re celebrating the life of Keiko Fukuda Shihan, the highest ranked female judo practitioner in history and the last living student of Judo founder Kanō Jigorō.

Born in 1913 Tokyo, Japan to a wealthy samurai family, Fukuda was brought up in the traditional ways for women of the era, but Keiko was spurred to martial arts by the memories of her grandfather, the former samurai and a master of Tenjin Shinyo-ryu, Fukuda Hachinosuke. One of his most notable students was Kanō Jigorō, the the future founder of Judo and head of the Kodokan;  Hachinosuke was Kanō’s first jujutsu master.

“Be strong, be gentle, be beautiful, in mind, body, and spirit” – Keiko Fukuda

 

After attending a commemoration at the Kodokan in 1934, the 21-year old, 4’11” Keiko was inspired to begin training, with her mother and brother’s blessing (her father had passed when she was young). Kanō, as a sign of respect for her family, personally invited her to train starting in 1934, as he had just opened the Kodokan Joshi-bu, the women’s division of the Kodokan. Fukuda said, “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. (…) Through memories of my grandfather, I felt very close to judo, even though I had never seen judo practiced before.”

In 1937, Keiko began teaching judo, and around this time her family was expecting her to enter into an arranged marriage. Realizing that any husband might ask his wife to give up Judo, she decided to abandon tradition and not marry because she felt that Judo was her calling; she would never marry. By 1953 she had earned her 5th dan and become the second female instructor at the Kodokan. In 1966 she traveled to Mills College in Oakland, California for a demonstration and they immediately offered her a teaching position, where she taught until 1978.

Up until the early 1970s, there was an unspoken rule against promoting women past the 5th dan, but a letter writing campaign in 1972, started by one of Keiko’s students, spurred a rule change saw her become the first woman promoted by the Kodokan to 6th dan in Judo. Throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s she would write Born for the Mat, a judo patterns book for women, establish the annual Joshi Judo Camp to give female judoka the chance to train together, and serve as an advisor and judge for Judo teams and competitions.

In 1990, Emperor Akihito of Japan recognized her as a national living treasure and issued her the medal of the Order of the Sacred Treasury. In 1994, she became the first woman to be awarded a red belt and a promotion to 8th dan by the Kodokan, and in 2006 she became the first woman to earn a promotion to 9th dan. On July 28, USA Judo awarded her the rank of 10th dan, followed by the US Judo Federation in September of the same year; the Kodokan unfortunately never recognized her 10th dan.

In her twilight years, and until her death at 99 in February of 2013, Fukuda Shihan continued to actively teach judo classes three times a week, teach annually at the Joshi Judo Camp, travel the world for seminars, and host the Fukuda Invitational Kata Championships. Even though she was often confined to a wheelchair and dealing with Parkinson’s Disease, if someone was struggling with a technique, she wouldn’t hesitate to rise from her chair and throw them.

“It’s almost like someone has hooked her up to a battery charger,” student Robert Fukuda said. “She comes out of the wheelchair, gets out there, demonstrates the technique and sits back down. You can see that it takes a lot out of her. But that’s just how she is. She wants to help. She wants people to do it correctly. To learn the right way.”