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Friday, September 16, 2011
Updated: September 17, 1:28 PM ET
98-year-old woman reaches highest echelon of judo

By Robyn Norwood

SAN FRANCISCO -- With tiny, shuffling steps, 98-year-old Keiko Fukuda took a seat in a director's chair on the mat of her dojo, a storefront studio in an old Victorian at the corner of Castro and 26th.

This 4-foot-10, 100-pound granddaughter of a 19th-century samurai is the most revered woman in the history of judo.

In August, she became the only woman ever to attain the 10th dan, or highest degree black belt.

The honor is held by only three living men and achieved by only 15 men in the history of the sport as recognized by the Kodokan, judo's ruling body in Japan. Fukuda was awarded the distinction by USA Judo, the sport's governing body in this country. The Kodokan has not yet followed but awarded Fukuda the 9th dan in 2006, five years after she received that honor in the United States.

There are no formal regulations for promotion to 10th dan, but USA Judo called Fukuda "very deserving." Kodokan promotions are decided by the organization's president.

"It's no matter to me whether it's this rank or that rank, but I feel that it was an important thing to happen, and it was the wave of this generation that this honor was bestowed upon me," Fukuda said quietly through an interpreter before one of the classes she still oversees three times a week.

"I feel that the most important thing about it is it opens roads to other people, and for that I am grateful."

The roads were not open to women for many years. Fukuda, the last living student of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, grew up in Japan learning the traditional feminine arts of calligraphy, flower-arranging and playing the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument.

Kano had been a devoted student of her late grandfather Hachinosuke Fukuda, a revered samurai and jujitsu teacher who once performed for Ulysses S. Grant. When he decided to teach the sport to young women, he invited the 21-year-old university graduate to study with him. She rose quickly.

When Keiko Fukuda learned that women who wed would be required to give up judo, she rejected an arranged marriage proposal and never married.

"It was only the preliminary portion of arranging and negotiating, so we never met," she said, an account accompanied by tears when she told the story in the documentary, "Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful," scheduled for completion in 2012.

The tears are not about regret, she said, but the thought of how long her journey has been.

Fukuda rose to 5th-degree black belt, only to remain at that rank for 30 years, held back by what was then the glass ceiling of the patriarchal society of judo. She did not complain, even though men typically advanced about every 10 years.

"I did not care about ranks. I only practiced every day," said Fukuda, who gave a demonstration of women's judo at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964, the year men's judo was introduced as a medal event. Women's judo was added in 1992.

The person who would not accept that no woman ever had been promoted past the 5th dan was Shelley Fernandez, a health and social-justice activist Fukuda met in San Francisco after moving to the United States in 1966.

A former member of the board of directors of the National Organization for Women, Fernandez queried a group of higher-ranked senseis about how it was that Fukuda had not advanced.

"They all said with one voice, in Japanese, 'because she's a woman,'" said Fernandez, who organized a petition to the Kodokan, gathering some 2,000 signatures.

In 1972, the Kodokan awarded Fukuda the 6th dan. It is the first belt that incorporates red into its design, culminating with the 9th and 10th dans, which become red.

At 98, Fukuda is two decades removed from triple-bypass surgery. Yet her cheeks are unlined, her hair black -- she commands too much respect to ask if she dyes it -- and she wears neither glasses nor a hearing aid.

Each Tuesday and Thursday evening and every Saturday morning, Fukuda goes to her dojo to teach, occasionally rising to demonstrate a technique, though less and less in the past year.

Her students are all women, except for one day a month, when men -- many of them senseis themselves -- are allowed to join them to practice the traditional kata, or choreographed movements performed alone or in pairs.

"I just want to teach judo," Fukuda said. "It's very important that I spread the teachings of Kano, his tenets, his motto, his philosophy.

"Of course, there are many different types of students. Some will only come and throw each other around on the mat and be very happy with that. That's OK. Then others will spend more energy and take to heart more the deeper philosophical aspects of judo. ... It doesn't matter how long it takes for people to learn. I just want them to learn what they can."

As tradition requires, students bow as they enter the dojo, sometimes repeating, "Sensei, sensei," to get her attention. Occasionally, Fukuda slips into a catnap during an evening class. But when her eyes are open, they studiously follow the movements of each student, drawn to the detail of each motion.

"Back when I first started, Fukuda Sensei was very active, and she was still able to throw us around physically to do the demonstration,'' said Wilina Monar, a black belt who has studied under Fukuda for 18 years. "As she is getting older, her movement is not as good, and she has arthritis in her hip and knees.''

Monar often picks up Fukuda for classes and takes her back afterward to the home of Fernandez, who offered Fukuda a place to stay when she came to the U.S. and remains her caregiver, companion and advocate 45 years later.

Fernandez recalled a time when the tiny Fukuda could throw 6-foot-5 Samoan men who came at her in demonstrations, using her speed and technique to upend them with the power they generated themselves.

Monar remembered when Fukuda was in her late 80s, teaching a new student how to take a fall. The student, much bigger, went down while holding on to the elderly sensei, pulling her to the floor.

"All she did was roll into it and sit up. She didn't skip a beat," Monar said. "We were in a panic mode, but it was like nothing happened.

"Another day, I think it was in about 2005, we were in Canada at a world masters tournament, and they actually stopped the entire tournament to have Fukuda Sensei demonstrate the sacrifice technique, which means you throw your body down to be able to throw the other person.

"She threw me just like that, and she was in her 90s."

Young women are drawn to Fukuda's dojo, too, among them Sylvia Leung, a 23-year-old black belt.

"I look up to Fukuda Sensei, and also because it's all-women's judo. I've learned a lot of traditional judo that originated from Kano," Leung said.

Fukuda also emphasizes self-defense for women. But in a way, she is something of a John Wooden of American judo, revered for her teaching and wisdom in the same way the UCLA basketball coach, who died last year at 99, was.

Her saying is "Tsuyoku, Yasashiku, Utsukushiku," -- "Be Strong, Gentle and Beautiful, in Mind, Body and Spirit," as translated in Patricia Harrington's biography "Bow from the Heart."

"Be strong. It's most important that your spirit is strong. If you study judo, you will learn this," Fukuda said.

"Be gentle is more complicated, because it's something you have to understand, to be gentle from your heart and your soul. For some, it would be very difficult to grasp this idea.

"Be beautiful is also from your core and center of your heart. Part of it has to do with having a very spiritual sense.

"Through practice in judo, you can learn this."

Looking at Fukuda, it is easy to wonder: Could judo be a key to a long life?

"Yes, I think so," she said with a smile.

It has been a long life. Long enough to outlast the long wait.