Keiko Fukuda receives an award from Ken Kawaichi, president of the National Japanese American Historical Society, at the organization’s annual banquet in San Francisco. (Photo by Cynthia Inouye)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

This is a banner year for judo pioneer Keiko Fukuda, who turned 98 on April 12.

Fukuda, the highest-ranking female practitioner of judo (ninth dan) and the only surviving student of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, has been honored by three organizations in as many months.

She has a higher profile these days because of a documentary being made about her, “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful.” The director, Yuriko Gamo Romer, lives a short distance from Soko Joshi Judo Club, a dojo for women and girls that Fukuda established in San Francisco.

After extensive shooting, including a trip with Fukuda to her native Japan, “I have started into the editing and am planning to finish the film this year,” Romer said.

The film’s title comes from Fukuda’s philosophy, “Tsuyoku, yasashiku, utsukushiku.” She explains in the documentary, “In judo, you need strength of body, mind and soul. I don’t mean beauty in the external sense. A compassionate soul is inner beauty. I believe this is true beauty. The gentleness is derived from the Japanese character ‘ju,’ which means flexibility, softness.”

Among the interviewees who cite Fukuda as a role model is Kaori Yamaguchi, a bronze medalist in women’s judo at the 1988 Summer Olympics.

Fukuda was frozen at fifth dan for 30 years because of Kodokan’s rule prohibiting women from rising above that rank. She then became the first woman to be promoted to sixth dan and finally achieved ninth dan at the age of 88.

On Feb. 5, the Hokka Nichi Bei Kai (Japanese American Association of Northern California) inducted Fukuda and three others into its Bunka Hall of Fame at the Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco Japantown. The honor, which has now been bestowed on 26 people, some posthumously, is for preserving and perpetuating Japanese culture in America.

Fukuda was recognized for teaching judo in the Bay Area for decades. She first visited the U.S. when an Oakland judo club invited her in 1953; she returned in 1966 and became an instructor at Mills College.

Also inducted were Yuriko Doi for kyogen/noh theater, Teruko Kashima Anderson for ikebana, and Yamato Sukiyaki and the Ishizaki family for Japanese cuisine.

The National Japanese American Historical Society included Fukuda in the roster of awardees who “transformed the Japanese American cultural landscape” at its 30th anniversary dinner on March 26 at the Hotel Kabuki. Fukuda received the award from NJAHS President Ken Kawaichi. Her long-time friend and former student Shelly Fernandez gave the acceptance speech.

NJAHS also recognized San Francisco Taiko Dojo founder Seiichi Tanaka, Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki, Military Intelligence Service veteran Marvin Uratsu, and painter, activist and college professor Betty Kano.

In addition, Fukuda has been selected to be grand marshal for the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival’s Grand Parade on April 17. The parade, which was held on the fourth and last day of the festival, began at San Francisco City Hall and ended in Japantown. Hello Kitty was co-grand marshal.

Past grand marshals have included Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, sumo grand champion Musashimaru, Japanese screen legends Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai, Japanese American actors George Takei and Tamlyn Tomita, civil rights activist Fred Korematsu, and astronaut Daniel Tani.

Fukuda and her students regularly participate in martial arts demonstrations in Japantown’s Peace Plaza during the festival, which is held on two weekends. On April 10, she was brought up on stage and the crowd sang “Happy Birthday.”

Romer said that these honors are “nice birthday presents” for a sensei who has been studying judo for 77 years.

Romer is still seeking funds for completion of the film. For more information, visit Scenes from the film can also be seen on YouTube.

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