Keiko Fukuda (front, center) with her students. Behind them is a portrait of Jigoro Kano, Fukuda’s teacher and the founder of judo. It is customary to bow to Kano’s picture before and after judo practice. (Flying Carp Productions)

SAN FRANCISCO — Keiko Fukuda, who went against centuries of tradition to become the highest-ranking woman in judo history, has died at the age of 99.

The announcement was made by San Francisco filmmaker Yuriko Gamo Romer, who directed a documentary about Fukuda, “Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful.”

Keiko Fukuda being lifted by a student in 1974. (Flying Carp Productions)

“Sad news. Keiko Fukuda Sensei passed away yesterday, Feb. 9, 2013, just shy of her 100th birthday. She went peacefully in her sleep. She was a great lady and I was honored to know her. She gave so much love and wisdom to the world. I will miss her,” Romer said.

Soko Joshi Judo Club, a women’s dojo founded by Fukuda in San Francisco, said in a statement, “RIP, our beautiful Sensei Keiko Fukuda, 10th dan, last surviving student of Kano Sensei, granddaughter of Hachinosuke Fukuda, Kano Sensei’s first jujitsu teacher, and Soko Joshi’s sensei. An inspiration to us all. She will be sorely missed.”

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to all whose lives were touched by Ms. Fukuda,” USA Judo said in a statement.

Funeral services are pending.

Fukuda was born on April 12, 1913, in Tokyo, where two generations earlier her samurai grandfather was the first martial arts master to Jigoro Kano, who went on to found judo in 1882.

In 1934, Fukuda was invited by Kano to join his new joshi-bu (women’s division), a progressive idea at a time when males dominated the sport and women were expected to learn ikebana, tea ceremony and calligraphy. Judo’s black belt has 10 degrees, but gender discrimination dictated that women hit a ceiling at fifth degree, until 1974. Later in her judo career, Fukuda herself was frozen at fifth dan for 30 years, while her male colleagues advanced.

Facing her own struggle for independence as a young woman, Fukuda bucked tradition, choosing not to marry when she realized that as a wife she would have to give up her beloved judo — hence the title of the documentary. Kano, charged his students with the responsibility to spread judo around the world, and after he died in 1938 at age 77, this became her life’s vocation.

Keiko Fukuda established Soko Joshi Judo Club, a dojo for women in San Francisco. (Flying Carp Productions)

Throughout World War II, Fukuda traveled daily through the burning embers of war-torn Tokyo to practice and teach judo. After the war she began teaching abroad, first in Australia and the Philippines, then in the U.S. in 1953.

The martial art was formally introduced to the world at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where Fukuda was invited to demonstrate judo kata (choreographed forms). It was during those games that Fukuda first met Eiko Shepherd, seventh dan, then a young judo champion, who had no sparring partners but boys. Shepherd joined Fukuda’s judo journey and for over 46 years participated in her struggle to achieve recognition and full inclusion for women in judo.

In 1966, Fukuda left Japan to accept a teaching position at Mills College in Oakland. Her move coincided with the height of the women’s movement. With the initiative of some of her students, in particular Bay Area NOW (National Organization for Women) President Shelley Fernandez, Fukuda proceeded to crash through the glass ceiling of judo. At that time, Fernandez also became Fukuda’s lifelong friend and housemate. Fukuda was granted U.S. citizenship in 1972 and lived in the Noe Valley district of San Francisco for the rest of her life.

She attained the rank of ninth dan from the U.S. Judo Federation in 2001 and from Kodokan in 2006, marking the first time the latter organization had awarded this rank to a woman. USA Judo promoted her to 10th dan in 2011, making her the first woman to reach that level. She called the honor “a dream come true.”

Keiko Fukuda with filmmaker Yuriko Gamo Romer in 2010. (Nikkei West)

Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Fukuda established Soko Joshi Judo Club, which is still flourishing today.  She also founded Joshi Judo Camp and the Keiko Fukuda International Kata Championship.

Even in her late 90s, slowed down by Parkinson’s disease, arthritis and other ailments, she continued to teach judo three times a week. Less than five feet tall and weighing barely 100 pounds, she was still a force to be reckoned with.

Fukuda authored “Born for the Mat: A Kodokan Kata Textbook for Women” (1973) and “Ju-no-Kata: A Kodokan Textbook” (2004). She gave seminars in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, France and the Philippines.

She served as a technical adviser for U.S. Women’s Judo and United States Judo Inc.’s Kata Judges’ Certification Subcommittee; a national kata judge and a faculty member of the USJI National Teachers’ Institute; a member of the USJF Promotion Committee and the USJF and USJI Women’s Subcommittee.

Fukuda received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette from the Japanese government 1990, and is also a recipient of the Henry Stone Lifetime Contribution to American Judo Award from USJI. She has been the guest of honor at a variety of tournaments and community events in both Japan and the U.S.

Mayor Willie Brown declared Aug. 19, 2001, “Keiko Fukuda Day” in honor of her promotion to ninth-degree black belt, and the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival named her grand marshal of its parade in 2011. Her students perform judo demonstrations at the festival every year.

“Mrs. Judo,” which has been screened at film festivals across the country, features judoka who cite Fukuda as an inspirational figure, including 1988 Olympic bronze medalist Kaori Yamaguchi (sixth dan), former Japanese women’s national team coach, and Toshihiko Koga, two-time Olympic medalist (gold in 1992, silver in 1996), four-time world champion, and head coach for the All-Japan women’s judo team.

Romer said during production of the documentary, “As soon as I met Keiko Fukuda … I knew that it was my calling to make this film. Her wisdom, inspiration and tenacity have moved me through my own struggles in making this film. Keiko Fukuda has lived her life according to her motto: ‘Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful.’ I hope that in seeing this film, the viewers will be inspired by Keiko Fukuda to live their own dreams.”

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  1. I was fortunate to study with Fukuda Sensei in my formative years. She was a formidable influence and source of information in my awareness of women’s power. Her motto “Be strong. Be gentle . Be beautiful”, became my inner life mantra for life. Thank you Sensei!

  2. Sensei was a Great Woman of the Judo Federation. I Remember meeting her here and Washington State while my Father Tought Judo her at washington State and in Minnesota from 1955 to 1969. It was his way of life. He learned in Judo during his tour in the Marine Corp in Korean War.