August 25, 2011

USA: 98-year-old is first woman to earn judo black-belt

INDIANAPOLIS / Monsters and Critics / US News / August 25, 2011

By Elisabeth Gruender

San Francisco - She is 98 years old, not even five feet tall, weighs 100 pounds, and could bring most men to their knees with one simple movement of her hand.

Keiko Fukuda has now achieved in her old age what no other woman has achieved before her. The Japanese-born lady has been awarded the highest judo-title, the tenth master belt (Dan).

Fukuda says she couldn't have imagined it, 'not even once.'

Photo courtesy: The Daily Mail, UK
The distinction could be a step to more equality of the genders in a sport that has traditionally been characterized as a men's martial art.

Fukuda has not been competing for many years now, but that doesn't hold her from overseeing training three times a week at Dojo in San Francisco's Noe Valley.

Fukuda-shihan, a title indicating respect for a great master, enters the small training room with careful mini-steps and supported by two helpers. Judo students promptly interrupt their warm-up exercises to greet the master with a deep bow, a look of awe written on their faces.

The master takes a seat next to an oversized black-and-white photo of judo-founder Jigoro Kano, who gazes down at the panting women-in-training with a strict look.

Fukuda owes it to him that she started judo in 1935. Fukuda's grandfather was one of the last samurai of Japan's feudal period and Kano's first teacher of martial arts. Kano invited the young Fukuda to start training out of respect and gratitude for his teacher.

Fukuda, then 22 years old, was shocked, since till then she had been educated only in calligraphy and tea ceremonies.

'There I saw women throwing one another over their shoulders, while spreading their legs,' she recalls. 'I just thought, 'these women are not properly behaved'.'

But then she attended class herself.

'In the beginning I did it not out of personal joy, but out of a sense of duty towards my family and my grandfather.' Marriage was out of the question for her from then on.

Fukuda was invited by judo clubs in 1953 and again in 1966 to hold seminars at universities in California, teaching what at the time was a less well-known martial art.

After her second visit, she stayed in the US, where there were more opportunities to teach judo to women than in Japan, says Fukuda. Since then she teaches in San Francisco, as the only living student of Kano.

Her students appreciate her choice.

'After completing my engineering degree, I wanted to move away from San Francisco. But then I decided to stay here and learn from Fukuda-shihan. She is the final living link. It would be nonsense not to take this opportunity,' says 34-year-old Nav.

Two new students are thrilled after their first judo lesson with the master.

'She is an inspiring teacher full of knowledge, and nevertheless remains humble,' says Ema, who found out about Fukuda through a newspaper article.

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