It is amazing how many exceptional women there are and have been in this world. Some of them are true celebrities and others are not famous at all but their lives can inspire others easily.
This is the case of Keiko Fukuda, one of the best judokas in history with a moving story behind. She was also the first and, so far, the only woman to have been promoted to 10th dan in the art of judo, the highest-ranked female judoka in history.
Fukuda was born in 1913. As a youth, she learned the typical arts for a woman in Japan at that time (flower arrangement, calligraphy, tea ceremony…). But she was more interested in her grandfather legacy. Her grandfather was called Fukuda Hachinosuke and he was a Japanese samurai and jujitsu master and one of his last students, Kano Jigoro, was the founder of judo.
Keiko Fukuda one day went to watch a judo training session. A few months later, she decided to begin training for herself. In the early 1930s Kano Jigoro invited Ms. Fukuda, then 21 and standing less than five feet tall, to join a new judo class for women at the school he founded in Tokyo, called the Kodokan. It was rare for women to learn judo at the time.
Keiko was promoted to the rank of 5th dan in judo but the graduation system for women in the Kodokan was very antiquated and sexist. There was nothing for a woman beyond 5th Dan. She was frozen in 5th Dan for 30 years.
During the Second World War, Fukuda confronted him with the bombed streets of Tokyo and traveled daily to teach his beloved discipline. Kanō had commissioned his students to go abroad and expand the world of Judo. Fukuda made that commitment to Judo for life.
Fukuda’s personal motto was: “Be strong, be gentle, be beautiful, in mind, body, and spirit”
After the war, she was invited to the USA to teach Judo. She settled in San Francisco, coinciding with the struggle of the women’s emancipation movement, and soon opened her own Judo Dojo. Fukuda became friends with one of her students, Dr. Shelley Fernandez, who was president of NOW (National Organization for Woman) in that city.
Fernandez took up the case against gender inequality in Judo and requested the Kodokan to promote Fukuda for 6th Dan, claiming that he had been in the 5th Dan (1972) graduation for 30 years. Forty years later she became one of the four living people who held the 10th Dan, becoming the woman with the highest graduation in the history of Judo.
Fukuda continued to teach judo until her death, at the age of 99, in San Francisco, California. She established the Keiko Fukuda Judo Scholarship to encourage and enable women to continue their formal training in the art.
Here you can see a fragment of the biographical documentary about Keiko Fukuda: