Keiko Fukuda, 99, the highest ranked judo woman, died on Feb. 9 at her San Francisco home, according to a Feb. 16 New York Times report. Her longtime friend Shelly Fernandez, 82 confirmed her death. Fernandez lived with Fukuda and helped her run the San Francisco-based Soko Joshi Judo Club for women, where Fukuda taught for over 40 years.
Fukuda, who stood at 4 feet 10 inches tall, was one of very few women to join a judo class in Tokyo in early 1930s. She was 21 at the time. “At first, all I could think of was how aggressive the maneuvers were and how unusual it was to see women spreading their legs,” Ms. Fukuda told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2011. She fell in love with Judo and chose it over marriage. By the late ’30s, she had become an instructor and developed an expertise in ju-no-kata, a gentler form of judo, according to the New York Times.
She first traveled to the United States in 1953 to teach as a way of honoring her instructor Kano, who died in 1938. “He asked all of his students to travel the world and teach judo,” Fernandez said. “She was the only one who did.” She returned to Tokyo several years later where she “demonstrated women’s judo at the 1964 Summer Olympics.” She returned to the United States in 1966, eventually becoming an American citizen.
In Japan, Fukuda had risen to become a fifth-degree black belt, or fifth dan, in the early ’50s. She stalled in the fifth spot for the next 20 years until a petition effort by Fernandez helped promote her to sixth dan, for which she was the first woman to achieve that level. Over 30 years later in 2006, she reportedly progressed to a ninth dan, the second-highest ranking possible in the sport. Five years later, at the age of 98, she was promoted to the highest possible level: 10th dan.
“She was the last living student of the founder of judo,” Fernandez said. “No one else can say that. It’s the end of the era now,” adding, “We were all totally fascinated because she was a tiny person without great physical strength. But she was totally centered — mind, body and spirit.”
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