SHIHAN KEIKO FUKUDA
DOB: April 12, 1913
Birthplace: Tokyo, Japan
Occupation: Judo Master
Residence: San Francisco, CA
Editor’s Note: Shihan Keiko Fukuda passed away in early 2013. Her students around the world and those of us who were ardent fans continue to feel her absence. RIP.
Shihan Fukuda is the first woman ever to be awarded 10th dan in the martial arts form of judo. She hails from a war torn era of Japan where women were subjected to millennia old traditions and expectations. Fukuda broke through all those traditions by choosing a life of excelling in judo rather than marriage and motherhood. She has lived her entire life focused sharply on this one passion, pushing herself to greater heights of physical skills and mental strength rarely seen in modern times. The direct disciple of judo founder Master Jigoro Kano, Fukuda, at 98 years old as of the writing of this article, commands unheard of respect in the world of martial arts due to her immense courage, expertise and relentless pursuit of her dream to spread judo around the world.
Born on April 12, 1912 in Tokyo, Japan, Shihan Fukuda never could have imagined as a young girl that she would one day become one of the world’s greatest judo masters and the first woman to be awarded the 10th degree. Fukuda was the granddaughter of Hachinosuke Fukuda, the first jiujitsu teacher of Jigoro Kano, the creator of judo. As was customary in the earlier part of the 20th century in Japan, Fukuda spent time studying the typical “feminine” arts such as shamisen, calligraphy and embroidery.
With many siblings in the family, Fukuda learned early on to become independent and mature beyond her youthful years. It came as a great shock then, when in her late teenage years, Master Kano came to her parents’ home to invite her to study in his women’s judo studio. Fukuda and Kano quickly formed a close master student relationship where mutual caring and respect were profound in ways that modern generations could hardly understand. Surrounded by other women who were also going against what was the norm at that time, Fukuda fell hard and deep for what would become her greatest and only love in life- judo.
Not long after her judo studies began, she is approached by her parents on the subject of marriage. Family members attempt to create in introduction to a young man that would not stand a chance against Fukuda’s already unwavering dedication to judo. While Shihan Fukuda today says that there was not much gossip or strife when she announced her decision not to marry, it’s more believable that she was so incredibly focused that she tuned out anything that had nothing to do with judo. Young ladies in Japan in those days were very much expected to follow a strict sense of tradition, to marry, have children and be the model wife and mother.
Fukuda adamantly stood her ground and continued her intensive training in judo through world wars, family deaths and even the heartbreaking passing of her beloved Master Kano. In 1953 she visited the United States for the first time followed by a whirlwind of visits to numerous countries including New Zealand, Australia, Philippines and Canada, all the while spreading her knowledge and skills. Slowly but steadily over the course of the next six decades, Shihan Fukuda would show the world her unparalleled mastery of judo through competitions, advancement of degrees, teaching, authoring several notable books, serving as judge in various competitions… the list of illustrious achievements goes on and on.
Today, at close to 100 years of age, Shihan Fukuda demonstrates why she is the first woman to ever be awarded 10th dan. Three times a week she still teaches at her studio in the heart of San Francisco, showing an inspiring level of strength, physical stamina and acuity. What is most phenomenal about this tiny woman though is not so much her staggering accomplishments in judo, but the legacy she will leave behind as a woman who lived with profound courage, undeterred passion and commitment to achieve the very best in her field.