98 Year-Old Keiko Fukuda Earns 10th Degree Black Belt in Judo

Keiko Fukuda instructing her students. Photo by Lance Iversen for the San Francisco Chronicle

Keiko Fukuda of San Francisco, California, was promoted to the rank of 10th dan (degree) black belt in Judo this week by USA Judo, the sport's national governing body. This is the highest ranking one can achieve in judo, but Fukuda is not featured in Bloody Elbow's world scouting report, nor is Fukuda being courted by the UFC, Bellator, Dream, or any other MMA organization, because Keiko Fukuda is a woman, and she's also 98 years old.

Meredith May at the The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Ms. Fukuda's achievement this week, and if you're still not impressed, consider this: only three other living judokas have reached the 10-degree black belt level, and they're all men. Even more importantly, Fukuda is the last surviving student of Kano Jigoro, who invented judo in the late 1800s in Japan.

Here, Fukuda reminisces about her early years of practicing judo under Kano in Japan, and making some tremendous personal sacrifices to devote her life to the art:

Fukuda is the only living student of judo's founder, Jigoro Kano, who opened his judo school, the Kodokan, in Tokyo, in 1882. Kano added a women's section to his school about 40 years later and invited Fukuda to train because of her martial arts lineage. She was the granddaughter of a renowned jujitsu master who had taught that Japanese martial art to Kano.

"At first, all I could think of was how aggressive the maneuvers were, and how unusual it was to see women spreading their legs," Fukuda said.

She was 21. She felt destined to practice judo. She declined her family's plans to marry her to a dentist when she met with him and he told her she'd have to give up judo. She wanted to honor her grandfather's legacy, a family martial arts tradition that passed to her because her father had died young and a brother was in ill health.

The nonagenarian also shares one of her crowning achievements:

Fukuda studied the kata, or choreographed forms of fighting maneuvers, and she became the expert in a slower, gentler version called ju-no-kata.

She rose quickly to a fifth-degree black belt - the highest rank for women at the time - and demonstrated ju-no-kata at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

Evan at her current age, Fukuda is still teaching judo in the Bay area:

At 98, she is still teaching the Japanese martial art three times a week at a women's dojo in Noe Valley, giving pointers from a fold-out chair, wearing her ki - and the red belt that signals her superior rank.

She waves two students over who are practicing fending off a knife-wielding purse snatcher, using finesse and balance to harness power. Fukuda, her hands shaking slightly, holds their fingers and moves their thumbs into their palms. Better. She nods, and the students bow in gratitude before trying the move again.

Fukuda emphasizes accuracy and speed over muscling and winning at all costs. She's less interested in winning tournaments than she is in passing down respect for the art form.

"I think a lot of why I am 98 has to do with judo," Fukuda said. "I have my health, and judo is my connection to less stress and difficulty. As far as I know, no one has lived their life completely for judo as I have."

You can learn more about the amazing Keiko Fukuda in the film, "Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful", a documentary about her life. A trailer can be viewed here.

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