“Be strong, be gentle, be beautiful” – Keiko Fukuda, Mrs. Judo

Fukuda sensei at 61 years old.

Founder, Kano Sensei wanted us to spread Judo around the world. At first others were interested, but in the end I was the only one who did.

English Trans. by Natalia Pinello

Keiko Fukuda (hereafter, Fukuda) was born on the 12th April 1913 in Tokyo. Her father passed away when she was very young. In her youth she studied the arts of Calligraphy (Shodo), flower arrangement (Ikebana) and the Tea Ceremony (Chado), which were typical activities for women in those times. Despite her traditional education, Fukuda was attracted to Judo. Her grandfather, Hachinosuke Fukuda, was a Tenjin Shinyo-ryu jujutsu master whose students had included the great Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo.

One day Fukuda went to observe a Judo class with her mother and decided to start training a few months later. Both her mother and brother supported this decision, thinking that Fukuda would eventually marry one of the students in the dojo. But she never married, and instead went on to become a Judo master.

Kano Sensei formally started the Kodokan’s Joshi-bu (female section) in 1926. It was Kano Sensei who personally invited young Fukuda to study Judo – an unusual gesture at the time – as a symbol of respect for her grandfather. Fukuda commenced her Judo practice in 1935, becoming one of only 24 women training at the Kodokan at that time. In addition to studying directly under Kano Sensei, Fukuda also learnt from Kyuzo Mifune.

Jigorō Kanō and the Kodokan’s joshi-bu (female section).
Jigorō Kanō and the Kodokan’s joshi-bu (female section).

The belt ranks for women were very old-fashioned and sexist. There was nothing above 5th degree for women. I was frozen at 5th degree for 30 years.

Kano Sensei was a visionary, providing a place for women to study Judo in a time when they didn’t even show their legs. His early death in 1938 left the female Judo students at the mercy of an old-fashioned and sexist Kodokan for several decades. During World War II, Fukuda faced the bombed streets of Tokyo and travelled every day to teach her beloved discipline. Kano Sensei had entrusted his students to spread Judo around the world and Fukuda committed herself to Judo forever.


After the war, Fukuda Sensei was invited to the USA to teach Judo. This opened up a new world for her as she taught women with a level of skill peerless in the western world. Fukuda Sensei settled in San Francisco, at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and immediately opened her own dojo. She became close friends with one of her students, Dr. Shelley Fernandez, then president of the NOW (National Women Organization). Dr. Fernandez took up the cause against gender inequality in Judo and requested that the Kodokan promote Fukuda Sensei to 6th Dan given she had been a 5th Dan for 30 years (since 1972). Forty years later, Fukuda Sensei was awarded the rank of 10th Dan, becoming one of only 4 teachers alive at that time to hold that honour, and the highest ranked woman in the history of Judo.

I guess that was my marriage. That was when my life’s destiny was set.


Fukuda Sensei passed away on the 9th February 2013 in San Francisco, shortly after teaching in her dojo. She was 99 years old and the last direct disciple of Judo’s founder.

Above, you can enjoy a preview of the biographical documentary on Fukuda Sensei’s life;  “Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful”

For more information visit: www.mrsjudomovie.com