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By Heather World
She's 95 years old and less than five feet tall. Yet Keiko Fukuda--the highest-ranking female judo practitioner in the world--has no intention of retiring from teaching judo in her Noe Valley studio.
"I'm too busy to think about that," she says. "When I have time, I'll let you know."
On Nov. 6, Fukuda will receive an Eldership Award from the San Franciscobased Pacific Institute, a non-profit research and education organization focused on aging issues.
The award is one of many honors Fukuda has received over her lifetime. In 2001, the U.S. Judo Federation awarded her a ninth dan red belt, one of only three in the world. She also holds a ninth-degree black belt, given two years ago by the Kodokan Judo Institute in Japan.
One of the first women to learn judo, Fukuda has taken this less lethal form of her family's samurai training and taught women around the world to defend themselves with speed and technique rather than force.
Her journey started in pre-modern Japan. Her grandfather, the country's last famous samurai, taught the martial art of jujitsu to luminaries such as Ulysses S. Grant. Though as a young girl she learned the traditional wifely arts of flower-arranging and tea ceremony, Fukuda jumped at the chance to train with her grandfather's student, Jigoro Kano, who was taking jujitsu to a higher level and calling it judo. The new form allowed one to defeat an opponent through a combination of rolls, throws, and chokeholds.
Kano trained women because he knew they would understand the art and science of judo, says Fukuda's housemate and gym partner, Dr. Shelley Fernandez.
"He used to say, 'If you want to learn judo, watch the women study,'" she says.
Taking strength from the spirit of her grandfather and teacher, Fukuda practiced hard and became a sought-after teacher in her own right. Her students gathered in the basement room of Tokyo's Kodokan, the center of judo. As a judo teacher, she adhered to the unspoken rule of not marrying. Instead, she spread judo to hundreds of women around the world.
"She was the first true feminist in Japan," says Fernandez, herself a former president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Organization for Women.
After World War II, Fukuda taught American women too, and she was invited to come to the United States in 1953. Though she traveled back to Japan during that time, she eventually settled in Noe Valley, where Fernandez offered her space in her home.
In the years that followed, Fukuda broke new ground in judo practice. She taught judo to nurses after a string of rapes at UCSF. She held classes for Japanese women older than 75, who felt vulnerable to physical abuse. She taught male judo instructors, so they could learn how to instruct their female students. She traveled to countries around the world, from Norway to Israel, demonstrating her special skills. In 1973, she published the bible on women's judo, Born for the Mat, reissued three years ago as Ju-No-Kata: A Kodokan Textbook.
Fukuda retired from teaching judo at Mills College and San Francisco City College some 30 years ago. But she continues to enthrall students at the Soko Joshi Judo Club (Women's Judo Club), the gym she founded at the corner of Castro and 26th streets in 1973. To send a note of congratulations, you may write to the club at 1622 Castro Street, San Francisco, 94114.
Tickets for the Pacific Institute's 2008 Eldership Awards are $150 and are available online and at the door on Thursday, Nov. 6. The celebration, which also honors John Levy, author of Inherited Wealth: Opportunities and Dilemmas, begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Marines Memorial Club, 609 Sutter Street. For information, visit the website www.pacificinstitute.org or call 415-861-3455.