Noe Valley Voice September 2011

Local Judo Star Awarded Sport’s Top Honor

Keiko Fukuda Earns 10th-Degree Black Belt

By Heather World

Surrounding 10th-Dan black belt Keiko Fukuda are the proud members of her dojo on Castro Street: (clockwise from left) Elena Royale, Frances Christie, Wilma Monar, and Jessica Lockfeld.     Photo by Pamela Gerard 

This summer, Noe Valley judo master Keiko Fukuda became the first woman in the world to earn the discipline’s highest rank, a 10th-degree black belt. The recognition placed her in a society of only three other people—all men—and instantly made her an international media star.

“Because no woman ever attained the tenth degree, it was not something I thought of,” the 98-year-old Fukuda said through an interpreter. “It was a big surprise.”

The rank, called the 10th Dan, was awarded by the U.S. Judo Association on July 28. The regional chapter of the country’s second judo governing body, the U.S. Judo Federation, passed her promotion two weeks later, and it is now awaiting formal approval at the national level. The Japanese judo governing body, the Kodokan, has approved all promotions from the United States, though usually after a few years’ interval, said her housemate and student Dr. Shelley Fernandez.

Fukuda has taught this non-lethal form of warrior martial arts at Soko Joshi Judo Club on Castro and 26th streets since 1973. She is the last living student of judo’s founder, Kano Jigoro, whom she started training with 77 years ago. Despite awards, accomplishments, and international demand for her instruction, Fukuda did not move up the ranks in the way judo’s male practitioners did, said Fernandez.

“She was a fifth-degree for 30 years,” she said. “You’re supposed to have promotion about every 10 years.”

Though her new belt confers on her the title shihan (“grand master”), she continues to act as a sensei (“teacher”) three days a week to the women who attend the studio. She teaches mostly while seated, Fernandez said, but she occasionally leaves her chair to correct a student’s position or demonstrate a technique.

Fukuda’s students are very happy and excited for her, Fernandez said. The media attention has also attracted two new students, she added.

“We’re hoping more women in Noe Valley will come to the class,” said Fernandez, noting that girls as young as 13 can participate.

Sport of the Spirit

The studio, called a “dojo,” is more than a gym, and judo is more than a sport, said Yuriko Gamo Romer, a 25th Street resident making a documentary film about Fukuda’s life.

“People in a dojo connect with each other and share their lives,” said Romer, who has spent nearly three years getting to know Fukuda and her students. Her movie’s title, Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful, is Fukuda’s phrase, and it describes the way she has lived her life through judo, Romer said.

The art has a philosophical component, and Fukuda has tried to spread the spirit of the practice as well as the technique, Romer said.

“She’s teaching, she started a tournament, she wrote a book, she’s invited [to teach] around the world,” she said.

The author of the definitive text on women’s judo and, more recently, a biography titled Bow From the Heart, Fukuda has taught at colleges and privately in the United States since the 1960s. She was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1913, and became a U.S. citizen in 1972.

She eventually settled in Fernandez’s Hoffman Avenue house. (Fernandez also owns the building that houses Soko Joshi Judo Club.)

“I thought she was going to live here for a year,” said Fernandez, smiling. “Turned out to be 45.”

Judo is a choreographed martial art, but Fukuda has also applied it to modern practical situations, Fernandez said. In Thursday classes, the focus is on practical self-defense, with some students wielding wood weapons and others carrying purses.

Her annual tournament, the Fukuda International Invitational, happens Oct. 15 at San Francisco City College. Both men and women from countries around the world compete, and spectators are invited. Following the tournament, a party honoring her black-belt accomplishment will be held at the Four Seasons Restaurant in Diamond Heights.

For more information on the dojo or the dinner celebration, call 415-821-0303. For more information on Romer’s documentary, visit