Noe Valley Voice March 2013

Noe Valley Judo Star Dies

By Heather World

As one of her last moves, judo master Keiko Fukuda established a foundation that will fund scholarships for girls and women who wish to learn the “gentle” martial art.    1989 photo by Charles Kennard

The world’s top-ranked female judo master, Keiko Fukuda, died in her Noe Valley home Feb. 9, but her legacy lives on, thanks to her foundation supporting women’s participation in the martial art.

Fukuda, who was two months shy of her 100th birthday, died of natural causes in her sleep, according to her longtime friend, student, and roommate Shelley Fernandez.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Fernandez, the former president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Organization for Women.

The granddaughter of the last Japanese Samurai warrior, Fukuda studied the nonviolent martial art with its founder Jigoro Kano in the 1930s. She was invited to teach judo in the United States in the 1960s. Not long after, she earned American citizenship, in a time of strict quotas on Asian immigrants, through her work training female military and police officers across the country.

She taught at Mills College and San Francisco City College, as well as at the Soko Joshi Judo & Self Defense Club on Castro at 26th Street.

Standing less than five feet tall, Fukuda progressed through the ranks of judo. Her belts and degrees—the mark of excellence bestowed by judo authorities—did not keep pace, however.

“She was a fifth-degree [black belt] for 30 years, and you’re supposed to have promotion every 10 years,” said Fernandez. Only after Fernandez started a petition that publicized the situation did the Japanese judo authorities award Fukuda a sixth belt.

In 2012, she became the only woman to be awarded the art’s highest rank, a 10th-degree black belt called the 10th dan, by the U.S.A. Judo Association. Though she has been recognized as a national treasure by Japan, that country’s equivalent association, the Kodokon Judo Institute, has yet to acknowledge her rank.

A film about her life, Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful, was released a year ago at the International Asian American Film Festival. A day before her death, she had been invited to travel to a screening of the film in Moscow, Fernandez said. Fukuda wrote the introduction to a book on judo by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

She also was nominated to be honored this year by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which issues annual awards to artists for their contributions to American culture. (Artists must be alive to win.)

World Master, Local Teacher

Fukuda started teaching in Noe Valley in 1973.

One of her students, Sara Jobin, is the first female conductor of the San Francisco Opera.

“She was breaking boundaries all the time, so she could understand what that meant for me, and she supported me in that,” Jobin said.

“She had such a fighting spirit, but her way was so gentle,” she said. “What I take away from her life is this incredible determination to carry on the task she was charged with, which was to bring judo to the world.”

Fukuda taught everyone from disadvantaged middle school students in Colma to women who had been targets of rape and robbery, Fernandez said.

“She had this great talent for bonding people together to be like a judo family,” Fernandez said. “She was always seeing the good in people—she had no negative energy at all.”

Only five months before her death, the two women started the Keiko Fukuda and Shelley Fernandez Girls and Women Judo Foundation Inc. Among other things, the foundation will provide scholarships to women who want to study judo and compete in its tournaments.

The judo classes at the Noe Valley gym, called a dojo, will continue under the leadership of Fukuda’s designated successor, Sensei Wilina Monar, Fernandez said. Girls ages 13 and up are invited every Tuesday and Thursday night from 6 to 8 p.m.

Her annual tournament will continue too, Fernandez said.

From Refined to Silly

Fukuda sometimes practiced the arts taught to her and most young women in early 20th-century Japan: flower-arranging, calligraphy, and playing the shamisen, a three-stringed mandolin-like instrument.

She also found joy in less elegant objects, like the wind-up toy hamster decked out in martial arts garb that sat in the dojo, said Fernandez.

“She loved it—she laughed whenever her students put it on,” she said.

The hamster will now reside with Fukuda’s ashes, Fernandez said. In accordance with Fukuda’s wishes, half of the ashes will be buried in Japan and half in Olivet Memorial Park, Colma.

“She wants her students to be able to talk to her before judo camp and tournaments,” Fernandez said.

There will be a special tribute screening of Mrs. Judo on Thursday, March 21, 4:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema, 1880 Post St. It is a free public screening hosted by CAAMFest (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival).

A memorial for Keiko Fukuda will be held Friday, March 22, at 11 a.m. at the Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave. For more information about the foundation or to purchase one of Fukuda’s textbooks, please contact Julie Hoitt at