Keiko Fukuda: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful

Olde-tyme Hoydenizens may remember that I wrote about Keiko Fukuda back in 2007, in the Friday Hoyden feature. Fukuda is probably the most knowledgeable and accomplished judoka alive, the last living student of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo.

Geekfeminism has an update on Fukuda Sensei, with a snippet of film from documentary “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful“. Ju-do means, very roughly translated, “gentle way”; judo’s key principle is to use minimal movements to turn the attacker’s strength back against her. The film’s name derives from an attempt to explain the essence of “ju” – “soft, gentle, flexible, adaptable”. Filmmakers Flying Carp are currently fundraising to complete the film.

In this excerpt, Fukuda talks about how she was ‘frozen’ at fifth dan (fifth degree black belt), for no other reason than that she was a woman. She was finally promoted to ninth dan at the age of 8893. She talks, emotionally, about having had to choose between marriage and judo. Fukuda still teaches judo in San Francisco at the age of 96, clearly much loved and much respected, and there is rather delightful film of her dispensing wisdom and rising from her wheelchair to demonstrate an armlock on a much larger student.

Transcript/description to follow now available, courtesy of Quixotess!

[Title card: “a sample clip from BE STRONG, BE GENTLE, BE BEAUTIFUL – a film by Yuriko Gamo Romer – 415 641-4232 –”]

Keiko Fukuda [in voiceover; we see an old, yellow sort of footage of a Japanese town with a close up of a building with a banner on it]:

At the 1934 celebration of the Kodokan, there were banners commemorating Kano’s masters. I learned that my grandfather Hachinosuke Fukuda had been Kano’s first influential teacher. This was the first time I met Master Kano (founder of judo). [We see a picture of Kano.]

[We finally see Fukuda sensei who is speaking, sitting in a modern room.]

He said there was a new women’s division and encouraged me to join, saying it would make me healthy and strong.

[We see two judo practitioners training.Fukuda sensei speaks in voiceover; the camera moves away from the practitioners onto her, who is watching and evaluating them]:

Master Kano wanted us to teach judo around the world. In the beginning there were 5 or 6 of us who learned English and wanted to do this. But in the end, I was the only one who did this.

[We cut to a room where Fukuda sensei and another woman are being interviewed. The camera starts on Fukuda sensei who is not speaking and pans over to the speaking woman eventually.]: To marry and become a housewife, this was the norm.

Fukuda sensei: Yes, right.

Woman: I felt, to push this aside and find your own true road was an extremely wise and brave decision.

[The camera moves back to Fukuda sensei, who struggles for a long time to speak.]: Fukuda sensei: This was my marriage…[crying; the first woman comforts her] This is when my life destiny was set. At this time I chose to live my life of judo over marriage. I just never imagined how long this road would be.

[Back to the old yellow footage: two judo practitioners approach each other formally while others look on. They begin to fight. Caption on the screen says “Keiko Fukuda in 1951, 5th degree black belt.]

Fukuda sensei: The Kodokan was old fashioned and sexist about belt ranks. They just decided women didn’t need any rank over 5th degree. [We cut to her being interviewed]: I was fifth degree for thirty years. This was the Kodokan’s sexism.

[Card: Keiki [sic] Fukuda immigrated to the United States in 1966.]
[Card: She has lived in San Francisco for 43 years.]

[We see Fukuda sensei, in a wheelchair, and another instructor watching two students practice. They complete a move and turn to Fukuda sensei for feedback.]

Fukuda sensei [in English]: You were like this [imitates]. [Looking at other sensei Eiko Saito Shepherd.] I show them…[Japanese]

Shepherd sensei: She says she’s gonna show you.

[People in the room applaud.]

Student: All right. [She and Shepherd sensei remove Fukuda sensei’s shoes for her; help her stand.]

[Fukuda sensei demonstrates the move with Shepherd sensei.]

Fukuda sensei [to Shepherd sensei]: Strong arm.

Shepherd sensei: Yeah, I feel the pain–every bit of it!

[Cut to Fukuda sensei explaining]: Every bit of it [indistinguishable] make straight arm.

Shepherd sensei: As soon as she get my arm, when she moves, my arm’s gonna snap.

[Old yellow footage again.]

Caption: Senseis Fukuda and Noritomi demonstrating “kata” forms.

Eiko Saito Shepherd: Fukuda sensei and her sempai (senior) Noritomi sensei, they got freezed at 5th dan. Thirty years. So I felt it. She got 9th dan when she was 88 years old, and this is a very special birthday. I went to talk to the Kodokan president explaining she will be celebrating this 88 years old birthday. And Kotokan’s president, his answer was, [cut to Shepherd sensei being interviewed outside; caption says she’s 6th dan] “Well, in the past, no woman got promoted 9th dan. No previous history.” So he said they will not give her 9th dan. No woman will not get promoted 9th dan.

[Cut to a banner at the entrance of a building. Modern day. The banner says “20th Annual Fukuda Judo Kata Championship.” Next few lines happen in voiceover as we see Fukuda sensei entering the championship hall, shots of the judges’ table which Fukuda sensei is in the center of, etc.]

Young woman in voiceover: This is a special day, it’s our twentieth anniversary.

Brent Smith [in voiceover]: The power this little bitty woman has, in her presence. It’s not in the strength–I mean, her physical strength, she has trouble right now because she’s so very old–she’s gonna be responsible for kata reemerging into the judo world. Because of the following that she has, and the importance that people are seeing, because there’s nobody left teaching kata! This lady knows firsthand what the founder of judo was trying to teach.

[Cut to Brent, who is sensei, 5th dan.] She’s attained a level of understanding that, I believe, surpasses anyone that’s existed, that is existing on this planet.

[Card: In 2006 for the first time ever, the Kodokan awarded the 9th degree to a woman.]
[Card:Keiko Fukuda was 93 years old. She reigns as the highest ranking woman in the world.]

[Class of women judo students all sitting in assembly.]

Woman just off-camera: So I think that when she says you will be here next year too, you will. [Students laugh.]

Fukuda sensei: Therefore…everybody study the meaning of “ju.” Blackbelt…

Shepherd sensei: She says it’s your homework for one year. One year.

[Card: To study the very complex meaning of “ju” (of judo)]
[Card: Roughly translating to: gentle, soft, flexible, adaptable.]
[Card: This is said to be the essence of judo.]

[End card: “a sample clip from BE STRONG, BE GENTLE, BE BEAUTIFUL – a film by Yuriko Gamo Romer – 415 641-4232 –”]

3 thoughts on “Keiko Fukuda: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful

  1. This is a lovely post. I feel like I stopped learning about the world when I stopped being able to read books and get out much. At long last I discovered the internet. Then I spent considerable time wandering around it like it was a amusement park, trying a little of this and a little of that. Now I feel like I’ve found a core group of sites where I can learn about things which bring the wider world back into focus a bit in ways I can relate to, and that allow me to learn about those navigating it in ways previously unfamiliar to me. Thanks so much.

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