Keiko Fukuda: “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful.”

If you are remotely interested in the world of women’s sports and in particular, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), then chances are you have heard of a former Olympic Bronze Medalist Judoka named Ronda Rousey who is making waves in the UFC. However, long before Ronda was even a gleam in her daddy’s eye, another woman named Keiko Fukuda was making her own incredible journey in the world of martial arts, quietly and determinedly leading the way for Ronda and many other women like her.

I was incredibly saddened to hear that Shihan (Grand Master) Keiko Fukuda died recently at the very ripe and respectable age of 99. Descended from samurai, she was the last living person to have trained directly under Master Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, at the Kodokan, as one of a class of only 24 women. She is also the first and only woman ever to receive the rank of 10th dan. The first I ever heard of her was when she was awarded this honor from USA Judo after literally a LIFETIME devoted to teaching, in July 2011.

For anyone who whines about having to wait their turn, pipe down and listen up. Due to the sexist and traditional belief that there was no need for women to progress past the 5th level, Fukuda had to wait 30 years, while her male colleagues advanced, before she was finally promoted to the 6th dan in 1972. She was then denied promotion again to the 9th dan by the Kodokan just before her 88th birthday (although she received it later in 2006). A weaker person might have become embittered or turned their back on the sport, but despite these hardships, Fukuda displayed incredible grace, remained a lifelong devotee and ambassador, and was a living embodiment of her motto: “Be gentle, kind, and beautiful, yet firm and strong, both mentally and physically.”

Her lifelong achievements and dedication are even more incredible when you think of the other traditional mores of her time and culture. If you think it’s hard to swim against the current here in the United States, you’ve probably never experienced the joys of trying to make your own way in a Confucian society. Members of her family hoped she would eventually marry one of the other Judo practitioners, but Fukuda remained unwed, dedicating her life to the art of Judo and teaching that art to others, saying that it “was my marriage… I just never imagined how long this road would be.”

Keiko Fukuda is a role model to any woman anywhere who wants to achieve something in a male dominated arena, athletic or otherwise. The first time I watched the above clip, I cried. In fact, I cry every single time I watch it, and am always amazed and awed by the strength of this remarkable woman. Rest in peace, Shihan Fukuda. Thank you. You were and will always be an inspiration.

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