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The Life of Keiko Fukuda

Posted in Martial Arts by 노강호 on March 1, 2013

Keiko Fukuda, the world’s  highest ranking female judoka, died on February 9th 2013, just a few months short of her 100th birthday. She was the last living student of judo’s founder, Kano Jigoro. She held the rank of ninth dan and though she was awarded 10th dan by the USA Judo  Federation, the Japanese Kodokan refused to ratify it. The Kodokan barred any woman from holding a rank above 5th dan, which Fukuda obtained in 1953. It wasn’t  until 1972 that the Kodokan granted her 6th dan making her the first woman to be promoted beyond 5th dan.

Keiko Fukuda - a truly inspirational figure

Keiko Fukuda – a truly inspirational figure

My interest in this wonderful woman was sparked when I stumbled across a documentary, ‘Be strong, be gentle, be beautiful,‘ that was being made about her lifelong contribution to judo. I subsequently posted an article about her in 2012 (link). Fukuda’s dedication to the art was outstanding but what compelled me to write were the numerous mindless responses carried in Youtube’s comments archive. Anyone who posts comments criticising an elderly person carrying a dan grade and who subsequently claims they could easily ‘knock her down,’ totally misses the subtleties of ‘do.’

I believe the documentary about Fukuda was completed and given a public viewing, in her presence, in 2012. Fukuda lived in the USA, and died at her home in San Francisco.

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©Amongst Other Things –  努江虎 – 노강호 2013 Creative Commons Licence.
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‘Be strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful’ – Keiko Fukuda

Posted in Martial Arts, taekwon-do by 노강호 on February 13, 2012

Keiko Fukuda

”This was my life…I chose to live judo over marriage.’ Says the aged Keiko Fukuda as tears begin to fall down her face. This clip of a documentary in the making is incredibly intense and moving. Born in 1913, Fukuda, the highest ranking woman judo-ka, is also the last surviving student of Kano Jigoro, founder of judo. Fukuda’s personal motto is ‘be strong, be gentle, be beautiful,’ and there is no doubt she epitomizes such virtues.

In today’s world, where everyone on the internet is a master of something and so many individuals derive pleasure from condemning the efforts of others, Fukuda’s gentleness, her humility are a reminder, perhaps a relic of a reminder, that there is more to martial arts than simply defeating an opponent. Perhaps my assumptions are an idealization,  a fabrication derived from a fascination with the oriental that anyone training in the 1970’s will recall, but when I began taekwon-do, in 1977, there was a real sense among many practitioners and teachers, that qualities such as perseverance, determination, courage, humility and respect were equally, if not of greater importance than simply bashing an opponent.

I remember an excellent book on Karate by C.W Nichols, (Moving Zen) which recounted a westerner’s experience learning Karate in Japan in the late 60’s or early 70’s. In his school,  a student had just been promoted to first degree black belt and shortly after was made to fight one black belt after another until he fell to the ground from exhaustion. When the instructor was asked why the new black belt was being treated in this manner, he replied that, when a nail sticks out from the wood, you bang it back into place. Yes, it’s harsh, but in life sometimes there is more to learn from defeat than there is from victory.  There are bad people in every walk of life but in my first martial arts school, all the dan grades were role models, they were all gentle, all strong and in their own way, all were beautiful.

A book that teaches you the stuff omitted in many martial arts school and styles

While the movie clip of Keiko Fukuda is inspirational to genuine martial artists, regardless of their rank or ability, the comments that followed the Youtube clip demonstrated how either many people don’t understand the breadth and complexity of martial arts, or simply inhabit a completely different mindset. Kata, for example can never be mastered because perfection is beyond grasping. The goal of kata is to better your spirit in the pursuit of a perfection that cannot be acquired. And they miss the myriad of skills which pursuing martial arts encompass, precision of technique, the art of teaching, power, character, timing, rhythm, strategy, focus, beauty, the moving Zen!  When it comes to learning a martial art, a good teacher is of far greater value than a competition champion who can’t teach.

I would have thought that any expert in their field who  had dedicated their life to some pursuit, in this case over 70 years, who had risen to the top of their field before many of us were even born, would be an ideal candidate to hold in unreserved reverence but no, the internet provides the perfect anonymity for every armchair expert to promote their own ignorance. Sadly, instead of a celebration of effort and achievement,  much of the response to the Fukuda clip was a litany of criticism. Yes, Fukuda is old, and of course she cannot defeat a younger, less experienced even untrained assailant and there are probably thousands of kiddies who could push her in the gutter!  Of course you could easily mug her or knock her over and of course she is frail! She’s 90 years of age! But let’s not be too serious, how can anyone who lashes out at the abilities, mental or physical, of a little 90-year-old woman be taken seriously. Perhaps the proliferation of martial arts as sport, as solely competition and sometimes savagery have led us in the wrong direction and if so it is the likes of frail Fukuda who remind that we’re missing part of the picture.

Suddenly I am reminded of that cringy scene in the opening of Way of the Dragon, where Bruce Lee, a Shaolin monk, scolds a  young student for kicking without ’emotional content.’ ‘It’s like pointing a finger at the moon,’ he tells the boy. ‘Don’t focus on the finger or you’ll fail to see all the heavenly glory.’  Suddenly, the scene is a lot less cringy!

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.