Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Keiko Fukuda - Sticking With It

In 1935, things in Germany were heating up, but the new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, was still considered by most to be nothing more than a blowhard. In Britain, Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald was about to be replaced by Neville Chamberlain. In the United States, FDR was in his third year as President. The price of an average American car was $580, a gallon of gas cost 19 cents, and the average American salary was $1,500 for the year.

The Japanese had secured military control in China’s northeastern provinces, but few Japanese concerned themselves with such things. Although the nation had been embroiled in an all-out modernization for dozens of years, kimono were still more prevalent than Western-style business attire on the streets of Tokyo, and few homes had radios on which to hear the war news.

This was the year that Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, made an exception. As a favor for an old sensei, Hachinosuke Fukuda – under whom Kano had studied Tenshin Shinyo jujutsu, he allowed the first female student to begin her judo training at the Kodokan.

This student was Hachinosuke’s granddaughter, a 21-year-old Keiko Fukuda.

I guess you could say she stuck with it.

Today, 93-year-old Keiko Fukuda is the highest-ranking woman in judo history. She's also the last surviving personal student of Dr. Kano.

In 1973, she wrote and published Born for the Mat, an instruction book intended for female judoka. In 1990, she received the Emperor of Japan’s Distinguished Cultural Award – one of far too many awards to list here.

In 2001, she became the first woman to receive a red belt (signifying 9th dan) from the US Judo Federation, which has awarded only three red belts in its history. She is also the only surviving red belt within the USJF. The Kodokan Judo Institute followed suit, awarding her the 9th dan at its 2006 Kagami Biraki (Japanese New Year) celebration. Fukuda Sensei is the only female 9th dan in Kodokan history.

Today, Keiko Fukuda still teaches twice a week in her dojo in the San Fransisco Bay area.

Folks, I can’t imagine having trained in one martial art for 72 years. When I think of my few years in the martial arts and all I’ve learned during that short time, my imagination can only scratch the surface of what Fukuda Sensei must have learned in her time on the mat. Her students describe her being able to direct them without even speaking, by making short sounds or just by her expression.

It’s clear that someone with Fukuda Sensei’s longevity has a lot to teach the rest of us about the martial arts in general, and about more intangible things like determination and perseverance.

In our aikido dojo, for example, the nanafudake displays about 30 names. This means that, out of the roughly one thousand people who’ve come into the dojo to begin training during its ten-year existence, about 30 have stayed long enough to earn shodan. Of those 30, I would estimate that about 15 are current students, and of those 15, about 8 are regulars. Given those roughly estimated numbers, my school would show something like a 99.2% attrition rate (I’m no mathematician, but you get the point).

Imagine how rare it is, given that environment, for one student to stick with his or her art for, say, 20 years. Many well-respected sensei don’t have that kind of experience. Many students start later, like I did, and others become intermittent students and wander in and out of the dojo for a few years before finally hanging it up.

In this world, there can be much more pressing concerns than our training. Wars, famines, all manner of social ills, financial concerns and family matters can pull us away from the dojo. There have been times in my short training career when it became difficult to continue, just because it was inconvenient or because I just didn’t feel like it.

Without a doubt, Keiko Fukuda Sensei has experienced all of that, and then some. But through everything, she stuck with it. She’s still on the mat today, at 93, teaching and learning. Something to think about next time you want to quit, or don’t feel like making the drive to the dojo.

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