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Be Strong

Be strong, be gentle, be beautiful. In judo you need strength of mind, body, and soul. I don’t mean beauty in the external sense. A compassionate soul is inner beauty. I believe that is true beauty.
   —Keiko Fukuda

Keiko Fukuda - "Mrs Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful"

Yuriko Gamo Romer’s introduction to Keiko Fukuda came by happenstance. The San Francisco, CA-based filmmaker explains, “In 2006, Oprah’s ‘O’ magazine did a story about her. I was intrigued by this story and realized that her dojo was in my neighborhood. So I went to introduce myself. She was very happy to chat with me in Japanese, so she invited me to her home for tea. She told me about her fascinating life journey.”

Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful, Romer’s documentary on the late judo master Keiko Fukuda—the last surviving student of judo’s founder Jigoro Kano—chronicles Fukuda’s arduous pursuit to honor her teacher’s mission to spread judo around the world, meanwhile breaking sexist barriers to not only become judo’s highest-ever ranked woman, but inspire future generations of female judo practitioners.

Circumventing the conventions for Japanese women of her day by both practicing an aggressively physical martial art and never marrying, Fukuda related that her marriage was to judo. At the age of 21, when most women her age were finding husbands, Fukuda joined the newly developed women’s section of the Kodokan Judo Institute. She had been personally invited by Kano to study the art out of respect for Fukuda’s late grandfather, Hachinosuke Fukuda, Kano’s first martial arts instructor in the Tenjin Shin'yo-ryu school of jujutsu.

“I met Sensei in early 2007,” says Romer. “I started filming on her 95th birthday in 2008, and the film premiered in March of 2012. I think I knew immediately when I met her that I needed to make this film. There is something awesome about just being in the same room with her. She is so quiet and gentle and yet so powerful and wise. I also felt it was my calling when I discovered that I live and work in between Fukuda Sensei’s dojo and her home.”

Yuriko Gamo Romer (Director) and Keiko Fukuda on the day of the World Premiere. (c) 2012 Monica Lee Photography

Committing herself to Kano’s vision of spreading judo throughout the world, Keiko Fukuda settled permanently in the United States during the mid-1960s upon being offered a teaching position at Mills College in Oakland, CA. Simultaneously, she organized an all-female judo school, Soko Joshi Judo Club (San Francisco Women’s Judo Club), in SF’s Japantown. Upon retiring from Mills College, she continued teaching at Soko Joshi Judo Club, since relocated to the Noe Valley neighborhood, three times a week until her passing on February 10, 2013, just shy of her 100th birthday.

In recognition of Fukuda’s achievements, in 1990 the Japanese government awarded her the Order of the Sacred Treasure, 4th Class, for her efforts in advancing Kodokan Joshi (Women’s) Judo. During a 2006 ceremony at the Kodokan Judo Institute, where Fukuda had begun her practice 72-years prior, she was promoted to 9th dan, the first woman ever to be awarded the “red belt.” This was followed by a 10th dan promotion—the highest possible rank in judo—from USA Judo in 2011.

Romer, born in Japan but brought to the U.S. as a 1-year old, felt an immediate connection between Fukuda’s story and the mission of her production company, Flying Carp Productions. “‘Flying carp’ is the English translation for ‘koi nobori,’” she explained, “which are the wind socks flown on children’s day in Japan. The ‘koi nobori’ are symbols of children growing up smart and strong and realizing their dreams. I felt this had a very auspicious meaning for films, with stories that I hope will ignite and inspire audiences.”

“From the beginning, [Fukuda] seemed happy to have me make the film. As the years passed I became more connected to her, closer with her. I think she saw that a documentary about her life journey would widen her reach and beyond her life continue her commitment to judo founder Kano Sensei, to spread judo around the world.”

“She was always focused on a high commitment to judo, no matter who she was teaching. In her own dojo it was important that she teach women, and that included proper manners and dojo protocol. She was a stickler for this, no slacking allowed. She was a women’s activist in a strong, gentle, and beautiful way, like her motto.”

The Los Angeles premiere of Mrs Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful will be held at 2PM on November 16, 2013 at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Avenue, in Los Angeles’ Historic Little Tokyo District—an auspicious location for such a premiere, as Los Angeles’ first judo dojo, Rafu Dojo, was located one block north of JANM in the old Yamato Hall on the corner of Jackson Street and Central Avenue, circa 1915.

For more information on Yuriko Gamo Romer and Flying Carp Productions’ current projects, please visit:

For more information on the Japanese American National Museum and its calendar of events, visit:


© 2013 Erik Matsunaga

California combat documentaries filmmakers films judo Keiko Fukuda martial arts Mrs. Judo (film) Soko Joshi Judo Club United States women Yuriko Gamo Romer
About the Author

Erik Matsunaga’s investigations into the history of Chicago’s Japanese American community have been featured by the Japanese American National Museum, Alphawood Gallery, WBEZ Radio, and the Newberry Library. Born in Chicago, a descendant of WWII-era Nikkei resettlers from California, he curates @windycitynikkei—“Bite-sized Glimpses of Japanese American Chicago”—on Instagram.

Updated November 2020

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