Keiko Fukuda, 98, Becomes First Woman to Earn Highest Level Black Belt

PHOTO: Sensei Fukuda
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Keiko Fukuda is 98 years old, 4 feet 10 and a mere 100 pounds, but this petite woman has been recognized as a giant in the martial arts world of judo.

Fukuda was just awarded a 10th-degree black belt, judo's highest level and an honor that has been granted to only a handful of men worldwide and never before to a woman.

Fukuda, who is addressed by the honorific sensei, which means master, is as soft spoken as she is humble. "I appreciate it very much," was all she would say to ABCNews.com.

Before Fukuda attained her new rank, she was a ninth degree black belt, an already stratospheric ranking in the world of judo.

Although she sometimes uses a wheelchair, Fukuda continues to teach classes three times a week to women and girls as young as 14 at the Soko Joshi Judo Club in the Noe Valley area of San Francisco.

She was recently videotaped getting out of her wheelchair to demonstrate a move meant to flip an opponent on his back. Instead of tossing the opponent, she settled for a comment that drew laughs from her students.

For Fukuda, the award bestowed by USA Judo represents more than a recognition of her skills and worldwide reputation as a sensei. It also honors the prestigious legacy as the last surviving student of the founder of judo.

Fukuda's grandfather was Hachinosuke Fukuda, one of Japan's last eminent samurai. Her grandfather taught jiu jutsu to Jigoro Kano, who in 1882 invented the art of Japanese judo, which is meant to be practiced as a holistic sport blending the mind, body and spirit.

"Her grandfather taught Dr. Kano, the founder of judo, and when she expressed an interest in the art in her 20's, Dr. Kano himself invited her to come in to the women's section of the Kodokan," said Eiko Saito-Shepherd, a Fukuda disciple.

The kodokan is the institute for teaching judo masters.

As a direct student of Kano's, "Sensei Fukuda is a living legacy, she's a direct descendent of the origins of Judo, as well as the longest, and only living student of Kano's worldwide," said Gary Goltz, president of the U.S. Judo Association.

Fukuda has made her own mark in the disciplined world of judo.

"She has been teaching judo for 51 years. I know, when I travel, not only in the United States, they talk about Sensei Fukuda. She is known all over the world and her devotion to judo is indescribable – she is committed," Saito-Shepherd said.

She is also charming, said Saito-Shepherd.

"When you see and talk to her, you're drawn to her… She presents herself as warm, thoughtful, and caring person. That's people's first impression of her," Saito-Shepherd said.

Shelley Fernandez, who has lived with Fukuda for the last 45 years as a caretaker, described her as "an amazing person who is very humble and believes that through judo and self discipline, your mind tells your body what to do, how to move forward and put your spirit behind it to live your life in balance… she is a master."

Fernandez described the moment when Fukuda received news of the award: "Her first reaction was complete surprise, she just couldn't believe it! She was very happy because this would help women, and then finally, she thought it was a dream come true. She thought it would be impossible."

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