Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi, Mother of Judo

As I begin to look for the practice of justice in the context of the martial arts, an example that seems obvious to me is the life of Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi (1935-2009). In addition to her stellar knowledge of judo (Kanokogi Sensei was seventh dan!), Kanokogi is well-known for her lifelong championing of women’s rights in judo.

Kanokogi discovered judo in 1954 at her local YMCA, when she was nineteen years old. She was the first female student her teacher Al Evoy had ever taught, but like Kanokogi, Evoy Sensei is a good example of the practice of justice. As author Linda Atkinson explained after interviewing Kanokogi in the early 1980s,

“Rusty had to use a broom closet as a dressing room, because the Y wasn’t set up to deal with women students. But the judo instructor, Al Evoy, was fair-minded and open. He took Rusty seriously and gave her a chance to work hard and show what she could do” (Atkinson, 1983, p. 30).

Kanokogi began teaching a judo class for women early in her career, in the mid-1950s. This opened her eyes to the potential women had as judoka.

“Rusty recalls … [that] everyone believed that women could not play judo. She believed it, too–until she began teaching other women at the Prospect Park Y. ‘They worked hard. And lots of them were good. I found out that I wasn’t such an exception after all. I said, “Hey! Wait a minute! Women can so do this!”’” (Atkinson, p. 31).

Kanokogi was also the first female student for her next teacher, Mamaru Saiganji, who also took steps forward in the spirit of justice. Kanokogi said of Saiganji, “He really worked with me and for me as if he had decided to make me the best student he had ever had” (Atkinson, p. 33).

When the Prospect Park judo club participated in the 1959 New York City judo tournament, Kanokogi earned a gold medal. The tournament organizer denied her this medal, however, because Kanokogi was a woman.

“It was very demeaning, painful,” she said. “It was a horrible feeling–like I did something wrong by being a woman” (Wilkins and Boyle, 2009) “It instilled a feeling in me that no woman should have to go through this again” (Robinson, 2009).

Kanokogi Sensei began to organize, educate, appeal, sue, and personally fund events in order to enable women to participate in the art of judo. Through her efforts, the American Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) allowed women to participate in their judo competitions beginning in 1970. (And in 1973, the women and men finally competed under the same rules.) Kanokogi mortgaged her house to fund the first women’s judo world championships in 1980. And she nearly single-handedly gained women’s judo medal status in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea (Wilkins and Boyle, 2009).

Throughout her fifty-year career, Kanokogi also coached, refereed, and served as international watchdog of women’s rights in judo, helping many other young athletes go on to gold medals of their own.

Kanokogi’s championing of justice in the judo world comes from her love of the art.

“’There’s no end to what judo–and all sports–can do for a person,” she says. “You discover the best in yourself, the best in your competitors. It isn’t fair to withhold that from someone just because she’s a woman’” (Atkinson, 1983, p. 27).

Kanokogi’s intention reminds me of a children’s song called “Justice is the Way.” The chorus goes like this:

“Justice is a little more than just being fair. To be just we have to give. Share what we have, share what we love, share the joy to live” (Ruhi Foundation, p. 43).

I’ve reflected on this song for some time. It suggests that successfully practiced justice has something to do with the spirit in which it is pursued: the most powerful justice comes from the spirit of sharing what we have that is wonderful, so that others can be as happy as we are. Or as comfortable, or as peaceful–whatever word for well-being you want to use. A quote from ‘Abdu’l-Baha reiterates this high standard:

“We ask God to endow human souls with justice so that they may be fair, and may strive to provide for the comfort of all…” (‘Abdu’l-Baha, 1945, p. 43).

When I look at Kanokogi’s example, I can see this motivation in her actions, and I can hear it in her words. As she said in describing her experience of judo,

“When it’s something you love, you can do it as long as your body holds out. After a while you feel as though you are walking on air. You are clean inside, you are pure and happy. You don’t want to fight the world. You don’t have any anger in you at all. You are satisfied” (Atkinson, 1983, p. 38).

Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi Sensei. What a beautiful example of justice.



‘Abdu’l-Baha. (1945). Foundations of world unity: Compiled from addresses and tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust.

Atkinson, L. (1983). Women in the martial arts: A new spirit rising. New York: Dodd, Mead.

Lewellen, W. (n.d.). Rena Kanokogi, Mother of Women’s Judo. Women’s Sports Foundation.

Robinson, J. (February 16, 2009). Judo Icon, a Fighter for Her Sport, Is Facing a New Battle. The New York Times.

Ruhi Foundation. (1987). Teaching children’s classes grade 1. West Palm Beach, FL: Palabra Publications.

Wilkins, J., & Boyle, C. (August 22, 2009). Woman who posed as man to become judo champ finally gets gold – 50 years after being stripped of it. New York Daily

See also

Women’s Sports Foundation. Athletes section, entry for Rusty Kanokogi.

Robinson, J. (November 22, 2009). Rusty Kanokogi, Fiery Advocate for Women’s Judo, Dies at 74. The New York Times.

Wikipedia article on Rena Kanokogi.

Women’s Sports Foundation. (August 21, 2009). A gold medal presentation 50 years in the making.


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