As the Olympics in Tokyo are set to begin on July 23 this year, a new book sheds light on the “mother of women’s judo,” Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi. Judo, for men, became an Olympic sport in 1964 in Tokyo. It was not on the program at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, but returned in 1972 in Munich. Women’s judo, however, was first included in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, as a demonstration sport, and officially added in 1992 in Barcelona.
Kanokogi, an unsung hero in sports and for equal rights, tells her inspiring story in her new memoir, Get Up & Fight, published posthumously by her daughter Jean Kanokogi. Rusty shares the uphill battle she waged in her more than fifty-year career in judo, fighting for women’s rights both on and off the mat, a journey which ultimately led her in front of the roaring crowds at the Olympic Games.
Educated on the streets of Coney Island by “pitchmen and hustlers,” as a teen, Rusty found herself the leader of a girl gang, getting her kicks from street brawls and petty crime. She was headed down a dark path, until, as she put it, she “was saved by the sport of judo.”
In 1959, Rusty fought in a judo championship against a man and won, but when the judges discovered her gender, they stripped her of her title. Women were not allowed to compete— and certainly not allowed to win. In that moment, Rusty made it her life’s mission to ensure that no woman would ever suffer such an indignity ever again. This vow sparked a lifelong career fighting for equality— a tireless campaign she would use to fan the flames of change for decades to come.
Rusty, known around the world as “the mother of women’s judo,” earned her notoriety birthing a movement, teaming up with tennis star Billie Jean King to help pass the infamous Title IX anti-discrimination legislation in 1972, founding and hosting the first Women’s World Judo Championship in 1980, and earning female judo athletes a place at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea for the very first time.
In the book, Rusty’s uniquely raw, unfiltered, humorous voice, brings to life the tales of her remarkable life and journey from the rough streets of Brooklyn, to the offices of the political, powerful, and persuasive, where she established herself as a major force in the world of women’s rights and the sport of judo. Rusty’s memoir is a love story filled with passion and righteousness— for her sport, her family, and her way of life as a judoka.
Often called a pioneer, Rusty fought to give women voice and agency, in life and in sports. She did not see human limitations, only possibilities. The establishment told her “no,” but “no” was not a part of her vocabulary. Instead, Rusty fought like hell, and won.
In her own words, Rusty decided to “be the hammer,” not the nail. Her legacy lives on through this new memoir, which was her final gift to the world.
Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi is recognized around the world as “the mother of women’s judo” for her immense contribution to the sport and her work ensuring women’s inclusion for the female competitors at the international level. In her more than fifty-year career, she became the first woman to attain the rank of seventh-degree black belt, founded the first Women’s World Judo Championship in 1980, and was the driving force behind women’s judo inclusion in the 1988 Olympic Games. Her many credentials include international judo competitor and referee, Olympic judo coach, equal rights advocate, and sports commentator. Jewish-American Kanokogi was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in April 2009. She passed away November 21, 2009 and is interred in the Kanokogi Samurai family burial site in Kumamoto, Japan, with the inscription “American Samurai.”
Jean Kanokogi, PhD, is a Senior Special Agent for the U.S. Government, with a career spanning twenty-three years in law enforcement. Jean has been the lead investigator on several high-profile cases, including the attacks on 9/11. “The daughter of women’s judo,” Jean is a fifth-degree black belt in judo and a highly respected sensei. She was on the U.S. national judo team, now known as USA Judo, and won several medals in international tournaments. She was one of the original signers of the American Civil Liberty Union suit to fight for women’s rights in the sport of judo, and is the co-author of her mother’s story.
More information is available online: www.RustyKanokogi.com.
Follow Get Up & Fight on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Get-up-Fight-A-memoir-of-Rusty-Kanokogi-The-Mother-of-Womens-Judo-111912093799924.