Interview with Judoka and Author Jean Kanokogi: Get Up & Fight and Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi

In some ways, she was learning judo while her mother was pregnant with her while on the mat. Jean Kanokogi, a Senior Special Agent for the United States, began training under her parents, Rena “Rusty” and Ryohei Kanokogi. A prolific author herself, Jean began helping her mother write her memoir, Get Up and Fight! in the mid-2000s. Today, Jean took the time to talk about her experience to complete and publish her mother’s memoir and how far women’s judo has come since the days of Rusty Kanokogi. All images provided by Jean Kanokogi.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Kanokogi Sensei! Thank you for joining us today to talking about your mother, Rena.

Jean Kanokogi: Thank you for having me!

MAYTT: How did the idea for the Get Up & Fight project come about? Did your mother always know she wanted to tell her story in book form someday or was it more of a natural progression to explore the medium?

JK: My mom and I sat down years ago, back in 2004/2005 and wrote most of her manuscript, going back and forth with ideas on what to include, writing in segments and then we pulled it all together in a narration form, by telling her story in her voice. It was a gigantic manuscript. She attempted many times to use a professional writer, but they would tell her story in a manner that was way too fluffy for Rusty’s life story to be told. This was unacceptable for Rusty. When Rusty became sicker and sicker with battling cancer, she asked me to make sure I get her story out, no matter what! She said this story needs to be told so that history does not repeat itself and women’s judo does not go back to the dark ages.

MAYTT: That is the true purpose of history, for sure. How was it decided what events and topics the book should cover? Were there specific points you and your mother knew would be included?

Jean Kanokogi, ready to do some judo!

JK: It was super important to include her history and roots in Coney Island, New York, to show that she was a regular poor street kid that grew up with nothing including being part of a very dysfunctional family and abuse. It was also very important for her to include how early on in her childhood she became tough yet remained true to herself and sensitive enough to know right from wrong and that it was definitely wrong to discriminate and ostracized because people were different. She was adamant on including her initial judo training, the love story of how she met my father, Ryohei Kanokogi in Japan while training at the Kodokan Judo Institute, and she wanted to highlight and pepper some of her antics of her life that were comical, yet important. The outline and true description of her fight, her lawsuits, her taking on the impossible and shattering the glass ceilings to get women’s judo recognized as an Olympic sport had to be chronicled here. She was terrified if it wasn’t, history could have slipped into a comfort zone of complacency and slowly repeated the misogyny – she vowed to keep women’s judo progress always moving forward after her medal was stripped from her for being a woman.

MAYTT: With you being the book’s co-author, were there any topics or stories that came as a surprise to you – things you weren’t aware of regarding your mother’s life? If so, did such revelations change how you looked at both your mother and the project in any way?

JK: When writing chapters of the book, sometimes Rusty and I would sit and laugh because I reminded her that I am a federal law enforcement officer and I should check if the statute of limitations expired for some of the antics she wanted to include. This of course was all in jest, because she never committed any heinous crimes, but boosting cars was quite a shock to me as we were going through her early years of her childhood. I wouldn’t say that I was shocked about anything Rusty revealed about her youth, childhood, and previous marriage, because that all built the foundation of grit and tenacity in her personality so that she had the tools and fighting spirit to take on such misogynistic giants to fight for what was right and fight for equality and fight for those that did not have the powerful voice to speak up or get up and fight for themselves.

The process of writing this story and maintaining her voice while doing so was quite a challenge. I developed a deeper profound respect for what she did and was able to see her story through her lens which was opposite to the lens I grew up with as her child, student, and mentee. Things I did not understand as a child, really gave me deep insight by writing this memoir. Even if I didn’t know Rusty personally, I would still be inspired by her life and have that extreme respect for her tenacity to fight for everyone so selflessly.

MAYTT: Prior to the memoir undertaking, you had authored a number of mental health and law enforcement articles and columns. Was there a drastic difference in how you researched and wrote for the articles and how you wrote for the memoir based on the material in your opinion?

JK: I found it very challenging to switch writing style from scientific and APA to narrative and capturing and maintaining the voice of someone whom I haven’t spoken with since 2009. Some of the other challenges was not only capturing Rusty’s voice from the later years, but keeping in maintaining her voice, her zest and her vigor from her earlier years and her fight to include women’s judo in the Olympics, her fight to be accepted into the men’s side of the Kodokan Dojo, and her fight to survive as a young girl on the streets of Coney Island. 

Writing scientific papers, which are empirically supported and cited each step of the way seems although challenging on one hand, I faced a different challenge as the story developed, I imposed upon myself the task of fact checking, and verified as much information as possible through Rusty’s old cherished and savored document. 

Other articles I have written appeal to the emotions and cognitive processing for many, as I include tips and self-help applications of gratitude, resiliency, and overall mental wellness. These articles are written based on the psychology and proven methodologies that work and are meant to be put in a mental health toolbox, so they are available for those that need to reach in or reach out. 

I really appreciate all the different challenges in writing, and all of the styles that are possible when writing a memoir. I’m not sure what my next book will be. I’m thinking it will be a combination of lived experiences, psychology, and a memoir. I think it will be quite fun to write.

MAYTT: That sounds like it will be a fun project! Following in your mother’s footsteps, you also trained judo, becoming godan in your own right. How did you get started in judo; was it something your mother pressed upon you to do or were you drawn to it on your own?

JK: I was practically born on the mat. When Rusty was pregnant with me, she was still actively teaching and one of her students was actually her doctor. When she was in labor and they were waiting for the time to give birth to me, Rusty and her doctor were practicing his Kata techniques for his upcoming Shodan test. So… I learned judo in the womb. That continued to be growing up around the dojo all the time. The judo people became my additional family, we were all very close. As I emerged from toddler to child, I began learning judo in a more formal way. I went from goo-goo ga-ga to breakfalls. I started competing in the Junior Olympics and eventually I consistently competed nationally and found that I was placing and earning national ranking. This ranking led me to become a member of the US national team which allowed me to compete internationally. Many times, Rusty was the coach of those teams or went as a referee so I would be with her more often than not. She never pushed me to have to go to judo, but she pushed me to be the best I could be. She raised the bar high, not only for me but for everyone, because she had that power to see deep inside someone to know if they have the grit to rise to the occasion. Once she saw that she guided you to be the best person and athlete you could be.

Get Up & Fight!

Earning the rank of Godan was not an easy path because the bar was always raised higher. I believe that my parents both expected more from me than other students but that was ok, because I excelled and always was there for the other students too. 

MAYTT: Judo was definitely a family affair in your household growing up. What was it like to train with not only your mother, but with your father as well? Did you find it a bonding experience? Were there any negatives with having your family participate in the same activity?

JK: Growing up in my household was always slightly chaotic. My mother and father were judo instructors and they taught in so many schools all over the five boroughs and Long Island, so they were constantly adjusting schedules, coordinating schedules, and figuring out how to feed us and always trying to make time for family. In between teaching judo, my father would do some small acting jobs whether it be a movie or a television commercial. One of his bigger more known commercials is Kanokogi versus Samsonite luggage where he comes out and beats up luggage for about a minute on television. 

Overall, judo is a huge bonding experience, but with my parents I think it formed a deeper layer of parent child connection. I can only imagine how it was for them to see their child being choked, thrown, arm barred, and really giving it their all. I am sure there were times, my parents forgot they were Sensei’s and wanted to step on the mat to protect me while I was turning blue from getting choked. That feeling probably ended quickly when they saw I stood up and got out of the choke. Training with my parents gave me such a gift on the mat because I developed techniques that my father specialized in and techniques that my mother specialized in. These combinations allowed me to have much success in competition.

The only downside, if you can call it a downside, is that I didn’t have typical teen years. So, on one hand, I wasn’t afforded the same opportunities to get in trouble, but on the other hand, I saw a lot of the world with rose colored glasses. But…the nice thing is, I did see a lot of the world. I also look back and embrace that I got to see my parents in their professional role and benefit from this. I also got to spend a lot of time with my parents. Aside from judo, my parents attended my softball games when they could and always made time to check my homework and make sure my brother and I enjoyed trips to Disney Word with them.

The Kanokogi family.

MAYTT: Sometimes, parents make the best teachers. In addition to your judo training, you earned a doctorate in psychology. In your opinion, how has judo influenced your daily life, from your graduate work to your philanthropic work to life at home? How do you see your judo training has integrated itself in the person you are today?

JK: Judo has a lifelong impression and definitely influenced my life. It also gave me the foundation to fight when I didn’t think I had any fight left. Some challenges I could think of where judo and the fighting spirit my judo training kicked in were when I have to be extremely focused and disciplined. This happens when I am at the range practicing my shooting skills, when I am executing law enforcement functions such as arrest and search warrants and when I was researching and studying to obtain my PhD. Another crossover of the depth of where judo skills and spirit kicked in was when I had knee surgery. That pain was so intense, I felt like each physical therapy session was a full-on judo match, because I pushed through, gave it all I had and knew I could prevail. 

Growing up in judo gave me the foundations of the physical activity but also gave me the philosophies and clear vision of humanity. If the judo philosophies were applied in everyone’s life, there would be much less selfishness.

MAYTT: Looking at your mother’s passionate mission to push for equality in judo in America, why do you think it took as long as it did for women judoka to have the same outlets, like competitions and championships, as their male counterparts?

JK: I think the men in charge of allowing women’s judo to progress were very uninformed about equality. Change can scare people and I think in this instance, many were scared of Rusty because she insisted on change. She wanted equal – nothing more, nothing less. Sadly, misogyny ran rampant in the good ole-boys network.

MAYTT: Your mother was one of the first American women to train at the Kodokan, and after a short while, she was welcomed to join the men’s classes. What do you think separated her from her female contemporaries at the Kodokan that gave way to her being able to train with male practitioners?

JK: Rusty fell in love with the sport of judo. She loved all aspects, from philosophy, to kata to fighting. The female side of the Kodokan was predominately kata and that’s where she formalized her basics and found a deep respect for the beauty of kata. She wanted more to unharness her energy and desire to fight. After daily requests to be let into the men’s side of the dojo, they finally let her in and treated her as an equal. She had to pay her dues and she most certainly did. Some of the men were unhappy of letting her in and they dished out brutal judo beatings and she took them, and each time got back up. She embraced the mantra of fall down seven, get up eight. Eventually she earned their full respect and made many lifelong friends, including my father. She was relentless in wanting to learn and practice with the best of the best in Japan.

MAYTT: What do you think your mother would say about the current state of judo in America today? Is the art upholding the aspects your mother held dear or has American judo shifted from what she worked to achieve?

JK: I think my mother would be very proud of the efforts that Keith Bryant, CEO, USA Judo is doing to ensure equality in judo. From what I see, he consistently sends messages supporting men and women’s judo equally and does all he can to ensure men and women have the same opportunities. Rusty would be happy to see that USA Judo is now much more progressive than it was when she was battling them for equality. However, I believe she would be a bit surprised that judo is not as mainstream as some of the other martial arts by now. I really believe if Rusty was still here, she would have done all she could to change that and get judo into the high schools and colleges just like they are in Europe, Asia, and some of the South American schools.

I think Rusty would be thrilled to see that the International Judo Federation has a Gender Equity Commission and it’s headed by Dr. Lisa Allan. Dr. Allan and her amazing staff has done an incredible job keeping the international momentum that Rusty started. I can’t say enough about how deeply touched I am by these people and what they have accomplished. This past November, we celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the First Women’s World Judo Championships and Dr. Allan and her team put together an amazing celebration for weeks leading up to the event. It was incredible to have all these champions together online celebrating and reminiscing and to see what Rusty did touch each of their lives.

MAYTT: Final question. After finishing Get Up & Fight, what is the one thing or major theme that readers should take away from the memoir? What did you take away from the memoir after working on it?

The street named after Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi in Brooklyn, New York.

JK: The overarching theme that readers should take away is that an ordinary person can change the world. People will feel an, “I can do that” feeling after reading the book because the stories contained and the paths Rusty took will inspire and empower the reader. The story will engage the Reader enough to make one feel that Rusty is sitting right there next to you telling you her story. I carefully maintained her “voice” while telling the story. Rusty was a no-nonsense, in your face, no BS person with a giant heart and grand sense of humor. This is something you will feel as you read, and you will cheer for her as she shatters the glass ceilings and doesn’t accept “no” as a response when she demands equality. The reader will hang on to one of Rusty’s, “Rusty-isms” which is, “In life, either you’re the hammer or the nail…be the hammer”!

What I took away from the memoir was the ability to see clearly through Rusty’s lens. I grew up in her shadow, I was there as a child and young adult as she took on the battles fight for equality in judo and in all sports. I saw, heard and was part of many events, however, I saw it through my lens, the lens of a young person. Now, writing this memoir, I had the privilege to see it from both sides and really channel her spirit, energy and passion to always, “Get up & Fight!”

MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us about Rusty!

JK: Thank you so much for having me!

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