Female jiu-jitsu master shows her way

Lee Hee-jin, the master of the “Queen of Jiu-Jitsu” academy poses during an interview last month. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

By Park Ji-won

Facing restaurants full of chatty students near Konkuk University, Seoul, a steep staircase leads three stories up to a bright magenta sign reading “Queen of Jiu-jitsu.” This is where Korea’s first female black belt holder of the Brazilian martial art eagerly teaches self-defense techniques to her students.

“The moment I got my black belt was the rebirth of my jiu-jitsu journey. I just continue to practice jiu-jitsu so I won’t hurt myself and others,” Lee Hee-jin, the master of the academy, said in an interview with The Korea Times.

Lee became one of some 50 black belt holders in Korea in August 2013 and two months later she opened her own academy.

Still, she is the only female practitioner with a one-degree black belt in the time since the martial art was introduced to Korea in 1990 by John Frankl, a Yonsei University professor who is now a fourth-degree black belt holder in jiu-jitsu.

In Korea, where taekwondo and boxing academies are common, this comparably newly introduced martial art continues to gain popularity. It became famous for fitness and self-defense techniques especially for women because it is known as the only defense art in which women can beat men. Last year, more than 1,000 people enrolled to fight for the Pan Korea Jiu-jitsu Championship. To gain a black belt, the highest common belt within Brazilian jiu-jitsu, more than 10 years of training is necessary.

Originally, she was training in hapkido to improve her health and strength.

“After I first watched a jiu-jitsu practice session for an hour, I instantly thought it would be good for women,” she recalled of her initial meeting with the art.

She then started training, aiming to open an academy within 10 years. She convinced herself she would be the first female black belt holder and teacher and made it.

Even with the firm commitment, she faced many hurdles in pursuing that goal. One of the biggest ones was a bias imposed on female practitioners.

“When sparring with me, many male practitioners use their strength over skills only to win as a result of underestimating me, a woman. That’s because it was the first time for them to meet a woman with a higher-ranked belt than them. I was thrown to the ground many times.”

However, she took the attacks as chances to overcome her shortcomings and learned to adapt.

“Instead, I moved more than the opponent. I faced my physical abilities and acknowledged whether they were good or not and studied what to improve all the time. Now, my strong jiu-jitsu movement with detailed techniques has become my MO as a female figure. I learned through those processes not to get hurt and I survived. If I don’t get hurt I can do jiu-jitsu forever.”

Beyond running her academy, she thinks about her next step as the leading female jiu-jitsu master. Lee is planning to create a nurturing space for female jiu-jitsu practitioners in Korea and compete in more jiu-jitsu tournaments. Most of her tournaments are overseas as she has no rivals with the equivalent belt level here.

She practices pilates on weekends for body rehabilitation.

“I want to improve the female jiu-jitsu community in Korea because I am the first black belt holder. Basically it is good for mind control for me and women. I want to spread it.”

Lee holds a jiu-jitsu seminar for women every month as part of her efforts. Also, she plans to hold more seminars for foreign female jiu-jitsu practitioners such as an upcoming event led by brown belt champion Livia Gluchowska on March 11.

“Every corner of my life is focused on doing jiu-jitsu. My goal is to keep practicing it with my students and colleagues without injuries.”

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