I love learning about unsung heroes. Especially when they’re women. And Jewish.
Meet Beate Sirota Gordon (pronounced bay-AH-tay). Born in 1923 to Russian Jews who had settled in Vienna, Ms. Gordon lived in Japan from ages 5 to 15; her father, a world-renowned concert pianist, had been courted by the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo. In 1939, just before her 16th birthday, she moved to California to study at Mills College; her parents remained in Japan. After the attack on Pearl Harbor she was unable to reach them and had no idea if they were even alive.
Using her skills (fluent in English, German, Japanese, French, Spanish and Russian) and smarts (convinced her professors to let her take her exams without attending classes and secured a job at a U.S. government listening post monitoring radio broadcasts from Tokyo), she slowly but surely figured out how to discover their fate. As reported by New York Times obituary writer extraordinaire Margalit Fox (now that’s a job I truly envy), Ms. Gordon “later worked in San Francisco for the United States Office of War Information, writing radio scripts urging Japan to surrender.”
By the war’s end, she’d graduated from college and had become a U.S. citizen, but she still had no word of her parents. At this time American civilians were not welcome in Japan. By securing a job as an interpreter on General MacArthur’s staff in Washington, D.C., Ms. Gordon eventually made her way to Tokyo on Christmas Eve 1945, where she promptly discovered the depth of the city’s devastation. She went straight to her parents’ house and found a mere charred pillar.
She eventually found her parents, who had been interned in the countryside and were severely malnourished. She nursed them back to health in Tokyo while working for General MacArthur.
The first item on MacArthur’s agenda was to draft a post-war constitution for Japan, a top-secret assignment that had to be completed in one-week’s time. As the lone woman on the committee, Ms. Gordon was assigned the section on women’s rights. She was 22 years old.
“Japanese women were historically treated like chattel; they were property to be bought and sold on a whim,’ Ms. Gordon told The Dallas Morning News in 1999. “Women had no rights whatsoever.”
Among the rights granted as penned by Ms. Gordon were “choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters.” The constitution went into effect in 1947.
She didn’t mention her role in Japan’s constitution until the mid-1980s. Her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room, which came out in 1995, made her a celebrity in Japan. There is also a documentary about her life, “The Gift From Beate.”
Although there must be other stories out there of Jews in Japan during and after WWII, this is the first I’ve read about. If you know of others please send them my way.