Last Boat to Yokohama — The Life and Legacy of Beate Sirota Gordon

Here is the first review of 2018.  

This little book is an odd conglomeration of material surrounding the life of the late Beate Sirota Gordon.  Beate was the daughter of Leo Sirota, the Jewish Russian/Ukrainian emigre pianist who ended up in Japan from the 192o’s through the end of World War II.  The material about how he and his wife Augustine ended up in Japan and why they elected to stay in Japan through World War II provides an anecdotal glimpse into how people coped with an unstable Europe and Japan’s global ambitions.  Beate herself spent a great deal of her childhood in Japan, where she became the family’s principal Japanese interpreter.   She then travelled to the United States for her education as a teenager and attended Mills College.  She also began monitoring Japanese radio broadcasts and doing other Japanese language related work during the war.  

What happened after the war is truly remarkable.  Beate returned to Japan and managed to locate her parents, who had lost their home and been interned during the war.  Then, in her early twenties, Beate proceeded to help write the new Japanese constitution.  Specifically she drafted in large part the Japanese constitution’s equal rights for women clause, which provided Japanese women with more specific rights than anything the United States has produced.  Remember, we couldn’t even pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States.   Beate’s own observations from spending her childhood in Japan, combined with a thoughtful, research-oriented approach served her well.  She consulted constitutions from countries all over the world before settling on an approach for Japan.  This book is far too brief to consider what it meant for Westerners to impose a constitution upon Japan, but clearly post-World War II was an unique era in many ways.

Beate Sirot Gordon spent the remainder of her life based in New York, where she served as the director of performing arts first at the Japan Society and then at the Asia Society.  focused on bringing the culture of the Far East to the United States.   As just one example, through her efforts the iconic dancers Eiko and Koma were introduced to the United States.

I highly recommend this somewhat disjointed, but highly interesting book.  Also, please note that Ms. Gordon wrote her own book, The Only Woman in the Room, which I imagine is well worth reading.

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