Beate Sirota Gordon (1923-2012), feminist and Asian arts impressario, was only 22 years old when she wrote women’s rights into Japan’s constitution. In her postwar career as a director of performing arts, first for the Japan Society and then the Asia Society in New York City, she introduced Americans to Asian visual and performing arts, from Japanese wood block prints to Burmese music to Vietnamese puppets.
Born in Vienna to Ukrainian Jewish parents, she was not raised in a religiously observant household. When she was five, her father, a classical pianist, undertook a six-month concert tour to Japan and decided to stay, teaching music at the Imperial Academy. Her parents pulled her out of the German school in Tokyo when Nazified teachers taught the children to say Heil Hitler.
Her parents did not believe there would be war between Japan and the U.S., and when she was 15, they sent her to the U.S. They were interned as enemies of the state in a small fishing village in Japan, and it was many years before she knew what had become of them. (They survived the war.) In California, Beate attended Mills College, while helping monitor radio broadcasts from Japan and later writing radio scripts urging Japanese civilians to surrender. At the end of the war, hoping to locate her parents, she returned to Japan as a translator for the U.S. Army.
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