No Steps Behind: Beate Siro­ta Gordon’s Bat­tle for Women’s Rights in Japan

Jeff Gottes­feld, Shiel­la Witan­to (illus.)

By – May 26, 2020

Beate Siro­ta Gor­don was a Jew­ish woman born in Vien­na in 1923. The daugh­ter of a con­cert pianist, she spent most of her child­hood in Japan, where she grew to love the peo­ple but also felt intense frus­tra­tion at the country’s oppres­sion of women. Gor­don is a hero unfa­mil­iar to most Amer­i­can read­ers who now have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn about her extra­or­di­nary life in an ele­gant­ly designed children’s book. Jeff Gottes­feld chron­i­cles Gordon’s ear­ly life immersed in a for­eign cul­ture, her escape to the Unit­ed States as war approached, and her even­tu­al reunion with her par­ents who had remained in Japan and sur­vived the depri­va­tions of war. Gottesfeld’s dra­mat­ic text and Sheil­la Witanto’s pow­er­ful illus­tra­tions cap­ture the inten­si­ty of Gordon’s expe­ri­ences, which com­pelled her to fight for women’s equal­i­ty in post-war Japan.

Like many Euro­pean Jews of their gen­er­a­tion, Gordon’s fam­i­ly was uproot­ed and forced to search for refuge. Her father was born in Ukraine, moved to Vien­na to escape anti­se­mit­ic per­se­cu­tion, and set­tled in Japan to become a pro­fes­sor of music. When Japan and Ger­many allied as the Axis pow­ers, the family’s safe­ty was threat­ened and Gor­don immi­grat­ed to the U.S. where she attend­ed Mills Col­lege in Cal­i­for­nia. After the war end­ed, her unusu­al sta­tus as an Amer­i­can flu­ent in Japan­ese led to her return to Japan with the U.S. occu­py­ing armed forces. Treat­ed with skep­ti­cism and some­times hos­til­i­ty as a woman involved in craft­ing Japan’s new con­sti­tu­tion, she became deter­mined to ensure that women’s rights were includ­ed in that doc­u­ment. Gottes­feld traces Gordon’s ideals through­out her for­ma­tive years as she observed the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of girls and women in pre-war Japan and was lat­er encour­aged by the pro­gres­sive fem­i­nist cul­ture at her col­lege. The author reports Gordon’s feel­ings of con­flict when the U.S. enters the war against Japan: Beate’s heart was torn. She hat­ed Japan’s mil­i­tary but loved its peo­ple.” She wit­ness­es the intern­ment of loy­al Japan­ese Amer­i­cans with despair. Every phrase of the text, some fac­tu­al and oth­ers employ­ing metaphor, advance the sto­ry of Gordon’s con­vic­tion in her urgent quest for justice.

The book’s sophis­ti­cat­ed design and illus­tra­tions com­bine ele­ments of Japan­ese and west­ern cul­ture. On some pages, proverbs appear in both Japan­ese (a com­bi­na­tion of Chi­nese char­ac­ters and the pho­net­ic script derived from them) and Eng­lish translit­er­a­tion. The effect is a sense of authen­tic­i­ty and a respect for Gordon’s uncom­pro­mis­ing stance in sup­port­ing Japan­ese women in their strug­gle for equal­i­ty. Witanto’s pic­tures are strik­ing, express­ing both Gordon’s empa­thy and her obsti­nate insis­tence on stand­ing up to male pow­er. One two-page spread shows an over­sized image of Gordon’s face, upper body, and clasped hands as she con­fronts Japan­ese del­e­gates: Beate fixed her eyes on them. Not on the floor.” Anoth­er pair of images con­trast Gor­don stand­ing in a snow­storm, wrapped in a grey west­ern coat and red scarf, with a Japan­ese woman, child, and infant hud­dled togeth­er under bright red para­sols. The pic­ture acknowl­edges both the dif­fer­ences between Gor­don and the woman as well as the bond of seek­ing shel­ter. Both the Japan­ese and Amer­i­can men in the book are locked in con­flict, their angry and argu­men­ta­tive faces, a con­trast to the women’s com­plex mix­ture of sto­icism and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. The final pic­ture is of women’s hands exchang­ing cher­ry blos­soms, while an ear­li­er coun­ter­part image com­mem­o­rates a male hand­shake seal­ing the agree­ment over women’s rights. Gordon’s life, a tes­ti­mo­ny to this com­ple­men­tary vision of change, is final­ly avail­able to pic­ture book readers.

No Steps Behind is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes an illu­mi­nat­ing Author’s Note,” ref­er­ences, a bib­li­og­ra­phy, and a timeline.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

This fas­ci­nat­ing pic­ture book biog­ra­phy intro­duces read­ers to Beate Siro­ta Gor­don (19232012), a Jew­ish woman hon­ored in Japan for her con­tri­bu­tion to the Japan­ese women’s rights move­ment, but lit­tle-known else­where. Born in Aus­tria, Beate moved with her par­ents to Japan in 1929 as a young child. Beate’s father, Leo Siro­ta, a renowned con­cert pianist, was head of the piano depart­ment at the Impe­r­i­al Acad­e­my in Tokyo. Grow­ing up in Japan, Beate came to love the Japan­ese lan­guage and cul­ture, but she was dis­tressed by the wide­spread oppres­sion and dis­par­age­ment of women. Dur­ing World War II, Beate was in col­lege in the Unit­ed States, but after the war she returned to Japan, secur­ing a job with the occu­py­ing US Army as an inter­preter and researcher. Gen­er­al MacArthur’s staff assigned her to help draft Japan’s post­war con­sti­tu­tion. Earn­ing the respect of both the Amer­i­cans and the Japan­ese involved in the project, she per­suad­ed both sides to include in the con­sti­tu­tion two pro­vi­sions she wrote guar­an­tee­ing legal equal­i­ty to women. Vivid illus­tra­tions incor­po­rat­ing Japan­ese motifs con­tribute to the pow­er of Beate’s story.