A hero in Japan, Beate Sirota is hardly a household name in her home country of the United States. Jeff Gottesfeld’s No Steps Behind: Beate Sirota Gordon’s Battle for Women’s Rights in Japan is a new picture book illustrated by Sheilla Witanto that tells Beate’s story and how she brought change to Japan after World War II.
Although the book is geared toward children aged 8-12, it also tells a story that may interest adults for its historical context and because it uncovers a story about an influential young woman. In 1929, primary school-aged Beate moved with her family from Austria to Japan. Her family had already left Russia due to anti-Semitism, and while 1929 Vienna wasn’t yet dangerous for Jews, her pianist father had an opportunity to move to Japan for his work. The move would turn out to save the family.
Beate had never seen an Asian person before arriving in Yokohama. She quickly picked up the language and made Japanese friends. In 1939, when it was time to study at the university level, she sailed to San Francisco to attend Mills College. It was at Mills—a women’s college—that Beate would learn about equal rights, something she had never heard of in Japan.
During this first part of the book, Gottesfeld includes Japanese proverbs to show traditional views towards women.
Onna-wa san-po sagatte aruku
Women walk three steps behind.
Onna-no chie-wa hana-no saki
The wisdom of women is at the end of the nose.
Onna-no nasake-ni hebi-ga sumu
In women’s hearts dwell serpents.
Women are devilish.
Sheilla Witanto’s illustrations combine American and Japanese culture, including taiko drummers, origami cranes, and pink sakura, as well 1940s American fashions. These bright illustrations are contrasted with darker ones, as when Beate learned about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The story tells of some heavy topics likely to be unfamiliar to many primary and middle school students, but the author and illustrator present them in a way as to make them accessible. There was Pearl Harbor, Japan’s aggression in Asia, and the US internment camps for Japanese Americans. Beate was troubled by all of these. Cut off from her family back in Japan because of the war, she needed to earn money. She put her Japanese fluency to work when she found a job with the US Army to monitor Japanese radio. There was no communication between Japan and the US, and after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Beate had no idea what had happened to her family. The remarkable part of the story wasn’t that Beate reunited with her parents in Japan after the war. It was that she was chosen to travel to Japan to help with rebuilding the country, including working on the Japanese constitution.
From Beate’s college education, she believed firmly that women in Japan should have equal rights with men—something that was not included in the US Constitution. She wrote Article 14 of Japan’s constitution:
All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.
She also wrote Article 24, which stipulated marriage in Japan should be conducted with the consent of both partners and shall enjoy cooperation with equal rights between husband and wife. It also called for equality when it comes to divorce, inheritance, property rights, and choice of spouse.
The Japanese delegation was put off by these articles, but when they learned Beate had written them, they agreed. Although she was only in her twenties, the Japanese delegation appreciated her love of Japan and her language skills. Yet her contribution to the Japanese constitution was classified information and the US government prohibited her from revealing her role in negotiations.
Beate moved to New York in the late 1940s and continued to promote American-Japanese relations at the Asia Society. She didn’t speak about her work during WWII and after until the 1990s. Before Beate passed away in 2012, the Japanese government awarded her the Order of the Sacred Treasure. She has also been the subject of hundreds of published works, films, and plays in Japan.
Yet she still remains largely unknown among the general public in the United States. A picture book is a good way to educate children and adults about these forgotten stories of bravery.