NEW YORK – For high school teacher Rene Mills, her only exposure to Japan until recently was her grandfather’s recollections of his trips to the Far East as a seaman with the American shipping giant Lykes Lines in the 1920s and 1930s.
Mills, a humanities and English teacher at Edward Reynolds West Side High School in Manhattan, remembers hearing her grandfather, Fred Berger, tell riveting tales about his journeys to Japan as she sat on his lap.
For Barbara Tanzman, an art and technology teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School, Japan is a new addition to the list of countries she knows firsthand, having visited last summer for the first time.
Mills, Tanzman and more than two dozen New York teachers found a recent weekend session about a woman named Beate Sirota Gordon that they attended at the Japan Society’s “Twentieth-Century Japan” seminar, to be a real eye-opener.
“She is an amazing woman,” Mills said. “I was impressed with her compassion and the fact that she had to live with (the secret) so long.”
Gordon helped draft Japan’s postwar Constitution as a civilian staff member of the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces — and forever changed the status of Japanese women.
“She is magic because she is alive,” Tanzman said.
In interviews, lectures, speeches and other appearances, Gordon has related how, as a 22-year-old, she played a role in drafting the Constitution’s Article 24 on gender equality.
She said she decided to break the silence in 1995, one year after her boss, Charles Kades, deputy chief of the Government Section, General Headquarters, started talking about how the Constitution was prepared in February 1946.
As Gordon recounts in her memoirs, “The Only Woman in the Room,” Col. Pieter Roest, who headed the Civil Rights Committee, said, “You’re a woman; why don’t you write the women’s rights section?”
“Fabulous,” Gordon, now 81, said she felt when Roest made the offer.
She was born as the daughter of Russian pianist Leo Sirota and his wife, Augustine, in Vienna in 1923. She came to Japan at the age of 5, when Japanese composer Kosaku Yamada invited her father to teach at the Imperial Music Academy.
She left Japan in 1939 at age 15 to study at Mills College in California. She later worked in San Francisco as “a counterpart at one point to Tokyo Rose” and as a Time magazine researcher in New York before returning to Japan on Christmas Eve of 1945.
In a recent speech to a about 100 Japanese women at the Nippon Club in New York, Gordon said, “I saw Japanese military with my own eyes even when I was small” along with the oppressed state of Japanese women. She told the audience that she is speaking out now because of fear that the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 and Article 24 may be revised.
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