The Last Boat to Yokohama: The Life and Legacy of Beate Sirota Gordon by Nassrine Azimi and Michel Wasserman is a fascinating small book about an extraordinary woman. It includes an introduction by Gordon herself and an afterward by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who writes "It is a rare life treat for a Supreme Court Justice to get to meet a framer of a Constitution." In 1946 Gordon, 22 years old and a member of General Douglas MacArthur's Occupation staff, helped write the Japanese Constitution.
Gordon's father was Leo Sirota, an internationally famous concert pianist, born in Ukraine, a 1908 graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. A successful concert tour in Japan in the late 1920s led to Leo moving his wife and six-year-old Beate (Bay-AH-tay) to Japan permanently in 1929. By the time she graduated from Tokyo's American high school in 1939, she was fluent in Japanese, English, German, French, Russian, and Spanish. Given the international situation, college in neither Japan nor Europe seemed like a good idea and so she entered Mills College in Oakland, California.
Although her mother wanted to stay in the United States at the end of a visit to Beate in late 1941, her father insisted Japan would never attack such a big country and in November they took the last boat to Yokohama. While their lives did not change much during the first couple years of the war, by the last year, they were living in an unheated summer home in Karuizawa and bartering clothing for food and fuel.
Beate monitored Tokyo radio broadcasts for the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service of the FCC. In 1944 she joined the Office of War Information as a writer and translator into Japanese of its propaganda broadcasts. In 1945 she moved to New York City to become an editorial researcher for Time magazine. When the war ended, and she received word that her parents were alive, she was able to join the Government Section of the General Headquartrs, Supreme Commander Allied Powers, and return to Tokyo.
It was clear to the Occupation powers that Japan needed a new Constitution, one that would put it on a road to democracy. After two unsatisfactory attempts by the Japanese, MacArthur gave his staff nine days to write something acceptable. Beate, the only woman in the room (the title of her autobiography), contributed Article 24:
"Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis. With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce, and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes."
While there have been attempts to amend the Japanese Constitution since it was promulgated in 1946, they have all failed. And women, who were expected to walk three steps behind their husbands, now walk with equal rights.
Friday, April 10, 2015
Sunday, April 5, 2015
|Fortune in My Eyes|
A New Jersey boy who fled to New York City as soon as he could, Rothenberg began his work life as a Broadway publicist and producer. That life exposed him to the talented and glamorous. For example, at a small London dinner party he attended as the young protege of producer Alex Cohen, the guests included Ingrid Bergman, her daughter Pia Lindström, Sir John Gielgud, and the actress Joyce Carey.
In 1966, Rothenberg heard about a prison play by a Canadian writer, John Herbert. When he received a copy of the script, "I was up all night, reading and rereading Fortune and Men's Eyes. I was devastated by what I read" and resolved to produce the play off-Broadway himself. When he could not raise enough money, he "committed the cardinal sin of producing" and took out a bank loan to cover the shortfall himself.
While the first reviews were mixed, the play attracted enough business to remain open. A sociology professor asked if he could bring his 30 students and stay to discuss the play with the cast after the final curtain. A note in the program that night invited the entire audience to stay, and during the discussion one member of the audience shouted, "This is a lot of crap. These characters are all stereotypes, and I don't buy any of it."
In response, another man stood to say, "This play is so real that I thought I was back in my cell. . ." Rothenberg invited the man, Pat McGarry, who'd done 20 years to join the on-stage panel. McGarry convinced Rothenberg the play "was a mirror for the lives of men whose stories had never been told. Fortune was about the system's destruction of the spirit and how society would pick up the bill at a later date." The play led in almost a straight line to the founding of The Fortune Society in 1967 which helps ex-offenders re-enter society.
So Rothenberg's memoir is much more than an account of his brushes with celebrity. He has profound and interesting things to say about criminal justice in the U.S. He was called into Attica during the horrific 1971 riot that resulted in 39 men dead and hundreds wounded. While many of his heart-warming stories are about men and women who were able to turn their lives around after prison, not all are—just as in real life. For some former prisoners, life on the outside is too stressful.
With his theater contacts, Rothenberg was able to make The Fortune Society happen. Alvin Ailey, one of his friends, joined its advisory council. He offered tickets to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on nights they were not sold out, leading one ex-offender to quip, "When you get out of prison in New York, you get forty dollars, a baloney sandwich, and two tickets to Alvin Ailey."
Midway through the memoir, Rothenberg announces something many readers will have suspected: "I am a homosexual…gay…queer…whatever word is being used this year." Born in 1933, Rothenberg grew up in the time when no one talked openly about homosexuality and "fairy" was a gut-clutching insult. Caught up in the gay rights movement of the early 1970s, he came out to his mother (and includes the moving letter he wrote her) and to the The Fortune Society leadership.
He told his associates, all ex-offenders, he was gay, he was going on The David Susskind Show to announce it, and he was prepared to submit his resignation as the Society's executive director. "This was greeted with a long pause; everyone was looking at one another. Kenny Jackson broke the silence and asked, 'What are you going wear on television?'" Not the response he expected, and when Rothenberg suggested his coming out might affect the Society's support, one of the others said, "You've stood beside us for six years, telling us to be honest about our past lives. Why not give us the same opportunity to stand by you?"
The man has had a fascinating life and his memoir is filled with incident and anecdote. Nevertheless, it is difficult to tell what Rothenberg is really like, perhaps because for his first 40 years he had to mask what he was really like and the habit is hard to break. I would like some examples of regret, failure, bad judgment to provide some balance for all the glamor and success. Still, Fortune in My Eyes is well worth your time if only for Rothenberg's experiences with and observations about criminal justice.