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  • Jeff Gottesfeld

Shock to the System and NO STEPS BEHIND

It’s amazing, and often uplifting, to learn about how my friends are changing during this Covid-19 crisis. I’m not just talking about social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and finding new ways to be when group activity is off the table. I’m referring to the many folks who are talking a long, hard look at their own lives, and seeing misplaced priorities, pointless consumption, and too much done mindlessly. It never would have happened all at once but for the shock to the system of this pandemic.


I offer myself as Exhibit A. A few weeks into the Los Angeles stay-at-home, I went through my drawers and closet, and weeded for donation a slew of clothes I owned but rarely wore. Pointless acquisition stared back at me from filled boxes destined for charity. I then cut the cable in favor of Sling, and haven’t missed it. Biggest of all, my family used to buy food several times a week. Grocery store, Trader Joe runs, a burrito at El Chavo, ice cream pit stops. From the start of the crisis, it’s now an every-two-weeks trip to the supermarket, and if we don’t have it on hand, we don’t eat it. I’ve learned that barley goes as well with chicken as rice does, and that two adults and a hungry teen can eat brilliantly on $170 a week. Never would have happened but for the crisis, and I doubt we’ll ever go back to the way we were before. How it was seems, somehow, shameful.


To be sure, my de facto wife and I have the greatest privileges of all in this time. She’s a clinical psychologist whose practice is holding up fine through tele-therapy, and as a writer I haven’t been smashed in the face economically like so many, though it has been a bummer to launch a new book now. Our challenges have been personal, moral, and even religious. Personal, in the long hard look in the mirror. Moral, considering hierarchies of responsibility to others, and in the recognition that others’ calculi about participation in economic and social life may be based on different heuristics and assessments of risk from ours. Religious, in having patterns of observance turned upside down.


Our system, in short, has been shocked.


The same thing was true in Beate Sirota Gordon’s life and world, only more so. I write about those shocks in No Steps Behind: Beate Sirota Gordon’s Battle for Women’s Rights in Japan, illustrated with dazzling precision and insight by the incomparable Shiella Witanto.


At the age of five, her Jewish parents executed a culture shock, moving young Beate from cosmopolitan Vienna, Austria to Tokyo, Japan. In Vienna, the Sirotas’ world the crème de crème of artistic society, as Leo Sirota was an ultra-world-class pianist. In Tokyo, she knew no one. She responded to the shock by embracing Japan and its people, noting with disgust the general misogyny, and learning perfect Japanese to go with her German and Russian (check out the Youtube video of her https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95k6yrnnxKM).


Then came the rise of Japanese military adventurism, the Nazis, and the Axis. Her family being stripped of its Austrian citizenship, rending them stateless. Another shock when her family sent her to America to Mills College, because it was the closest school to Tokyo where she might be safe. Then, Pearl Harbor, World War II, and the firebombing of Japanese cities, with Beate not knowing if her parents were alive or dead. In Europe, the Nazis and their collaborators waged the one-sided war against the Jews we call the Holocaust. Then, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Japanese surrender, and the American occupation of that nation.


By the end of the war, Beate was a Mills College graduate, spoke German, Russian, Japanese, French, English, and some Spanish, and was enlisted by the American military to be an interpreter in Japan. After finding her parents alive, interned far from Tokyo in the freezing mountains, she was placed on the committee drafting a new, democratic constitution for America’s former arch-enemy. Through her sole efforts – it never would have happened but for her – she managed to include two major equal rights for women clauses in that document. Today, even after her death, she is a Japanese national hero, with books, plays, and movies about her in that nation (http://www.beateg.com/en/index.html).


Beate was a crucial catalyst, for sure. But would Japan have ever considered a radical change to its social system but for the shock to its cultural system that arose from a humiliating defeat, and unconditional surrender to America and the Allies? Doubtful. Let’s face it: there are plenty of nations on earth today where misogyny is institutionalized, either de jure or de facto. With the shock to its system, Japan’s constitution does something that the American constitution still does not do, which is to guarantee equal rights to women.


We are just starting to see the effects of the Covid-19 shock on our world, nation, communities, families, and selves. May they prove as positive as the ones that Beate helped to bring to Japan.

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