The heroine of a remarkable love story, Edith deBecker Sebald worked as a specialist for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, and later served with her husband William in the U.S. Embassies in Burma and Australia.
Edith Frances deBecker was born in Japan, in 1903 (some sources say Kamakura, others list Yokohama). She was the daughter of Joseph Ernest deBecker, a South African-born British citizen, and a Japanese mother from the powerful Minamoto clan (and who claimed to be a direct descendant of Japanese emperor Seiwa). Mr. deBecker practiced international law in Kobe, Japan, was granted Japanese citizenship, and took the Japanese name Kobayashi Beika. Edith was educated in England, and later attended a finishing school in Boston, where she became engaged to a British naval officer. When the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) visited Yokohama in 1923, he reportedly praised her as Japan’s most beautiful Eurasian girl. After the death of her mother in 1925, she returned to Japan. In 1927 she met William Sebald, a career U.S. Naval officer who was working as a language officer attached to the US Embassy in Tokyo. After that first meeting Edith rushed home to tell her father "What do you think--I'm engaged to two men now!" DeBecker was outraged. However, he agreed to meet the young American, and was impressed by his fund of knowledge. When asked about his career prospects, Sebald replied, "I might even study law and come back here to practice with you. You said you needed help." Edith’s father finally consented to the union, with the expectation that Sebald would ultimately join his law office.
Even worse for Edith, once married she would lose her Japanese citizenship, while as a woman with 50 percent Asian ancestry she was racially ineligible to acquire U.S. citizenship through her husband.
The two decided to marry, although their union meant a sacrifice for both. Sebald's superiors told him that under established rules he couldn't marry till his three-year enlistment was finished, and that such a marriage would ruin his career. Even worse for Edith, once married she would lose her Japanese citizenship, while as a woman with 50 percent Asian ancestry she was racially ineligible to acquire U.S. citizenship through her husband. (It is unclear whether she could have claimed British nationality, even though her father had renounced his—two of her brothers ultimately served with the British Army during World War II, while a sister and her British-born husband were interned by the Japanese at the notorious San Tomas internment camp in the Philippines).
After marrying at All Saints Church in Kobe, the couple moved to the United States in 1928. For the next two decades, Edith was relegated to the status of a stateless woman. She could only reside in the United States using a temporary residence permit, which had to be renewed every six months. When she returned from a trip abroad, she always feared the consequences if the country refused to admit her. Under pressure from colleagues, William Sebald resigned from the Navy, entered the Reserves, and entered the University of Maryland to study law. Once Sebald was admitted to the bar in 1933, the couple returned to Japan, and William established the firm of “deBecker and Sebald,” specializing in international law. William also wrote a pair of English-language books on Japanese law. During the following years, as American-Japanese tensions grew, Sebald was regularly followed by secret agents and accused of being an American spy.
In late December 1941, the FBI searched the Sebalds’ home and took some items. (After a call from McCollum to the director of ONI, the same agents returned to the house, restored the missing items and apologized).
In 1939, with the clouds of war drawing closer, the Sebalds returned to the United States and settled in Washington DC. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, both spouses offered their services to the U.S. government. On the afternoon of December 7, William Sebald called Commander Arthur McCollum of the Office of Naval Information and offered to return to active duty, arguing that his knowledge of Japan and fluency in Japanese language would be useful to the government. He was initially engaged as a civilian advisor, then activated as a Commander in the U.S. Navy. He ultimately rose to the position of chief of the Pacific Section of Navy Combat Intelligence. The Sebalds were initially the target of suspicion nevertheless because of Edith’s status as a (perceived) “enemy alien.” In late December 1941, the FBI searched the Sebalds’ home and took some items. (After a call from McCollum to the director of ONI, the same agents returned to the house, restored the missing items and apologized). While her husband worked overseas, Edith was stationed in Washington DC, where she was engaged as a consultant in psychological warfare by the Office of Strategic Services. Although her specific assignment remained classified, it presumably also revolved around treatment of Japanese-language materials. Edith later recounted that she was appalled that the OSS people for whom she worked were profoundly ignorant about Japan.
When the news arrived that President Harry Truman had signed the law, she stated, “You can’t imagine how wonderful it is. I can come and go to America as I please. It’s what Billy and I waited for, for nineteen years. But all that waiting was worthwhile.”
It is not clear how long Mrs. Sebald served in the OSS. However, her service must have been valuable, as she attracted national prominence in 1946 when, in tribute to her wartime efforts, she was "adopted" by the U.S. and granted permanent residency by means of an Act of Congress sponsored by Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland. When the news arrived that President Harry Truman had signed the law, she stated, “You can’t imagine how wonderful it is. I can come and go to America as I please. It’s what Billy and I waited for, for nineteen years. But all that waiting was worthwhile.” In April 1953, following passage of the McCarran Walter immigration act, she would become a US citizen.
Meanwhile, both Sebalds moved to Tokyo, where William Sebald served under U.S. occupation forces as chief of general headquarters of the Supreme Command for Allied Powers (SCAP) and chair of the Allied Council. There he worked closely with General Douglas MacArthur. Edith served as official cohost of many official functions presented by the MacArthurs, and became a close associate of Jean MacArthur. (It was also Edith Sebald who interrupted an embassy pool party on June 25, 1950 to warn the embassy staff and General MacArthur that North Korea had invaded South Korea—she had heard the news on Japanese radio).
In 1952, President Harry Truman named William Sebald ambassador to the newly independent nation of Burma. While Burma held to a policy of nonalignment, during his time in Burma Sebald attended the Manila conference, at which the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed. Edith ran the embassy and collected art. In 1954, Sebald was named Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, charged with advising Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on Japanese issues. The Sebalds thus returned to Washington. In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Sebald Ambassador to Australia, and he served in Camberra for four years.
For his work in Japan, William Sebald would ultimately be awarded the First Class Order of the Rising Sun with Cordon. Mrs. Sebald was a painter and the author of a cookbook on Japanese cuisine.
After leaving the diplomatic service in 1961, William Sebald settled in Washington and practiced law and wrote the memoir, With MacArthur in Japan (1966). For his work in Japan, William Sebald would ultimately be awarded the First Class Order of the Rising Sun with Cordon. Mrs. Sebald was a painter and the author of a cookbook on Japanese cuisine. In 1966, the Sebalds settled in Naples, Florida. William Sebald died in 1980. Mrs. Sebald died of an aneurysm at her home a year later.
Edith de Becker Sebald, “Burma Interlude: Reminiscences of an Ambassador's Wife.” (1967) Manuscript on file with Hoover Institution Library, Stanford University
“Captain William Joseph Sebald,” in Captain Steven E. Maffeo, U.S. Navy Codebreakers, Linguists, and Intelligence Agents in the War Against Japan, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, pp. 340-46
“Love Conquered Mrs. Edith Sebald, but only Congress Could Write the Happy Ending,” Milwaukee Sentinel, November 23, 1947, p. 30
Greg Robinson is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal and researcher at the Chaire Raoul-Dandurand. He is the author of By Order of the President (Harvard, 2001) which uncovers President Franklin Roosevelt’s involvement in the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans, and A Tragedy of Democracy (Columbia, 2009), winner of the AAAS History prize, which studies Japanese American and Candian confinement in transnational context. His book After Camp (UC Press, 2012), winner of the Caroline Bancroft Prize, centers on post war resettlement. His latest book is The Great Unknown (Colorado 2016).