September 15, 2015
Beate Sirota Gordon (October 25, 1923 – December 30, 2012), was the daughter of Russian Jewish parents who at 22 almost single-handedly wrote women’s rights into the Constitution of modern Japan, and then kept silent about it for decades. She was neither lawyer nor constitutional scholar, Beate was an unlikely candidate for the task. She had remarkable talents and personal history, which put her in the right place at the right time. Her work — drafting language that gave women a set of legal rights pertaining to marriage, divorce, property and inheritance that they had long been without in Japan’s feudal society — had an effect on their status that endures to this day.
Beate was born in Vienna, where her parents had settled. When she was 5, her father was invited to teach at the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo, and the family moved there for a planned six-month stay. Mr. Sirota soon became revered in Japan as a performer and teacher, and they wound up living in Tokyo for more than a decade. Beate was educated at a German school in Tokyo and, from the mid-1930s on, after the school became far too Nazified for her parents’ liking, at the American School in Japan.
From the age of five to 15 she had lived there while her father Leo Sirota, a concert pianist from Ukraine, taught at the Imperial Academy. The land seemed enchanted to her, all exquisite gardens and cherry blossom and black-eyed, straight-haired children with whom, unusually for a Westerner, she was allowed to play. Over puppet shows and shuttlecock games she picked up the language, she claimed, in just three-and-a-half months. And she learned other things. Japanese women, for example, never came to her mother’s parties. Only the men came. Japanese women would serve their husband’s friends dinner, then eat alone in the kitchen. In the street they always walked three or four paces behind the men. They were usually married to men they did not know, could inherit nothing, and could even be bought and sold, like chattels.
In 1939, shortly before her 16th birthday, she left for Mills College in Oakland, Calif. Her parents remained in Japan. In December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it became impossible to contact Japan. Beate had no word from her parents, and no money. She put her foreign language prowess to work: by this time, she was fluent in English, Japanese, German, French, Spanish and Russian. Obtaining permission from Mills to take examinations without having to attend classes, she took a job at a United States government listening post in San Francisco, monitoring radio broadcasts from Tokyo. She later worked in San Francisco for the United States Office of War Information, writing radio scripts urging Japan to surrender. Beate Sirota received her bachelor’s degree in modern languages from Mills in 1943 and became a United States citizen in January 1945. At war’s end, she still did not know whether her parents were alive or dead.
For American civilians, travel to Japan was all but impossible. She went to Washington, where she secured a job as an interpreter on General MacArthur’s staff. Arriving in a devastated Tokyo on Christmas Eve 1945, she went immediately to her family’s house. Where it had stood was only a single charred pillar. She eventually found her parents, who had been interned in the countryside and were malnourished. She took them to Tokyo, where she nursed them while continuing her work for General MacArthur.
One of MacArthur’s first priorities was drafting a constitution for postwar Japan, a top-secret assignment, begun in February 1946, that had to be finished in just seven days. Beate’s job, which she did very well, was to translate Japanese. But suddenly there she was, called in with two dozen men, to write—in deepest secrecy—the basic law for post-war Japan. In a week. “Beate, you’re a woman,” said her colleagues. “Why don’t you do the bit about women’s rights?” “Wonderful, I’d love to!” she cried—and then realized she had no idea how. Until that time, Japanese women were property to be bought and sold on a whim. Beate had seen women’s lives firsthand during the 10 years she lived in Japan, and urgently wanted to improve their status.
In chilly, ruined Tokyo in the spring of 1946, commandeering a jeep at the start of that week in February, she visited the libraries in Tokyo that were still standing, borrowing copies of as many different countries’ constitutions as she could. She steeped herself in them and, after seven days of little sleep, wound up drafting two articles of the proposed Japanese Constitution.
women’s right to paid work, to custody of children, to equal education. Much of it was stripped out, because it made the men’s eyes water on the American side as much as the Japanese. A kindly colonel pointed out that she had put in far more rights than were in America’s constitution. She fired back that that wasn’t hard. He told her that matters like divorce did not belong there. She informed him, from long experience of trying to sort out her parents’ papers with Japanese bureaucrats, that if rights were not already mentioned in a constitution they would never be written into the civil code. Then, to her huge vexation, she burst into tears.
One, Article 14, said in part, “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.” The other, Article 24, gave women protections in areas including “choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters. The Japanese negotiators hated Article 24. But because they liked her, and because they were told that “Miss Sirota’s heart is set on this” (with no word of the fact that this mere girl had also written it), they acquiesced. And so, to her astonished satisfaction, history was made. The new Constitution took effect in 1947; the next year, Beate Sirota married Joseph Gordon, who had been the chief interpreter for American military intelligence in postwar Japan.
In the 1950s, Ms. Gordon joined the staff of the Japan Society in New York, becoming its director of performing arts. In that capacity, she introduced many Japanese artists to the West, including masters of traditional music, dance, woodblock printing and the tea ceremony. In 1970, she became director of performing arts at the Asia Society in New York. She scoured Asia for talent, bringing Balinese gamelan ensembles, Vietnamese puppeteers, Mongolian dancers and many others to stages throughout the United States and Canada. She retired in 1991 as the society’s director of performances, films and lectures. Ms. Gordon’s husband became a real estate developer.
For decades, Ms. Gordon said nothing about her role in postwar Japan, at first because the work was secret and later because she did not want her youth — and the fact that she was an American — to become ammunition for the Japanese conservatives who have long clamored for constitutional revision. But in the mid-1980s, she began to speak of it publicly. The release of her memoir, “The Only Woman in the Room,” published in Japanese in 1995 and in English two years later, made her a celebrity in Japan, where she lectured widely, appeared on television and was the subject of a stage play and a documentary film, “The Gift From Beate.”
Beate was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, a high honor bestowed by the Japanese government, in 1998. But perhaps the greatest accolade she received came from Japanese women themselves. Whenever she visited Japan in later years women would cluster round to take her photograph, press her hand and thank her for her gift to them. “They always want their picture taken with me,” Beate told ABC News in 1999. “They always want to shake my hand. They always tell me how grateful they are.”
Beate Sirota (left, front) listens to a koto performance with her parents, Augustine and Leo, in November 1929.