Obituary: The Vienna-born heroine who gave equal rights to Japanese women
A Viennese-born woman who single handedly rewrote the constitution of Japan to give women equal rights has died aged 89, the New York Times reports.
Beate Sirota Gordon was born in Vienna on Oct. 25, 1923, as the daughter of Russian Jewish parents, and died of pancreatic cancer, her daughter, Nicole Gordon, said.
Beate was the daughter of Leo Sirota and the former Augustine Horenstein, Beate Sirota.
When she was 5, her father was invited to teach at the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo, and the family moved there from Austria 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. 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.
But she then put her foreign language prowess to work: by this time, she was fluent in English, Japanese, German, French, Spanish and Russian.
Obtaining permission from her college 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. As the only woman assigned to his constitutional committee, along with two dozen men, young Beate Sirota was deputized to compose the section on women’s rights.
She had seen women’s lives firsthand during the 10 years she lived in Japan, and urgently wanted to improve their status.
“Japanese women were historically treated like chattel; they were property to be bought and sold on a whim,” Ms. Gordon told The Dallas Morning News in 1999. “Women had no rights whatsoever.”
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.
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 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, who became a real estate developer, died last August. Besides her daughter, she is survived by a son, Geoffrey, and three grandchildren.
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.”
In recent years, amid renewed attacks on the Constitution by Japanese conservatives, Ms. Gordon spoke out ardently in its defense.
Ms. Gordon 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.
“They always want their picture taken with me,” Ms. Gordon told ABC News in 1999. “They always want to shake my hand. They always tell me how grateful they are.”