Beate Sirota Gordon and women’s rights in Japan

After the surrender of Japan at the end of the Second World War, General Douglas MacArthur was placed in command of the U.S. Occupation forces and the rebuilding of Japan.  Part of the rebuilding was to write a Constitution.  On his staff was a young 22 year old woman, Beate Sirota.  Sirota was the only woman assigned to the group to write the draft.  And as the only woman, she was assigned the sections dealing with women’s rights, sections responsible for the modern role of women in Japan today.  Beate Sirota Gordon died on Sunday at 89.  Her obituary was in today’s New York Times.  Her story is fascinating.

The daughter of Leo Sirota and the former Augustine Horenstein, Beate (pronounced bay-AH-tay) Sirota was born on Oct. 25, 1923, 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. 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.

Sirota used her considerable language skills to get work listening to Japanese radio while completing work on her degree at Mills.  She did not know if her parents were alive.

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.

She was assigned to the committee drafting the Constitution.

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.

The two articles she wrote gave Japanese women rights that American women were not, and are still not Constitutionally guaranteed.

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.”

Beate Sirota Gordon in 1947, the year the Japanese Constitution took effect.

It set a basis for a better, a more equal society,” Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, said Monday in a telephone interview. “By just writing those things into the Constitution — our Constitution doesn’t have any of those things — Beate Gordon intervened at a critical moment. And what kind of 22-year-old gets to write a constitution?”

Obviously an extraordinary one.  And as if putting women’s rights into the Japanese Constitution were not enough,  she went on to a career with first the Japan Society and then the Asia Society bring exhibits and performers to the United States.  As a child, I probably saw some of the exhibits and performances for which she was responsible since our family often drove up to New York City to view special exhibits or attend performances (particularly Kabuki).

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.”

What life to celebrate!

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