The Woman Who Wrote Equality Into Japan’s Constitution Is Born

Viennese-born Beate Gordon spent formative years in Japan and came back after WWII with the U.S. occupation army - to help draft a constitution.

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Japanese officials preparing to sign their country's surrender, USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945.
Japanese officials preparing to sign their country's surrender, USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945. Credit: U.S. Army Signal Corps / Wikimedia Commons

October 25, 1923, is the birthdate of Beate Sirota Gordon, a Viennese-born Jew who spent her formative years in Japan and returned to the country after World War II with the U.S. occupation army, which gave her the task of helping draft a Japanese constitution. She was only 22.

Later, as an impresario, she played a seminal role in introducing American audiences to the cultures of Asia, ranging from Japan to Israel.

Beate Sirota’s parents were Leo Sirota, a professional pianist from Ukraine who had settled in Vienna, and the former Augustine Horenstein, who was born in Kiev and was the sister of the distinguished conductor Jascha Horenstein.

In 1929, when Leo Sirota was offered a temporary position at the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo, he accepted, in part because of the rising anti-Semitism in Vienna, and moved there with his wife and daughter. A six-month appointment turned into a permanent one.

Young Beate mastered Japanese in a few months, and her parents encouraged her to play with local children so that she became very comfortable with Japanese culture. Initially she attended a German school, and when that became intolerable for a Jew, she transferred to Tokyo’s American School.

In 1939, after graduating high school, she enrolled in Mills, a women’s college in San Francisco, living for a time with the family of composer Darius Milhaud, who was teaching there. Milhaud, a French Jew living in exile, was a friend of her parents.

Beate Sirota Gordon, left, in a discussion following a screening of 'The Sirota Family and the 20th Century,' New York, November 17, 2011. Credit: Joel Neville Anderson / Wikimedia Commons

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Beate was completely cut off from her mother and father, who had remained in Japan, and had no way of knowing of their fate.

Once the United States was at war, Sirota, as one of very few Caucasians in the country who was fluent in Japanese, began working as a translator and even as a broadcaster for the U.S. government – as a counterpoint to the propaganda figure Tokyo Rose. After graduation from Mills, she worked full time for the War Department, and following Japan’s surrender joined the political-affairs staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of the Allied occupation forces.

That job gave Sirota the opportunity to return to Japan, which she did on December 24, 1945. Her first order of business was to track down her parents, who, it turned out, had survived, though they had been under house arrest for the war’s duration.

She was soon assigned to a team given seven days to write a new constitution for Japan, and to do so in complete secrecy. Sirota was delegated to the committee preparing the section on human rights.

When Sirota finally was able to speak about her experience, in the 1990s, it turned out this 22-year-old had led the drive to include two key articles in the constitution, one guaranteeing that all Japanese would be equal under the law, with there being “no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.” The second gave women protection in “choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters.”

The Japanese team working with the Americans objected to the clause about women – in Japan, wrote Sirota in her memoir, women were expected to be “six steps behind” the men. But the American officer leading the process, Col. Charles Kadis, cowed his Japanese colleagues by declaring that “Beate has her heart set” on those paragraphs, without revealing that it was she who had written those sections.

Sirota returned to the United States in 1948, together with her parents, and married Lt. Joseph Gordon, who had been the chief translator of the U.S. Army intelligence staff in Tokyo. Over the next 30-plus years, she worked as an impresario, first at the Japan Society and then at the Asia Society, in New York. She was instrumental in bringing performing artists from 16 countries to an America that knew very little about Asia, but, it turned out, was ready to learn.

Beate Gordon died on December 30, 2012, at age 89.

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