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Birth of Beate Sirota Gordon, who wrote equality into the postwar Japanese constitution

October 25, 1923

“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.”

These revolutionary words from Article 14 of the post-World War II Japanese Constitution were written by a 22-year-old American woman, Beate Sirota Gordon.  She also wrote Article 24, which embedded equal rights for marriage partners in that constitution.  It reads, "Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.  With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes."

Gordon’s remarkable story came about through a series of incidents that placed her and her considerable talents in the right place at the right time.  As Margalit Fox wrote in the New York Times’s obituary for Gordon on January 1, 2013, “Had her father not been a concert pianist of considerable renown; had she not been so skilled at foreign languages; and had she not been desperate to find her parents, from whom she was separated during the war and whose fate she did not know for years, she never would have been thrust into her quiet, improbable role in world history.  Nor would she have been apt to embark on her later career as a prominent cultural impresario, one of the first people to bring traditional Asian performing arts to audiences throughout North America—a job, pursued vigorously until she was nearly 70, that entailed travel to some of Asia’s most remote, inaccessible reaches.”

Born on this date in Vienna, and educated in Tokyo, Beate (pronounced bay-AH-tay) Sirota was the only child of Augustine (Horenstein) and noted pianist Leo Sirota, a Ukrainian Jew who had fled war-torn Russia and settled in Austria.  A six-month contract for her musician father turned into a decades-long residence in Japan.  In 1939, shortly before her 16th birthday, Beate left for Mills College in Oakland, California, while her parents remained in Japan.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, she was left with no money and no way of contacting her parents.  Obtaining permission from the college to take her examinations without attending classes, she put her foreign language prowess to work: by this time, she was fluent in English, Japanese, German, French, Spanish, and Russian.  She began working for the US government translating Japanese broadcasts and preparing scripts for broadcast to Japan urging surrender.  Beate received her bachelor’s degree in modern languages from Mills in 1943 and became a United States citizen in January 1945.  Since travel by American citizens to Japan was not possible, she went to Washington, where she secured a job as an interpreter on General MacArthur’s staff.  She arrived in Tokyo on Christmas Eve, 1945 and finally found her parents interned in the countryside.  She brought them to Tokyo to live with her and recuperate. 

MacArthur’s staff was assigned to construct a new Japanese Constitution in just seven days.  In her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room, Beate recounted the response to her draft of the articles.

Lt. Col. Charles L. Kades, head of the constitutional steering committee said, “My God, you have given Japanese women more rights than in the American Constitution,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Colonel Kades, that’s not very difficult to do, because women are not in the American Constitution.’” The test came when the draft was submitted to a group of Japanese ministers and politicians for approval.  Japan's prewar civil code regarded wives as incompetent.  In 1946, Japanese women had virtually no rights of inheritance, property, or divorce, and could not even choose their own husbands.

“Immediately they said, ‘This doesn’t fit our culture, doesn’t fit our history; it doesn’t fit our way of life,’” Ms. Gordon said of a 2:00 AM confrontation.  But during the previous 14 hours of debates, the young American woman had won the gratitude of the Japanese leaders for backing them in previous disagreements with the Americans.  As she recalled it, “Colonel Kades said, ‘Miss Sirota has her heart set on the women’s rights clause, so why don’t we pass it?’”

The new Japanese 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 Beate worked for the Japan Society, eventually becoming its director of performing arts.  She took a similar post with the Asia Society in 1970, where she introduced a wealth of performers, 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.

Because her work was secret, Ms. Gordon said nothing about her role in postwar Japan.  She later remained silent 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.  It was not until the mid-1980s, when the clauses came under attack by Japanese conservatives, that she began to speak out about it publicly and ardently.

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.

Ms. Gordon was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, a high honor bestowed by the Japanese government, in 1998.

“It set a basis for a better, a more equal society,” said Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University.  “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?”

Sources: “Fighting to Protect Her Gift to Japanese Women,” May 28, 2005 and “Beate Gordon, Long-Unsung Heroine of Japanese Women’s Rights, Dies at 89,” January 1, 2013, New York Times.

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Beate Sirota Gordon, 1987
Full image

Beate Sirota Gordon.

Taken by Photographer Mark Stern at the Asia Society in 1987.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Birth of Beate Sirota Gordon, who wrote equality into the postwar Japanese constitution." (Viewed on June 23, 2017) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/oct/25/1923/birth-of-beate-sirota-gordon-who-wrote-equality-into-post-war-japanese>.

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