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The Shojo Power of Beate Sirota Gordon

A young white woman in a long black coat stands on a ramp to a boat.

Beate Sirota Gordon leaving for Japan.
Credit: Asia Society

A year ago, I was perusing nytimes.com when I stumbled upon an article titled, “Beate Gordon, Long-Unsung Heroine of Japanese Women’s Rights, Dies at 89.” This article BLEW. MY. MIND. After graduating college, a 22 year old white woman went to Japan and wrote part of the Japanese constitution?! How come I didn’t know this? I had to know more.

Unfortunately, I was about to embark on a real-life lesson in how women’s contributions to history are erased, minimized, and made inaccessible. This article lead me to a documentary called The Gift from Beate; however, only a limited number of copies were made for educational purposes. I couldn’t find it on Netflix, Amazon.com or IMDB.com. I tried contacting the makers of the documentary via email, but to no avail.

Beate Sirota Gordon (BSG) did write an autobiography which was translated into English called The Only Woman in the Room. However, I was met with more obstacles. The book was out of print and used copies on Amazon.com were going for hundreds of dollars. Hundreds of dollars. Undeterred, I went searching through the New York Public Library and I was not disappointed–they had one copy! God bless librarians and public libraries! I proudly placed a hold on the book–despite being number 19 on the waiting list. I waited. And waited. After nearly year , I had moved up to number 12. >:( At this point, I found a copy for $20 on ebay. VICTORY!

After such a long wait for this book, I wondered if it would be worth all the hassle. Boy—was I ever wrong! It was absolutely the best book I read in all of 2013. No lie! The prose is so clear and vivid, you really feel like you are right there with Beate—living vicariously through her privileged childhood in Japan, experiencing the anxiety of trying to find her parents after the war and being stretched to the limit in creating the new Japanese constitution.

But let me start from the beginning.

Beate Sirota was born in 1923 in Vienna, Austria to Leo and Augustine Sirota. Her father was a world renown classical pianist who traveled all over the world. Leo Sirota was incredibly impressed by his treatment and reception in Japan so at the age of five, Beate moved to Tokyo with her parents.

Beate lived in Japan for ten years. As a child, she played with Japanese children and quickly became fluent in Japanese. Languages were truly her super power–she was tutored in Russian, French and English from a young age and studied Spanish in college. During the war, she attended Mills College in California and was scouted by the American government to help with the war effort–despite being an Austrian citizen. She translated Japanese radio broadcasts full time while she finished school. After graduation, she briefly spent time as a researcher for Times magazine before landing a job with the US government that would take her to Japan. The war had severed communication with her parents; she had to physically go to there to find them. The book opens at this point.

Her parents survived the war, but the situation was far from safe. Food was scarce and her parents were malnourished. She observes,

“Women’s rights were a necessity, I knew, but they were a luxury, too, in a land without enough rice or butter” (page 29).

It saddens me a bit for women’s rights to be described as a “luxury.” Even today, women’s rights are used as bargaining chips to appease conservative factions; for many people, women’s rights aren’t human rights. What if women always had the right to vote? Japanese feminist Fusae Ichikawa who had fought for the women’s vote for years prior to 1945, argued that Japan may not have been in this situation to begin with if Japanese women had had the right to vote. That said, I do understand BSG’s point that, in war, those rights are meaningless if you aren’t alive to use them.

I delved into this book with two questions on my mind. In my prior research, I had only come across mentions of Japanese feminists being involved in the constitution; however, it seemed in other articles, BSG was getting sole credit for Article 24. Would this book shed some light on this issue? Additionally, many people cite Article 24 as prohibiting same-sex marriage in Japan. Did BSG intentionally prohibit same-sex marriage?

On February 4th, 1946, BSG’s section was called for a meeting and it was announced that her department was tasked with writing the Japanese constitution. Apparently, the Japanese has turned in a constitution to General MacArthur that differed little from the previous Meiji constitution and General MacArthur was not happy. He would present his own.

I wondered just how much BSG had to fight for the women’s right to vote–in a lot of ways, it was already a given. On October 11, 1945, General MacArthur had decreed Japanese women’s right to vote (page 109). After all, American women had the right to vote, so why not Japanese women? In 1946, American women had only had the right to vote for 26 years. It reminded me just how much fighting for rights in one country can have ramifications around the world. In fact, Japanese feminist Fusae Ichikawa had traveled two decades earlier to the USA to speak to American suffragette Alice Paul. Moreover, BSG based much of what she wrote not on the American constitution, but the 1919 German constitution.

Here is the original article that BSG presented to her American superiors:

18. The family is the basis of human society and its traditions for good or evil permeate the nation. Hence marriage and the family are protected by law, and it is hereby ordained that they shall rest upon the undisputed legal and social equality of both sexes, upon mutual consent instead of parental coercion, and upon cooperation instead of male domination. Laws contrary to these principles shall be abolished, and replaced by others viewing choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.

You’ll notice here, that in this version, it does not specifically mention “husbands and wives;” as the final version does. I wonder if this particular wording would have allowed for same-sex marriage. Below is the official wording that the Emperor proclaimed on November 3rd, 1946. BSG’s memoir does not give any clues as to how this change happened or who made this change.

Article 24. 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.

While several rights for women made it into the constitution, there were several articles written by BSG that were left out. It’s a vivid example of how American history would influence the Japanese constitution. BSG had written seven other articles granting several social welfare rights to mothers and children–that were cut by her American superiors:

19. Expectant and nursing mothers shall have the protection of the State, and such public assistance as they may need, whether married or not. Illegitimate children shall not suffer legal prejudice but shall be granted the same rights and opportunities for their physical, intellectual and social development as legitimate children.

20. No child shall be adopted into any family without the explicit consent of both husband and wife if both are alive, nor shall any adopted child receive preferred treatment to the disadvantage of other members of the family. The rights of primogeniture are hereby abolished.

21. Every child shall be given equal opportunity for individual development, regardless of the conditions of its birth. To that end free, universal and compulsory education shall be provided through public elementary schools, lasting eight years. Secondary and higher education shall be provided free for all qualified students who desire it. School supplies shall be free. State aid may be given to deserving students who need it.

22. Private educational institutions may operate insofar as their standards for curricula, equipment, and the scientific training of their teachers do not fall below those of the public institutions as determined by the State.

23. All schools, public or private, shall consistently stress the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, justice and social obligation; they shall emphasize the paramount importance of peaceful progress, and always insist upon the observance of truth and scientific knowledge and research in the content of their teaching.

24. The children of the nation, whether in public or private schools, shall be granted free medical, dental and optical aid. They shall be given proper rest and recreation, and physical exercise suitable to their development.

25. There shall be no full-time employment of children and young people of school age for wage-earning purposes, and they shall be protected from exploitation in any form. The standards set by the international Labor Office and the united Nations Organization shall be observed as minimum requirements in Japan.

As my American readers may be aware, Americans don’t exactly favor social welfare programs, particularly for women and children. For example, as of January 2014, American women are not guaranteed paid maternity leave by federal law. America is the only industrial country that does not do this. In fact, during the debate of the recent healthcare law, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) argued that insurance companies should not be required to cover maternity care because men do not need maternity care. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) had a few choice words for Senator Kyl:

So, you can bet if 2009 America didn’t think of maternity care as a human right, you can believe it most definitely wasn’t a top priority in 1946. In her book, BSG recalls that her American superiors simply felt that such specifics shouldn’t be included in a national constitution. BSG, however, knew that the chance of these laws being passed by the conservative government would be slim, or take a long time to achieve. In this talk at Middlebury College in 2007, BSG goes into more details regarding the pushback she faced:

This video starts at about an hour into her talk–I highly recommend going back and watching the whole thing. But this pushback from the Americans wouldn’t be the only obstacle BSG would face. The Americans had to present their version of the constitution to the Japanese committee. As you might imagine, the Japanese committee fought tooth and nail against each article. BSG was called in during these discussions to act as an interpreter. When the committee reached Article 24, the Japanese committee, again, were completely against it. It was now that BSG’s gender and personal history worked in her favor:

“This article was written by Miss Sirota,” he [Col. Kades] announced. “She was brought up in Japan, knows the country well, and appreciates the point of view and feelings of Japanese women. There is no way in which the article can be faulted. She has her heart set on this issue. Why don’t we just pass it?” (page 123)

BSG describes that the Japanese committee were stunned to learn that their interpreter had such a personal history and vested interest in the article. They quickly acquiesced and moved onto subsequent articles. And it’s here where her memoir derives its title—Beate Sirota Gordon, at the age of 22, was the only woman in the room.

Beate Sirota Gordon would go on to move to the United States with her parents and gain American citizenship. She continued to work as a bridge between cultures, working as the Director of Performing Arts at both the Japan Society and Asia Society. She brought in countless artists from around the world to perform for the public in New York City.

The Only Woman in the Room illuminated many issues and facts I hadn’t even considered. As someone who manages a blog about Sailor Moon, Beate Sirota Gordon’s story reminded me that an interest in foreign cultures isn’t just a “nice” thing. If the Japanese hadn’t been interested in classical Western music, she may have never moved to Japan and consequently, wouldn’t have been in that room. Who knows what would have happened if she hadn’t been there. Her life proves that the arts play a critical role in women’s rights, international relations, and undoubtedly, for world peace.

During the course of my research for this article, I was delighted to discover that The Only Woman in the Room will be made available again in April 2014. I can’t wait!

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Disclosure: Any purchases of The Only Woman in the Room made from above link supports shojopower.com. Thanks for your support!

Author’s Note: I realized I haven’t covered every aspect of BSG’s life in this post. I also realize that some people may take issue with BSG’s perspective on various things. If you wish to speak about anything regarding BSG that isn’t covered in this post, you are welcome to do so in the comments.

{5 comments… add one}
  • AvatarSidney RaphaelMay 3, 2018, 15:31

    Ms Gorden may have played a constructive role in the negotiations. But she did not introduce an alien idea to Japan when she advocated the right to vote for Japanese women. Japanese women already had the right to vote since the 1920s, well before women in some states in the US had the right to vote.

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