About Beate Sirota Gordon
In 1998, Beate Sirota Gordon, former Performing Arts Director of the Japan Society, was decorated by the Japanese Government for her long-term service to Japanese culture. However, she should be better remembered for her contribution to Japanese women’s equality by drafting portions of the post-World War II Japanese Constitution. How was she, at the age of 22, involved in this historic and highly political enterprise?
- Listen Audio MP3: Beat Sirona Gordon, interviewed on WGBH Morning Stories by the Public radio veteran Tony Kahn (6 minutes)
The Constitution of Japan was ultra-secretly prepared in only 9 days, February 4th to 12th 1946, by 25 Americans including Beate Sirota Gordon. They were the officials of the Government Section, General Headquarters (GHQ). The Constitution was expected to follow “the MacArthur Note” and Washington guidelines. This was because General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, had became convinced that a Japanese committee on constitutional revision was incapable of adequately democratizing the Imperial Constitution and that the Far Eastern Commission (representing the allied powers) might soon intervene in the matter. On 13th February, the Government Section officials delivered their hastily drafted constitution to the Japanese cabinet and said that the adoption would help to protect the imperial throne and to hasten the end of the Allied Occupation. In this off-the-record meeting, Miss Sirota was “the only woman in the room” as an interpreter. After difficult negotiations and wording revisions, on March 6, the Shidehara cabinet published the text as its own handiwork. General MacArthur announced to the world that he was satisfied with the “new and epoch-making” constitution. On the day when it was promulgated by Emperor Hirohito, Gordon and other GHQ members sat at the Diet gallery.
Though imposed by the United States, the Constitution itself was excellent and beneficial for the redevelopment of Japan. The people were released from militarism, which meant no spending on weapons for years to come. For the happiness of the majority, even land reform was conducted to some extent. The drafters were inspired with pacifism and humanistic idealism, for it was right after the war and before the Cold War. The Constitution had 3 new pillars; Renunciation of War, Sovereignty in the People (with the Emperor as symbol of nation), and Abolition of Feudalistic Family System (or Equality of Sexes). The articles on women read:
Article 14. 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.
Article 24. Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of the both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with 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 equalities of the sexes. (The latter half is omitted.)
Beate Gordon was born in Vienna in 1924, the daughter of renowned Russian pianist Leo Sirota. She settled in Japan at the age of five, when her father was invited to teach at the Imperial Music Academy. Their house in Tokyo was a salon of artists from super-traditional KABUKI actors, modern dancers, and European musicians to Japanese painters and sculptors. She grew up in cultural diversity and richness. Meanwhile, through housemaids, friends and ladies coming to her mother’s social circle, Gordon came to know about Japanese women, rich or poor, whose social status was low under the feudalistic family system (…).