Beate Sirota Gordon, a translator who assisted with the drafting of Japan’s post-war constitution and, in the process, became a champion of Japanese gender equality, passed away on Sunday December 30th at the age of 89.
orn in Vienna, Austria, the daughter of internationally acclaimed pianist Leo Sirota, Beate spent the majority of her childhood living in Japan after her Father took a job at the Imperial Academy of Music. Moving to America in 1939 to study at Mills College, she obtained US citizenship and found herself separated from her parents by the outbreak of the Second World War.
With the Japanese surrender in 1945, Beate was determined to return to the country in order to find her parents and so, realising that the only route into the country was through attachment to the military, took a job as a translator and interpreter with the occupying Allied Forces.
At the age of just 22 Beate was assigned to work for the political affairs division under General Douglas MacArthur. Intent on transforming Japan into a liberal democracy in the Western mould, MacArthur decided that the country required an entirely new constitutional document to mark a new era in Japanese politics. Under the assumption that the Japanese lacked both a tradition and, therefore complete understanding of democratic principles – a mistaken assumption, as it happens, given that in the Taishō period at the turn of the 20th century Japanese politics experience a liberalising trend towards representational government for more progressive than in many contemporary Western societies – it was decided that this document should be written, in secret, by members of the Allied staff.
So it was that Beate found herself the only woman in a group of twenty five individuals set to the momentous task of drafting a completely new governing document to dictate the shape of Japanese law and politics. Assigned to the civil rights subcommittee it was, by her own admission, largely through a quirk of circumstance that Beate Shirota came to author several clauses enshrining in law the rights of women.
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.
(1)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. (2) 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.
All people shall have the right to receive an equal education correspondent to their ability, as provided by law.
All people shall have the right and the obligation to work.
These four paragraphs went on to form the legal basis for gender equality in Japan – a topic still hotly debated to this day.
It took many years for the American authorship of the Japanese constitution to be revealed but, once it happened, Beate Sirota became something of a hero figure for many Japanese women, with her life and achievements depicted in stage plays, a number of feature films, and even comic books.
While her status as the leading figure in Japan’s gender emancipation may have been exaggerated, and her characterisation of all pre-war Japanese women as totally subservient to man seem exaggerated in light of a long tradition of, often surprisingly radical, indigenous feminist struggle within the country, it is beyond doubt that Beate Sirota was a hero to many, and that her achievements have been an inspiration to women both in Japan and beyond.
by Sam Jones