Beate Sirota Gordon: Human rights reformer who helped draft Japan's constitution

 

Beate Sirota Gordon lived enough lives to beggar belief. Fluent in English, German, French, Japanese and Russian, she was a linguist who shaped 20th-century history.

As an influencer, midwife to recordings and director of the performing arts, she reset the gold standard for North American arts programming by dint of her work with the Japan and Asia Societies and her address book. Yet for much of her life, her other achievements were not merely veiled in secrecy, but classified. Those details eventually emerged, notably in her 1997 memoir The Only Woman in the Room, from which she emerged as a self-effacing, instinctual advocate of civil and women's rights: Yehudi Menuhin called it "a prime example of truth being stranger and at the same time more coherent than fiction."

A naturalised US citizen from 1947, Beate Sirota was born in 1923 in cosmopolitan Vienna in that queasy hangover period experienced by former Austro-Hungarian Empire nations. She was the only child of Augustine – elder sister of the conductor Jascha Horenstein – and Leo Sirota of middle-class Russian-Jewish stock. She wrote that her mother named her after Stefan Zweig's Frau Beate; actually, it was Arthur Schnitzler who wrote Frau Beate und ihr Sohn ("Mrs Beate and her son").

In 1929, her pianist father accepted a six-month concert tour engagement in Japan and stayed. The family put down roots in Tokyo's Nogizaka district. She did not know it, but, at the age of five, she had left Europe more or less for good, though she fondly recalled a pre-war return and her father's eagerness to attend Vienna's Freudenau racecourse.

She was educated through the medium of German at Tokyo's German school, but soaked up Japanese. Her father's reputation was such that over the next years he performed classical piano recitals not only in Japan but also in China, Korea and Manchuria, taught music at Tokyo's prestigious Imperial Academy and gave private lessons at home. Suspicious of him teaching not only Japanese students but ones from Korea, Manchuria, Europe, America and Russia, this last activity brought him under surveillance by the Kempeitai (Military Police Corps).

As political events unfolded in Europe, her German school increasingly mirrored the National Socialist metamorphosis, and when she was 12 her parents transferred her to Tokyo's American School. In 1939 she moved to California to study. After Pearl Harbor left her stranded and alone in December 1941, as one of fewer than 100 Caucasians with Japanese-language fluency nationally, she was exempted from attending classes at Mills College while working for the Office of War Information's Foreign Broadcast Information Service, monitoring radio broadcasts and writing propaganda. She obtained her bachelor's degree in modern languages in 1943.

On Christmas Eve 1945, her parents' fates unknown, she flew into Atsugi Airport near Yokohama, the first female civilian flown into Occupied Japan. She quickly established that her parents had survived internment and were at the family's summer home in Karuizawa. She set about working on a hush-hush and politically sensitive project: the American rush-drafting of post-war Japan's Constitution.

For all its industrial-military modernity, Japan was an oppressive feudal state. It discriminated against its indigenous Ainu tribal people and operated a caste system based on occupation or descent, with discrimination against the Burakumin a match for India's against its Untouchables. Japan also granted most women little status beyond that of chattels for buying and selling.

Sirota was not a legislator or a lawyer, yet she had a unique cultural and linguistic appreciation and overview of Japanese ways, and her clear-sighted reforms parallel Dr BR Ambedkar's drafting of India's constitution. Facing a defeated nation and fearing Soviet intervention, the Douglas MacArthur-directed team had fewer political impediments and drove through democratic changes.

Her subcommittee's proposals hauled Japanese women into a brave new world of consensual marriage, property and inheritance rights, and divorce. Another article in which Sirota had a major hand stipulated: "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." The constitution came into force in May 1947.

In 1947, the Sirotas moved to the US. The year after, she married Joseph Gordon, who had headed the interpreter-translator unit; they settled in New York. In 1954 she joined the re-launched Japan Society, working on its student programme – one student she assisted was Yoko Ono – and by 1958 was programming arts events.

By 1960 she was working as an arts consultant for the Asia Society. She eventually directed its Performing Arts Programme for 23 years, starting with breakthrough national tours of Asian artists in 1971-72. She spent time in Burma, Bengal, Sarawak and Indonesia, seeking out traditional arts to feed North American minds. These included Australian Aboriginal sand-painters, Korea's Samul Nori ensemble, the koto player Kimio Eto and Pakistan's Sabri Brothers. In her memoir she declared, "I put all my efforts into trying to communicate the essence of Asian culture to Americans through first-rate, purely traditional art forms."

Tomoko Fujiwara's films The Gift from Beate (2004), about the evolution of women's rights in Japan, and the self-explanatory The Sirota Family and the 20th Century (2008) recount two of her lives.

Ken Hunt

Beate Sirota Gordon, linguist, human rights reformer and arts director: born Vienna 25 October 1923; married 1948 Joseph Gordon (one son, one daughter); died New York 30 December 2012.

News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
peopleSir Patrick took a more understated approach to the challenge
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
scienceTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Arts and Entertainment
tvWe have created an infogaphic that looks back over the previous incarnations of the Doctor
Sport
Olivier Giroud celebrates after his late goal saved Arsenal a point at Goodison Park
football Giroud rescues a point for Arsenal after they trailed by two goals
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100
News
newsComedian Lee Hurst started trend with first tweet using the hashtag
News
i100
News
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was left red faced but, thankfully, unhurt after taking a few too many steps backwards, sending her tumbling off the stage.
people
Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
i100
Extras
indybest

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition