Beate Sirota Gordon has lived the life of a trailblazer, albeit accidentally, she says.
While spending her adolescence in Tokyo, where her pianist father taught at the Imperial Academy of Music, she noticed that Japanese women enjoyed few rights in the 1930s — they had to walk behind their husbands, could not initiate a divorce and had no inheritance or property rights.
After she joined Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in Japan after World War II to reunite with her parents, Sirota Gordon was given a hand in changing Japan’s attitude toward women by writing progressive codes of women’s and human rights into the Japanese constitution.
Author of the memoir “The Only Woman in the Room,” Sirota Gordon will make her first appearance in Los Angeles at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo on May 16 to discuss her personal experiences and her advocacy for equal rights for Japanese women.
Vienna-born Sirota Gordon first arrived in Japan in 1929 when her father, concert pianist Leo Sirota, was hired as a faculty member at the Imperial Academy of Music. He was happy to take a position that allowed him to stop touring, Sirota Gordon explains, and the family fell in love with Japan.
But observing their Jewish heritage was a challenge, she said.
“There wasn’t even a minyan in Tokyo,” Sirota Gordon said during a recent phone interview from New York. “My mother always had Pesach … and she always gave a dinner. There was no matzah in Tokyo, so we got it from Harbin [in Northeast China], where there were many Russian Jews. It always came a day late though.”
Sirota Gordon studied at the German School in Tokyo for six years but was moved to the American School at age 12 when her parents noticed Nazi anti-Semitism taking root. After graduating high school at 15, Sirota Gordon was sent to the all-girls Mills College in Oakland, where she said the president, Aurelia Henry Reinhardt, was an early feminist and encouraged the students to pursue careers.
Inspired by her musical family, Beate had dreams of a life on stage and pursued them at Mills.
“At first I wanted to be a dancer, but then my mother told me I might never be a first-rate dancer, and being a second-rate dancer meant dancing in small little towns with small little dirty hotels and small little dirty halls to perform in,” she said.
But after Beate took an acting class, the instructor let her down easy.
“The teacher told me I had a lot of good qualities, but she said, ‘You’ll never become a first-class actress.’ She was not as dramatic as my mother,” she said. “Instead, I went into languages and literature.”
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Sirota Gordon was separated from her parents. As one of the few non-Asian Japanese speakers in the United States at the time, she took a summer job with the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service. She became so valuable to the agency that officials convinced Mills College President Reinhardt to let her stay on and complete her studies by turning in papers and taking exams independently rather than attending classes.
She finished college six months later but it wasn’t easy.
“From 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., I studied for examinations and prepared my term papers, then had lunch and worked the swing shift from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. I came home at midnight, and at 8 a.m. started all over again,”
Sirota Gordon said. “I never went out at all — not to a dinner, a concert; neither did I take Saturday or Sunday off. It was so exhausting. I looked a few years later at my calendar of the next year or two after I finished and it looked like I went out every night.”
It was through translating broadcasts that she learned her father had been dismissed from the Imperial Academy in 1943, and her parents spent the rest of the war in detention in the city of Karuizawa.
Before the war ended, Time magazine hired Sirota Gordon to work as an editorial researcher at its New York office, where she focused on topics related to Japan. She said many of the women working for the publication at that time had advanced degrees but were employed as researchers and secretaries, not writers, and were paid less than their male counterparts. “They were highly progressive and intelligent women. I was always the youngest, and they took me under their care,” Sirota Gordon said.
At the end of World War II, Sirota Gordon had been separated from her parents for five years and was determined to get back to Japan to find them. When she applied for a tourist visa in Washington, D.C., an official informed her that only civilians attached to the Army could travel to Japan. “He asked what I could offer, and I said I lived in Japan for 10 years and I speak Japanese. He said, ‘Don’t tell me any more. You’re hired; you’ll leave in two weeks,’ ” she said.
Attached to the Political Affairs Division, Sirota Gordon worked on Gen. MacArthur’s staff and became part of the drafting committee responsible for writing a postwar Japanese constitution. She was tasked with incorporating women’s and human rights statutes.
Sirota Gordon says she was inspired by the discrimination against women she observed in Japan and in the United States, particularly the women she worked with at Time magazine.
Although Sirota Gordon’s reasons for returning to Japan were personal, the result has had a long-lasting impact on the country. It is in large part because of Sirota Gordon that Japan ended up with a constitution that strongly protects women’s rights and equality.
Sirota Gordon says that Japan, and the many places where she lived and worked afterward, have had a strong influence on her.
“There are many good things I have been fortunate to receive from many nationalities and peoples,” Sirota Gordon said. “I don’t know which country it comes from anymore; it’s all amalgamated in me. Is it from my Japanese experience? My Russian friends? My Jewish friends? I don’t know anymore.”
As a pivotal figure in the dramatic social transformation of another culture, Sirota Gordon strongly believes our own society could be improved if people spent less time worrying about finding themselves and focused more of it on reaching out to others.
“There isn’t a real community spirit anymore,” Sirota Gordon lamented. “It’s me, myself and my greed, and that’s it. People need to look at what they hope for in the future and actually do something about it.”
Beate Sirota Gordon will speak May 16 at 2 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum, ($27, members; $30, nonmembers — advance reservations and payment required). Her talk will follow an 11 a.m. screening of Tomoko Fujiwara’s award-winning documentary, “Sirota Family & the 20th Century.” For more information, visit http://www.janm.org/events.
Articles Addressing Women and Human Rights in Japan’s Constitution
The people shall not be prevented from enjoying any of the fundamental human rights. These fundamental human rights guaranteed to the people by this Constitution shall be conferred upon the people of this and future generations as eternal and inviolate rights.
1) 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.
2) Peers and peerage shall not be recognized.
3) No privilege shall accompany any award of honor, decoration or any distinction, nor shall any such award be valid beyond the lifetime of the individual who now holds or hereafter may receive it.
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.
The qualifications of members of both Houses and their electors shall be fixed by law. However, there shall be no discrimination because of race, creed, sex, social status, family origin, education, property or income.