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Beate Sirota Gordon, 1923-2012; "The Only Woman In The Room"
January 4, 2013 11:45 AM   Subscribe

Beate Sirota Gordon, Long-Unsung Heroine of Japanese Women’s Rights, Dies at 89: a NYT obituary relates the fascinating story of a young woman who was just the right person in just the right place at just the right time and managed to strike a blow for gender equality.
A civilian attached to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s army of occupation after World War II, Ms. Gordon was the last living member of the American team that wrote Japan’s postwar Constitution.

Her work — drafting language that gave women a set of legal rights pertaining to marriage, divorce, property and inheritance that they had long been without in Japan’s feudal society — had an effect on their status that endures to this day.

“It set a basis for a better, a more equal society,” Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, said Monday... “By just writing those things into the Constitution — our Constitution doesn’t have any of those things — Beate Gordon intervened at a critical moment. And what kind of 22-year-old gets to write a constitution?”

If Ms. Gordon, neither lawyer nor constitutional scholar, was indeed an unlikely candidate for the task, then it is vital to understand the singular confluence of forces that brought her to it:

Had her father not been a concert pianist of considerable renown; had she not been so skilled at foreign languages; and had she not been desperate to find her parents, from whom she was separated during the war and whose fate she did not know for years, she never would have been thrust into her quiet, improbable role in world history.
*on Wikipedia
*The Story of Beate Sirota, a transcript of a 1999 Nightline interview
*About Beate Sirota Gordon at the site for the film The Gift From Beate (Japan, 2004)
*The Japan Times - Film depicts Japan's gender equality strife: Written by American woman, Article 24 now seen under LDP threat (link via Shakesville)

*The Jewish Daily Forward - Beate Sirota Gordon Dies at 89: Asia Arts Expert Pushed for Japanese Women's Rights
*Asia Society - Remembering 'Iconic' Beate Sirota Gordon, 1923-2012; includes two YouTube videos of Gordon speaking in 2007 and 2011
*Shinya Watanabe - Beate Sirota Gordon; includes photos (link via Hoyden about Town)
posted by flex (20 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by Cash4Lead at 12:02 PM on January 4, 2013


I read this on NYT and was super interested - thanks for finding more about her!
posted by ChuraChura at 12:10 PM on January 4, 2013


What a great legacy to leave behind.

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posted by WidgetAlley at 12:25 PM on January 4, 2013


I also saw that NYT article and was curious to hear more. What an amazing woman and what an amazing story.
posted by immlass at 12:27 PM on January 4, 2013


Arriving in a devastated Tokyo on Christmas Eve 1945, she went immediately to her family’s house. Where it had stood was only a single charred pillar.

I sometimes think: who needs fiction when real life is as astounding as it is. /not fictionist
posted by glhaynes at 12:36 PM on January 4, 2013


Please also note the passing of Gerda Lerner, who is equally incredible and has an equally amazing story. (Read: Fireweed: A Political Autobiography) She deserves her own post, but I can't do it myself for a variety of reasons.
posted by Madamina at 12:40 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


While the coverage is certainly laudatory, there's more than a hint of condescension towards Ms. Sirota Gordon. She deserves more credit then "happened to be in the right place at the right time." No, she didn't set out to create gender equality in Japan. But she asserted herself in real ways, by getting herself onto MacArthur's staff, putting her education to work getting a job during the war. Many people were swept up in the tide of history during this period, but few were able to use their education and wits to position themselves to achieve their aims, and many other things, like she did. Particularly women during this period. It wasn't random chance that landed her in Tokyo after the war. It was her determination and assertiveness.

Decisions are made by those who show up. She set a terrific example.

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posted by dry white toast at 12:45 PM on January 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


...there's more than a hint of condescension towards Ms. Sirota Gordon. She deserves more credit then "happened to be in the right place at the right time."

I used that particular phrasing in the FPP because she herself used it, in the Nightline interview (at the bottom), so it felt like indirectly quoting her:
BEATE SIROTA: Many things happened to me through my education, through my parents, through the women that I met in my life to enable me and enabled me all along to do the kind of work that I did. Oh, I don't feel like an icon. I think I just, I feel that in my life I was very lucky in that I was at the right place at the right time.
posted by flex at 12:59 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


While the coverage is certainly laudatory, there's more than a hint of condescension towards Ms. Sirota Gordon. She deserves more credit then "happened to be in the right place at the right time." No, she didn't set out to create gender equality in Japan.
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It wasn't random chance that landed her in Tokyo after the war. It was her determination and assertiveness.


When it talks about how she "happened to be in the right place at the right time," it's referring to her being in a position to push for gender equity, and without that, would she have an NYT obituary? What she did up to that point -- using her skills to support herself in a time when that was more difficult for single women without families (essentially her situation through the war), then parleying those skills to find her family and rescue them, like a Masterpiece Theatre version of Taken -- was certainly laudable, but what she did that made a lasting mark on millions of people was pure serendipity.

Decisions are made by those who show up. She set a terrific example.

Agreed.

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posted by Etrigan at 1:00 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


My fiancée knew her. They were introduced by her classical dance master in Kagoshima in 1999, after Ms. Gordon gave a lecture about her contributions to the Japanese Constitution. Over the years they met several times in New York. At one point my fiancée was called upon to deliver an invitation from her dance master to return to Kagoshima, but Ms. Gordon's health was at that time too precarious for travel.

From her visits to Ms. Gordon's Manhattan apartment, my fiancée recalled seeing original artwork by Munakata Shikō on the wall, one of his renditions of Benzaiten (Saraswati), the goddess of flowing things -- water, words, music, knowledge -- and upon asking about the work, was treated to hours of discussion of her friendship and patronage of the nearsighted genius.

In a few hours I'll have the sad duty of delivering the news of Ms. Gordon's passing to my fiancée, as I know she will not have read today's newspapers. I know only from hearsay how generous Beate Sirota Gordon was with her time, energy, and knowledge; how she was a tireless yet humble champion of civil rights, an unflagging friend to artists, and a gracious host to her many admirers. I know she will be missed by those who knew her and those whom she inspired.

Thank you, Ms. Gordon. You made many people's lives better.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 2:18 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow, what a hero. Thanks, Flex.
posted by smoke at 2:33 PM on January 4, 2013


An amazing woman, and I wish my parents were alive so I could ask them if they knew her. (They were in Tokyo during the late '40s and early '50s, which is how I came to be born there.) Thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 3:33 PM on January 4, 2013


Her father was Leo Sirota, a renowned pianist. During the war, the Japanese authorities interned him and his wife together with fellow pianist Eta Harich-Schneider, Richard Sorge's lover. Interesting people for interesting times...
posted by Skeptic at 3:51 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


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posted by the young rope-rider at 5:23 PM on January 4, 2013


The story of Beate Sirota's involvement with writing the Japanese Constitution is detailed in John Dower's book "Embracing Defeat." It won a Pulitzer Prize and Dower's extensively researched work puts the Occupation in a new context. I would consider the book essential for anyone trying to understand this historical context. From the NYTimes review:

In general, Dower adopts a critical view of the occupation, but, interestingly, he is plainly enamored of the sheer democratic panache of that Constitution and of the largely -- though not wholly -- successful efforts of Government Section bureaucrats to prevent the Japanese Government from subtly undermining its key provisions. He incidentally describes how one most unusual old Japan hand who was a member of the committee, a young woman called Beate Sirota, far from expressing skepticism at this enterprise, helped give the Japanese the most advanced set of human rights of any people at the time.

It has been a while since I read this book, but my recollection is that the story of Beate Sirota is treated more than incidentally, it is a central point of how the postwar Constitution was created.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:30 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


In a few hours I'll have the sad duty of delivering the news of Ms. Gordon's passing to my fiancée...

Of course, if I had read a little more carefully, I would have taken note of when the obituary was written, and been less surprised that my fiancée had in fact heard the news days ago from her mother. She did mention how welcoming Ms. Gordon was when she visited her apartment, and how simply yet elegantly furnished it was, and how there were Munakata Shikō prints all over.

She had this to say, too: "Ms. Gordon was extremely important for Japanese women."
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 5:48 AM on January 5, 2013


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posted by desuetude at 1:36 PM on January 5, 2013


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posted by koucha at 7:54 PM on January 5, 2013


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posted by one teak forest at 2:02 AM on January 6, 2013


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posted by aroweofshale at 3:05 AM on January 8, 2013


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