Many millions of people had their own Pacific War stories and now, 75 years after the war ended, most of those people have died. Here from the 50th anniversary – the last big milestone when many were still alive – are the recollections of one of them: the American who put women’s rights into the postwar Japanese constitution. She’s introduced by veteran Tokyo news correspondent and frequent Asia Times contributor Roger Schreffler, who invited her and a large number of others to share their memories at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in separate appearances around the 1995 anniversary.

“Beate Sirota Gordon (1923-2012) was the daughter of Leo Sirota, a famous Russia-born Jewish concert pianist who moved his family from Vienna to classical music-loving Tokyo in 1929. One of his first recordings for Japanese Columbia was this one; the Sirota family is pictured:

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“A decade later, the Sirota parents, concerned about an increase in Nazi influence in Japan, sent Beate to the United States. She studied at Mills College in Oakland, California.

Beate Sirota at Mills College. Source: Shinya Watanabe

In January 1945 she became a US citizen. Getting an Occupation job thanks to her fluency in Japanese, she returned to Japan on Christmas Eve, having been away for six years. Her first mission after her arrival was to see her parents, who had avoided the Tokyo firebombing by spending much of the war in the mountain resort town of Karuizawa.”

My parents were the main reason for going back. I took a job with the Occupation. The Far Eastern Commission in Washington hired me as a research expert. I was the first civilian woman to enter the country. I had never been on a plane before. It was December 1945.

When we landed on Johnson Island, the pilot asked if I would like to sit next to him in the co-pilot’s chair to see the landing. I went into the seat, the scariest thing in the world. The whole island is, I think, one square mile and the pilot made sure to tell me that if he missed the beginning of the runway we would end up in the water. 

And then a second thing happened, I guess it was in Guam, something went wrong with our plane and they had to wait for a replacement that was going to come from Honolulu.

But another plane landed, and most of the passengers from my plane were allowed to go on that. I asked, “Well, why can’t I? I have Army orders to be in Tokyo on a certain date.” However, the ground crew said I was the heaviest passenger on the plane.

“But I’m only a 112 pounds,” I said.

“Yes, but your baggage …”, they replied.

So I had to wait another day. The moment I arrived, I started looking for my parents and went to our old house in Tokyo. We lived at the bottom of Nogizaka, and I couldn’t recognize it. The hill itself had changed. The form of it had changed. It used to go straight down, I remember cycling straight down without holding onto the handlebars. And now it was curved. I looked for my house and couldn’t find it but finally found the area and all that was left was one stone pillar and the rest was rubble.

I didn’t know what to do. I went to some neighbors farther away whose houses were still standing and they said they didn’t know where my parents were. Maybe in Karuizawa. I discussed this at the Dai-ichi Hotel where a lot of the Occupation officers were billeted and told them of my search for my father and mother. 

A young lady who was working at the hotel front desk overheard our conversationa and said, “Did you say Leo Sirota? … I heard him on the radio last night.”

At that time, there was a radio station called JOAK. When I called them up they said, “Yes, he was here last night. He played and this morning went back to Karuizawa.”

I thought they must be staying at the house we used to rent in Karuizawa for the summer. I sent a telegram and apparently the telegram was sent to the railway station in Karuizawa. When my father got off the train, they showed him my telegram and he took the next train back to Tokyo.

I was assigned to the government section of GHQ [General Headquarters] in the Daiichi Seimei building, which was the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur. The government section’s chief was General Courtney Whitney, who was probably MacArthur’s closest adviser. 

My first assignment was in the political affairs division of the government section. I was tasked with doing research on the women’s movement in politics as well as small Japanese political parties. At the time, there were many political parties in Japan, some with as few as five members. My job was to keep track of them.

Beate Sirota Gordon. Source: Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia

On February 4 at 10am – I shall remember that day forever – General Whitney called about 20 of us into his big conference room, and said: “You are now a constitutional assembly and shall write the draft for the new Japanese constitution.”

You can imagine the affect this had on the 20 people who had been doing various kinds of work, but never dreamed that they would be involved in something like writing a constitution.

And then General Whitney said, “And it has to be done in a week.”

Colonel Charles Kades, who was General Whitney’s deputy chief of staff, divided us into groups and assigned areas we should focus on. The political affairs division, which consisted of three people including myself, were told to handle civil rights. We looked at each other and asked what we should do next? “Well, let’s divide the work,” my co-workers, who were both male, said: “You’re a woman, so why don’t you write the women’s rights provisions?”

I said, “Fine. But I’d also like to write about academic freedom.”

In my original draft about women’s rights I wrote:

“The family is the basis of human society and its traditions for good or evil permeate the nation, hence marriage and the family are protected by law and it is hereby ordained that they shall rest upon the undisputed legal and social equality of both sexes – upon mutual consent, instead of parental coercion, and upon cooperation, instead of male domination.”

I want to point out that I was trying to make it very strong, and since male domination was strong before the war I wanted that in.

I continued: “Laws contrary to these principles shall be abolished and replaced by others viewing choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.

“Expectant and nursing mothers shall have the protection of the state and such public assistance as they may need, whether married or not. Illegitimate children shall not suffer legal prejudice, but shall be granted the same rights and opportunities for their physical, intellectual and social development as legitimate children.”

Beate Sirota at GHQ in Tokyo, 1946. Source: Shinya Watanabe

I was very well aware of the yoshi system, the adoption of a child into a family, which was always decided by the man. I wrote: “No child shall be adopted into any family without the explicit consent of both husband and wife, if both are alive. Nor shall any adopted child receive preferred treatment to the disadvantage of other members of the family. The rights of primogeniture are hereby abolished.”

In another paragraph I wrote: “The children of the nation, whether in public or private school, shall be granted free medical, dental and optical aid. They shall be given proper rest and recreation and physical exercise suitable to their development.” 

On March 4 there was a top secret meeting with Japanese government officials to discuss the whole constitution. 

We thought that the meeting– involving everybody who had worked on the constitution as well as the executive committee – was to discuss the translation as the Japanese had translated our English version. We assumed it would take a few hours at most, to straighten out some language. 

The meeting started at 10am and we were told we could not leave the room or talk to anybody and would have to eat there. We were given C-rations which were awful.

I was at the meeting not because I had written the woman’s rights draft, but because Colonel Kades had asked me to help with the interpreting because I was fast and he thought I might be able to help.

I interpreted for for both the American and the Japanese sides, although the Japanese had some interpreters who spoke English.

It was all terribly complicated because we were working from our draft and the Japanese were working from a separate draft they had prepared. 

You can imagine how the discussion began, with the preamble, then the chapter on the emperor and renunciation of war, followed by the rights and duties of the people. 

As expected, there was vehement discussion about the emperor. Almost every word was disputed. When we wanted him to be described as the “symbol of the state,” the Japanese wanted him to be called the “chief of the state.”

All kinds of things were questioned. There was interpretation of words. There was discussion about what kanji [Japanese characters based on ancient Chinese characters] to use. It went on and on. It got to 5pm and we still weren’t finished. 

We got to the renunciation of war. Then, finally, the rights and duties of the people – at about 1am. At 2am, we came to Article 24 and all hell broke loose. The Japanese side was as vehement about women’s rights as they had been about the emperor. 

Colonel Kades – who was attuned psychologically to people and very clever – saw that the Japanese were very favorably inclined towards me because I had helped in interpreting, and they had not the faintest idea that I was involved in the writing. All they knew was that I was a fast interpreter.


Beate Sirota Gordon. Source: Shinya Watanabe

So, he turned to them and he said – my name at the time was Sirota – ‘”Miss Sirota has her heart set on the women’s rights provisions. Why don’t we pass them?”

The Japanese side was stunned. Imagine bringing a discussion about the constitution to such a personal level.

And the provision passed.

We then went through all the other articles, about eight pages, and we finished by 10am the next day. 

By that time, I had been interpreting for 24 hours and there were people who stayed on to fix some of the wording and language. Lieutenant Gordon – who headed the interpreting pool and who I married a year-and-a-half later – stayed on until about 4pm. 

This is a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what went on. After that, the draft went to the Diet [national assembly] and then it was promulgated by the emperor.

I was pleased when Prime Minister [Shigeru] Yoshida sent me a gift of a silver sake cup with the emperor’s emblem in gold, on one side, and “In commemoration of the Constitution,” on the other. I thought it was very interesting that a democratic constitution was marked with the emperor’s emblem. A second gift was white habutai silk from the imperial stock.

This is the story of the women’s rights provisions in a nutshell.

On one final point, the Japanese and the American sides tried very hard to come together to decide on the wording. It was a tremendous struggle that went on for days, even weeks, afterwards.

In the end, the Japanese government signed the document and assured the Americans that in the case of a dispute, the English version was the overriding version.

Roger Schreffler moderates Beate Sirota Gordon’s1995 talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. Photo courtesy of FCCJ.

Beate Sirota Gordon wrote The Only Woman in the Room: A Memoir of Japan, Human Rights and the Arts.