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One woman’s mark on the nation’s Constitution

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

In December 2012, 89-year-old Beate Sirota Gordon knew she was dying. The women’s rights advocate and tireless promoter of cross-cultural exchange in the arts was ill at home in the New York borough of Manhattan. Yet, she pulled herself out of bed one morning, dressed formally and sat in a chair to await a phone call she was expecting from the Asahi Shimbun in Japan — not wanting to miss a last chance to speak out for women’s rights, and Article 9 of the Constitution.

The Only Woman in the Room, by Beate Sirota Gordon.
university of chicago press, Nonfiction.
Rating: ★★★★★

Due to a miscalculation with the time zones, however, the interview actually took place two days later, when her condition had deteriorated so much that she was forced to remain in bed. Her words of support for the country’s Constitution really were her last words of substance says her daughter, Nicole Gordon. “She died 10 days later, so she could barely speak at that point,” she says. “Yet she was very strong and clear in supporting the current Constitution, in particular the women’s rights and peace clauses.”

Nearly 70 years earlier, the young Sirota was in occupied Japan, in a smoky office of the general headquarters, as part of the team drafting the defeated nation’s postwar Constitution. Her remarkable memoir, “The Only Woman in the Room” details her role in the process, and how as a young woman she rose to meet the challenge of reshaping a country from scratch.

It was a country Sirota Gordon knew well. Her parents, Russian emigres to Austria during World War I, brought the young Beate to Japan when she was 5 years old. She grew up in Japan, raised in the cultured international community where her father, a professional piano player, taught and played recitals while her mother hosted lavish gatherings. Precocious with languages, Sirota Gordon quickly learned Japanese, adding to her German and English, thanks to her Estonian governess.

Sirota Gordon’s memoir describes how her world view was shaped by her privileged expatriate upbringing, and begins with her return to Japan on Christmas Eve, 1945. Her parents had sent her to attend school in America during the war but, worried about her family and friends in Japan, she headed back to Tokyo as soon as the war had ended — using her linguistic abilities to secure a position with the American State Department as an interpreter.

Flying in low over Yokohama, Sirota-Gordon recalls how the “charred ruins and solitary chimneys stood up from the bare red earth like nails.” Despite the “whistles” of her fellow passengers, soldiers who “exulted openly,” to her “Japan meant home, the country where I had been brought up and where my parents still lived.”

Backtracking from the momentous days of the Allied Occupation, the book looks back into Sirota Gordon’s family history before ending with her peaceful life in America, where she eventually settled and raised a family with the head of the Translation team for the country’s Constitution, Lt. Joseph Gordon. Sirota Gordon also details her early interest in the arts and social issues as she grew up in the international environment surrounding her father’s piano teaching and recitals in Tokyo.

Cut off from her family in America, Sirota Gordon explains that “as a direct consequence of the war, I found myself largely self-reliant by the age of nineteen.” She supported herself by translating radio broadcasts, assiduously studying unfamiliar Japanese military terminology, while she worried about Japan.

The latter half of the book details Sirota Gordon’s life as a wife, mother and organizer of cross-cultural exchange in the arts, bringing artists to America from Mongolia, Tibet and, of course, Japan. In 1970, she became head of the Performing Arts Program of the Asian Society in New York City, a post she would keep for 23 years. “My mother very much believed that cross-cultural exchange was a way of supporting peace among nations,” says her daughter.

The real heart of the book, however, is the week of Sirota Gordon’s work on the Constitution. In the form of a daily diary, this chapter takes readers through the process step by step. Chosen to draft the women’s rights section, Sirota Gordon volunteered to write about academic freedom as well. She quickly proved her initiative by visiting every library in war-torn Tokyo, salvaging copies of various constitutions from around the world to share as a resource for the entire government section. This chapter forms the crux of the memoir and her life, and I reread it multiple times, fascinated by the insider’s view of writing the Constitution and at the accomplishment and determination of a 22-year-old.

Today, Sirota Gordon’s historic effort on the Constitution is particularly poignant, as lawmakers continue to debate Article 9 and the peace clause. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enrages pacifists with his mandate to “seek a more active role” in collective self-defense. Other lawmakers, buoyed by Article 9′s candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize, insist on supporting Japan as a peaceful nation. Despite its timely importance, however, the memoir does not carry a political agenda.

The reverberations of that one week in February 1946 when Sirota Gordon worked on the Constitution echo throughout the work, and make you wonder: If a 22-year-old young woman, cultured and pampered so much that she did not know how to make her own bed at 15 years old, can overcome political pressure and 20-hour work days in that frenzied week to create a constitution that ensured rights for women and education, then perhaps each of us, too, has the potential to push for peace.

Previously published by Kodansha International in 1997, this updated edition features a new foreword by John W. Dower and a new afterword by Nicole A. Gordon.