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Women’s postwar triumph recalled

But American who wrote Constitution's gender-equality clause was stymied on kids' rights

by Akemi Nakamura

19th in a series

About four months after World War II ended, Beate Sirota Gordon arrived in the charred ruins of Tokyo from New York City as a newly hired member for the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers.

The 22-year-old American got the job just because she wanted to return to the war-torn country as soon as possible and meet her parents, noted pianist Leo Sirota and his wife, Augustine, who lived in Japan throughout the war.

But beyond that, the trip gave her the historic opportunity to alter the fate of Japanese women: She drafted the postwar Constitution Article 24, which guarantees equal rights between men and women. Further empowering women is Article 15, which grants female adults suffrage.

Her initial mission — seeking her parents — was accomplished soon after her arrival. She found out that they, like many other foreign residents, had been evacuated. In the Sirotas’ case, it was from their home in Nogizaka in what is now Minato Ward, Tokyo, to Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, where they endured a harsh existence with little food or fuel.

Her father came to Tokyo after she telegrammed them, and he was able to see his only daughter for the first time in four years. Her mother stayed behind in Karuizawa, ill from malnutrition.

“My father’s face was deeply lined. He was skinny. It was sad,” Gordon, 84, said in fluent Japanese during a lecture in Tokyo last month.

Gordon rushed to Karuizawa to see her mother staying at the family’s summer house, with chocolate bars and cookies she bought from a shop for U.S. servicemen in Ginza or had been given to her by a colleague.

“My memories of Karuizawa in the prewar period was a summer resort. I used to ride a bicycle, go to a swimming pool, play tennis and eat ice cream,” Gordon said. “I never went there in the winter before. So the December cold was fierce. . . . I stayed there two nights. My mother put many blankets over my bed. But still I felt cold, so I understood the hardships that my parents had to go through.”

After moving her parents to Tokyo to have her mother receive medical treatment, Gordon began working on her first task as a GHQ member — researching minor political parties and women in politics.

On Feb. 4, 1946, Gordon and the 24 other members of the GHQ’s Government Section, which oversaw Japanese political affairs, were ordered by Gen. Courtney Whitney to draft a new constitution for Japan. He also gave them a deadline — have it done in nine days.

“It was a great surprise to all of us,” she said.

The Japanese government wrote a draft, but it was too conservative and continued the emperor’s sovereignty, which failed to satisfy U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who headed the GHQ.

Gordon was asked to write sections regarding women’s rights and academic freedom.

The first thing she did was borrow dozens of books from libraries to research various countries’ constitutions and began reading them, taking advantage of her linguistic ability. She could use six languages, including German, Spanish, French and Russian.

Then she began thinking about what rights women should have, based on her experience of living in Japan for 10 years.

Gordon saw how Japanese women had been treated in society in the prewar period. She came to Tokyo from Vienna, her birthplace, at age 5 in 1929 with her parents, both from Russian Jewish families, as her father was asked to teach music at a university in Tokyo. She stayed here until she advanced to Mills College in California in 1939 at age 15.

At that time, Japanese wives always walked behind their husbands as men were considered superior to women. When people visited a home, for instance, female family members neither joined the conversation nor ate meals with them, although they served the food, she recalled.

Another thing she knew about women was that they often controlled the family budget and oversaw their children’s education.

“But they were not entitled to social rights,” she said, adding their social status was lower than that of American women.

After the U.S. entered the war in 1941, American women began to get jobs outside the home as a substitute workforce for men, who were enlisting or being drafted. This didn’t mean American women were immune to discrimination in the workplace.

When Gordon was working at Time magazine in 1945 after graduating from college, women were not allowed to write articles and only conducted research for male writers, she said.

Her draft for the Constitution on women’s rights stated that marriage is based on mutual consent between men and women and that laws pertaining to choice of spouse and a living place, divorce, property rights and inheritance should be created from the standpoint of gender equality.

It also guaranteed equal legal rights for children regardless of whether they are born out of wedlock, and government protection for both married and unmarried mothers.

However, the section on children was removed by senior GHQ officials, who claimed concrete measures on social welfare, such as rights for illegitimate children, should be stipulated in the Civil Code, Gordon said.

“I told them that bureaucratic Japanese men who would write the Civil Code would not include such measures in the law,” she said. “I was so disappointed that they shortened the article I wrote.”

Gordon of course was correct, and to this day illegitimate children still face discrimination socially and legally.

The American-written draft was discussed by Occupation and Japanese officials on March 4, 1946. Gordon attended as one of five interpreters. One of the other interpreters was Lt. Joseph Gordon, her future husband.

“I can still remember Japanese government representatives strongly opposing equal rights between men and women. They said (it) did not suit Japanese culture and history,” she said. “The discussion was as hard as when they discussed the emperor system.”

The Japanese side, however, accepted her article when Col. Charles Kades, who thought the Japanese officials had a good impression of her as a fast interpreter, revealed that she wrote the article based on her experiences of living in Japan and told them to accept it, Gordon said.

The new Constitution was made public in November 1946 and took effect in May 1947.

However, Gordon, who returned to the U.S. in 1947 and spent the ensuing decades introducing Japanese and other Asian cultures and art to Americans, long remained mum about her experience in the GHQ, and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that she began speaking publicly that she was one of the people who drafted the Constitution.

Among the reasons for her long silence was that she was told her participation was top secret at the time, and that she feared conservative Japanese might call for revising the charter if they found out one of the authors was such a young woman.

Looking at women in Japan today, she feels they have come a long way in the last 60 years.

“Their social position has risen. Their faces and actions are full of confidence. Wives no longer obey their husbands,” she said. “There are some countries where women have no social rights. Japanese women must take part in activities in the world (to win equal rights) and tell them how they have progressed.”

Gordon, now retired, lives in New York City with her husband.

In this occasional series, we interview firsthand witnesses of Japan’s march to war and its crushing defeat, who wish to pass on their experiences to younger generations.