“My father came to Tokyo from Karuizawa to meet me,” wrote Beate Sirota Gordon in a message to me, which she sent several years before her death in 2012 at age 89. “He looked gaunt and undernourished. … My mother did not come because undernourishment had caused her to swell up, and she was ill in bed. So I went with my father to Karuizawa. It was a tearful but joyful reunion.”
Three Rooms Press, Nonfiction.
Beate, born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1923, was taken to Tokyo by her parents a few days after her sixth birthday in October 1929. Her father, eminent pianist Leo Sirota, was to assume a position at the Imperial Academy of Music in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, inspiring a number of musicians who would come to prominence after World War II.
That war truncated Sirota’s brilliant career as teacher and performer in Japan. In 1939, he and his wife, Augustine, had sent Beate, their only child, to study at Mills College in Oakland, California. She was not in Japan to witness the ostracizing of her parents, who were compelled to leave Tokyo and take up residence in Karuizawa in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture.
The reunion that is described in the intimate and moving portrait of her family in “Last Boat to Yokohama” was a pivotal moment in Beate’s life. She had returned to Japan in December 1945 to become a civilian official on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff. Though desperate to see their daughter, the Sirotas felt that they could no longer remain in the country that had treated them so harshly, though they bore no resentment whatsoever toward individual Japanese. They left Japan for the U.S. in May 1946.
The story of how Beate found herself to be “the only woman in the room” — the title of her autobiography published in 1997 — has now been put in a contemporary context by Nassrine Azimi and Michel Wasserman in “Last Boat to Yokohama.”
The room she refers to is the one in which Article 24 of the Constitution of Japan was drafted. This article guarantees the equal rights of husband and wife and that “all laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.”
Beate played a predominant role in the creation of Article 24. Not only was she fluent in Japanese — a fluency that she maintained in later life during the many decades she resided in New York — but she had an unwavering affection for the Japanese people, among whom she had spent the formative years of her childhood.
Lt. Col. Charles L. Kades, who had been a New Deal lawyer in Washington, was put in charge of drafting a constitution for the democratic rebirth of Japan, a task which he and his staff accomplished in a stunning 10 days. Kades took Beate under his wing, and she gratefully acknowledged his mentoring. Kades died at age 90 in June 1996, before Beate achieved recognition in the last 15 years of her life.
Beate notes in the foreword to “Last Boat” her feelings at the time of drafting Article 24: “I was thinking about the many Japanese women I knew who did not have any rights at all under the old Meiji Constitution. I think most of the work we did then remains quite relevant today, as much for Japanese women as for women in other countries.”
This book draws together elements of the Sirota family’s narrative; personal revelations by Beate’s mother about life in prewar Tokyo; details about what went on during the intense time in “that room”; and the significance of those events for the subversion by Japan’s present government of Article 9 (the article guaranteeing Japan’s “nonbelligerency”) for us today.
Beate dedicated her life to the promulgation overseas of Japanese and other Asian cultures in her capacity as a promoter of artistic events. Furthermore, she never lost her indomitable commitment to justice, making frequent trips back to Japan to give public lectures and to share her history and thoughts in order to urge Japanese people to keep the spirit of equal rights and nonbelligerency guaranteed and adhered to unequivocally.
Of her time spent in Tokyo in the immediate postwar period, she says in this book, “It was very exciting, but most exciting no doubt was when we started working on the Constitution … it was exhilarating to see about 20 people who were working on it, who had been enemies a few months earlier, now trying to plant the seeds of democracy and elated to do it … trying to push it to fruition.”
And speaking of her role in bringing the cultures of the East and the West together: “Cultural exchange should not be too difficult a task, since all people have so much in common. … We all laugh at humor, we all cry when we are sad, we all want our children to succeed. In other words, we have many similarities to build on, and that was what we had to do.”
The story of the life of Beate Sirota is an inspiring one, and one that continues to inspire long after she has left the room. She set an example for all individuals, regardless of gender or nationality, that one person — however modest, however unprepared for history — can make a difference.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.