In 1929, 5-year-old Beate Sirota’s parents fortuitously moved their family out of Vienna. But unlike many European Jews, the Sirotas did not leave because of antisemitism, and they did not flee to the relative safety of the United States or to Israel. They moved to Japan, from one soon-to-be Axis country to another.
For Beate Sirota — now Beate Sirota Gordon, 80 — a childhood spent in Japan would turn out to shape her life. She used her knowledge of Japanese to act as a translator and a writer of pro-American broadcasts during World War II; she wrote the women’s rights section of the new Japanese constitution and, since her immigration to this country, she founded the performing arts program of both the Japan Society and the Asia Society. For her work with Japanese artists, Sirota Gordon gave a distinguished lecture at Columbia University’s Donald Keene Center last month.
Sirota Gordon’s father, pianist Alexander Sirota, went to Japan to play and teach, and her family lived in a world of privilege and servants. In the 1930s, they were part of a very small community of Westerners in Japan. Initially, she attended a German school. But by the time she was 12, in 1936, the school was overrun with Nazi teachers. Students were forced to say “Heil Hitler,” and Nazi doctrine found its way into the lessons.
In 1939, Sirota Gordon left to study at Mills College in California, while her parents remained in Japan. When the war broke out, she lost contact with her family.
Looming beyond the emotional toll of this loss was a financial disaster, as Sirota Gordon realized that she would have to support herself. Luckily, she had skills that were as rare as they were valuable: fluency in Japanese, and an intimate knowledge of the culture. She took a summer job as a translator at the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service, summarizing broadcasts from not only from Japan, but also from Germany, Russia and France.
According to Sirota Gordon, at this time she was one of only approximately 60 Americans who were fluent in Japanese, so it was no surprise that her summer job morphed into a full-time position. Soon she was writing pro-American broadcasts meant to win the hearts and minds of the Japanese populace.
During the war years, she lived with uncertainty about the fate of her parents. Even after the war ended in 1945, it wasn’t exactly easy for civilians to travel to Japan. So at age 22, she applied for — and got — a job working for General Douglas MacArthur, who was in charge of the postwar occupation of Japan.
“I was the first civilian woman to arrive in Japan after the war,” she said.
There, Sirota Gordon found her parents, who had been sent to a small village where they lived with other Westerners in harsh conditions. They were frail, but had survived.
Elated, Sirota Gordon returned to her work, as she and her colleagues surreptitiously set about writing a new constitution for Japan. For half a century, its origins would be largely shrouded in secrecy, with the document assumed to have been written by the Japanese themselves, not by their American occupiers.
MacArthur gave his staff seven days to produce a document. “You are a woman, so why don’t you write the woman’s rights section?” Sirota Gordon remembers being asked. She remembered seeing Japanese wives walking behind their husbands on the streets and eating in the back of homes with the children, instead of with their husbands. She jumped at MacArthur’s offer.
The first thing she did was visit multiple libraries, checking out different constitutions from each one so as not to arouse suspicion. The American constitution was of little help, since it is largely silent on the question of women’s rights. But Sirota Gordon learned that not all constitutions are as reticent about the topic, and some European countries even use their constitutions to elaborate social welfare policies that Americans might ascribe to the Civil Code, rather than in the governing document.
In the end, her draft had 40 detailed stipulations — many of which, to her dismay, were eliminated from the final draft because her American superiors were uncomfortable with them. “That night I got so upset, I was very emotionally involved,” she recalled. “I burst into tears.”
But what remained was no small feat: basic equality under the law, including the right to inherit property.
In 1947, Sirota Gordon left Tokyo to return to the United States, where she married and had two children. But she never stopped traveling to Asia and being involved in Japanese affairs.
Little did her parents realize that their decision to move to Japan in 1929 would be the pivotal one in their daughter’s life.
But having lived there at a time when few others had, it seems natural that she would have spent the better part of her life as an ambassador of sorts.
“Right after the war, there was such ignorance about Japan that I was offended,” she recalled. “People thought the Japanese lived in caves.”
This story "Making Sure Art, Politics Don’t Get Lost in Translation" was written by Adelle Waldman.