Sirota, Beate (1923—)

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Sirota, Beate (1923—)

Austrian-born American opera impresario who wrote women's equality into the Japanese constitution. Name variations: Beate Sirota Gordon. Born on October 25, 1923, in Vienna, Austria; daughter of Leo Sirota (a concert pianist) and Augustine (Horenstein) Sirota; married Joseph Gordon, on January 15, 1948; children: Nicole (b. 1954); Geoffrey (b. 1958).

A long-time leader in Japanese-American cultural relations, Beate Sirota is also well known as the woman who wrote women's equality into the Japanese constitution. She was born in 1923 in Vienna, the daughter of Augustine Horenstein Sirota and Leo Sirota, the renowned Russian-born pianist. Concerned about the increasingly vocal conservatism and anti-Semitism of Austria, Leo accepted the invitation of the Japanese government to move to Japan to teach at the imperial music academy. Beate grew up in Japan and moved to the United States in 1939 to attend Mills College in northern California. Fluent in Japanese, German, Russian, French, Spanish, and English, she found work as a translator of Japanese radio broadcasts for the Office of War Information in San Francisco during World War II. She was also given her own radio show in which she produced propaganda to be broadcast to Japan. In 1942, she graduated from Mills with a degree in languages, and took a position in New York as a fact-checker for Time magazine. Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, Sirota returned immediately to Japan, where after much effort she located her parents, alive but very ill. In order to stay in Tokyo to care for them, Sirota got a job working in the Government Section of General Headquarters, the American occupation government division charged with developing a new, liberal Japanese government. She was the only civilian woman working for the division.

In February 1946, the 22-year-old Sirota was assigned to the Civil Rights Commission during the secret drafting of the new constitution. The 25 members of the Government Section were given only nine days to prepare a complete draft; Sirota researched existing democratic constitutions for ideas. She was then assigned to write the articles on women's rights because of her intimate knowledge of the inferior status of Japanese women. She hoped to make guarantees of women's and children's rights explicit, recognizing that future governments could easily amend vague statements. Long secret negotiations followed with representatives of the defeated administration; her draft proposals on gender equality were strongly opposed by Japanese officials. "Their main target," writes Susan J. Pharr , "was Article 24, guaranteeing the equality of women in family life, which was seen to threaten the basis of male domination and female subordination in the family." However, although most of her articles on women's and child social welfare were eliminated, to her deep disappointment (she was said to have wept), her fundamental statements of gender equality in legal status, marriage, divorce, and property rights, and her article on academic freedom, were finally accepted. Sirota also acted as translator during these meetings. The new constitution was promulgated as the work of the Japanese on November 3, 1946. By then, 39 Japanese women had been voted into the Diet and, though they had had no input in the nascent constitution, they had strongly supported it. Sirota's vital role in establishing Japanese women's legal equality remained secret for many years.

In 1947, Sirota left Japan for New York, where her parents and fiancé, Lt. Joseph Gordon, also an expert on Japan, were already waiting. Sirota and Gordon married in 1948. Sirota was working as a translator when she became an interpreter in 1952 for a Japanese cultural exchange program, specifically Fusaye Ichikawa , Japan's leading suffragist. This opportunity, combined with Sirota's upbringing in music and the arts, led to a new career promoting traditional and modern Japanese artists abroad. In addition to caring for her two children, Sirota began writing on Japanese traditional arts and then worked at the Japan Society. In the 1950s and 1960s, she arranged for troupes of dancers to perform at schools and acted as a liaison for Asian artists hoping for exposure in America. In 1960, she began her long association with the Asia Society, becoming director of its performing arts program in 1970. She retired from the Asia Society in 1993, but has remained active in promoting Asian-American cultural relations as an arts consultant from her home in New York, as well as an editor of the International Encyclopedia of Dance. In 1998, Beate Sirota was recognized for her long years of dedication to promoting Japanese culture abroad with a decoration by the Japanese government. More recently, she was awarded the John D. Rockefeller III Award for her outstanding contribution to the modern Asian arts.


Gordon, Beate Sirota. The Only Woman in the Room: A Memoir. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1997.

Pharr, Susan J. "The Politics of Women's Rights," in Democratizing Japan. Edited by Robert E. Ward and Sakamoto Yoshikazu. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987, pp. 221–252.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California