The Story of Beate Sirota Gordon

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. After the second world war, the United States occupied Japan, general Douglas MacArthur was in charge and on his staff was a young woman, 22 years old, her name was Beate Sirota. Beate Sirota had grown up in Japan in the 1930's, she was the daughter of two Russian pianists. Her father was the master pianist Leo Sirota, and it's thanks to Beate that we can now listen to this. This is a 1941 recording of traditional Japanese music. It's a part of a rare set of recordings given to Beate Sirota Gordon back in 1946 during the US occupation of Japan. The recordings are now out on CD for the first time. Mrs. Gordon is still remembered in Japan for something else though, her role in helping to write the countries post-war constitution. We're going to hear more about that from the now 87 year old Gordon in a moment. First we asked her about these newly released recordings.

Lisa Mullins: So when you hear this, what picture of Japan does it bring to your mind?

Beate Sirota Gordon: What it brings back to my mind is going to a studio and sitting there, I was about six years old at the time, and seeing this blind master play this wonderful three string instrument, out of which some sounds came that I had never heard before.

Lisa Mullins: So you weren't there when this recording was made, but this is the kind of music you grew up hearing when you were in Japan, as a little girl.

Beate Sirota Gordon: That's right.

Lisa Mullins: And what year was that?

Beate Sirota Gordon: That was in, please don't faint, 1930.

Lisa Mullins: And that particular recording was made in 1941. Can you describe Japan of that time? I mean you were very young, but you had your formative years there and you have amazing memories of exactly what life was like there. Describe it.

Beate Sirota Gordon: Well life in Japan was very, very pleasant because children were the sort of center of attention. Everything was done for children, and I was something special for them because they had barely ever seen a foreign child before. I had dark hair but my hair was curly and that was a sensation in Japan. Shortly thereafter they started getting permanent waves and so on, but at the time if I walked on the street people would stop and look at me

Lisa Mullins: You remember that?

Beate Sirota Gordon: I remember that very well.

Lisa Mullins: You noticed something else that stuck with you, in terms of women and woman's place in society at the time in Japan.

Beate Sirota Gordon: Oh yes, I saw that the mother was completely under the domination of her husband. He decided everything and she only was active in the household.

Lisa Mullins: What else do you remember?

Beate Sirota Gordon: I remember very well going for a walk with the family and the husband would walk in front and the wife would walk three or four steps behind him. Women really had very little freedom, they couldn't have jobs particularly. Some of them who let's say played an instrument or danced, they could teach at home, but they didn't have any outside jobs.

Lisa Mullins: So we're going to fast forward a little bit. You eventually go to school back in America, you come to Mills College in Oakland California, an all girls college, and Pearl Harbor takes place, world war two has broken out. How did you come to work under General MacArthur?

Beate Sirota Gordon: Well when the war ended I wanted desperately to go back to Japan because I hadn't seen my parents all the time the war on. So I thought I could just go, and I went to Washington and I asked and was told ââ?¬Å?Well, it's an occupied country and you can't just go there, you can only go if you are somehow attached to the army.ââ?¬  I said ââ?¬Å?OK, I know Japanese and I lived in Japan for ten years and I know the situation of women very well.ââ?¬  And they said say no more, you're hired. And when it came to the time a new Japanese democratic constitution had to be written he asked General Whitney to have his staff write the constitution. So the two men looked at me and one of them said ââ?¬Å?Well we certainly can't write this as a committee, there's not enough time it's only seven days we have. So we'll have to divide the work, so you're a woman.ââ?¬  And I said ââ?¬Å?Yes, I'm a womanââ?¬  and he said ââ?¬Å?Why don't you write the womens rights of the constitution?ââ?¬  And I said ââ?¬Å?Oh, I would be delighted, love to write the woman's rights.ââ?¬ 

Lisa Mullins: And they survive to this day, as does the Japanese constitution. He also said to you ââ?¬Å?Look, you've given Japanese women more rights than in the American Constitution.ââ?¬  To which you said "Well that's not hard, because women are not sufficiently represented in the American Constitution." 

Beate Sirota Gordon: And the word woman is not even mentioned in the American constitution.

Lisa Mullins: So we should say now, 70 years later, you are a Japanese icon and you have been for some time. There's a Beate appreciation society, we know that you're the topic of a manga cartoon

Beate Sirota Gordon: And films, several films.

Lisa Mullins: Yes, one of them being Beate's Gift, the gift being woman's rights clause in the new Japanese constitution.

Lisa Mullins: Do you hear from Japanese women today, who want to thank you?

Beate Sirota Gordon: Yes, I do. I just got about 50 fan letters from a student group that had been studying the constitution and have come across the woman's rights, and they wrote me notes. I get this every year, I have hundreds of such letters.

Lisa Mullins: What do they say?

Beate Sirota Gordon: Oh, thank you for the opportunities that we now have, that we can marry whomever we want, that we can have jobs and travel abroad at our own pace and leisure and not be told everything by our parents or our husbands.

Lisa Mullins: That's the gift that they say that you gave to Japanese girls and women. And now you're passing on a different gift from Japan's own history, and that's these recordings that have been in your possession for more than 60 years now. As we close out I wonder if there's a particular recording you'd like us to play, Beate, and tell us as a whole what these mean to you, the passing on of them?

Beate Sirota Gordon: I'd like to here can da matsuri because that's festival music, and I remember dancing to such music a lot at the festivals that they constantly gave in Japan.

Lisa Mullins: Well it's really nice to talk to you, Beate Sirota Gordon, thank you.

Beate Sirota Gordon: Thank you for having me.

Lisa Mullins: You can read portions of the 1947 Japanese Constitution that Beate Sirota Gordon helped write, they're at We've also got links to some of the historic recordings that she helped preserve. Again, you can find it all at From the Nani Bill Harris Studios at WGBH in Boston, I'm Lisa Mullins, we're back tomorrow.