The many legacies of Beate Sirota Gordon

by Nassrine Azimi, Senior Advisor to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)

My friend, role model, the woman who in February 1946 wrote the women’s clause of Japan’s new draft constitution, the impresario who for almost 40 years brought thoughtful, dazzling and original Japanese and Asian performing arts to American audiences -- Beate Sirota Gordon passed away on 30 December last year in New York.

I had known Beate for only a little more than a decade -- but we had become particularly close over the last two years, working with another colleague on a book about her life and that of her father, the prodigy pianist Leo Sirota.

It is because of Hiroshima that I was first acquainted with Beate’s work. In 2002 my colleagues and I had just completed an international conference here -- the theme a comparative study of immediate post-war periods in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor and Afghanistan -- and were searching for someone significant to write the introduction to our proceedings. Those were the early days of the American-led occupation of Afghanistan, and the topic was timely: barely a year after the collapse of the brutal Taliban regime, the writing of a new Afghan constitution had become pressing. Japan’s post-war rebuilding, and its peace constitution, were suddenly of great interest to the international community. All this led, naturally, to Beate.

In his seminal book ‘Embracing Defeat’ the historian John Dower described the young Beate of the post-war years as ‘...spirited, idealistic, and remarkably cosmopolitan‘‘. To many of us who came to know her in later years, she had not changed. In line with a lifelong habit of solidarity with causes she believed in, she promptly accepted to write the Hiroshima conference introduction. A few months later, on a book tour in Japan, she also gave a lecture at a roundtable I organized in Hiroshima, aptly entitled ‘Post-conflict reconstruction, women and the constitution’.

There is a universal quality in Beate’s life and work, a quality that may explain why her passing away has elicited such global attention and admiration. Accolades have flown from every corner for this gentle, humorous grandmother and recipient of the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure. In addition to large coverage in Japan, major media outlets around the world have published extensive commentaries about her legacy -- even The Economist magazine devoted to her its single weekly obituary.

The historical significance of Beate’ contributions -- for women’s rights but also as a cultural icon for Asian performing arts through groundbreaking work at Japan Society and Asia Society of New York -- can only be understood in light of the universality and on-going relevance of the themes she wrestled with: peace and war, human rights, gender equality, and the place of art, in life and in society. Her faith in culture was tremendous: she was of the generation that had lived through war, and she truly believed that only by understanding one another’s culture are people able to make lasting peace.

There are those who have suggested that being neither a constitutional lawyer nor an academic, Beate was unprepared for the momentous task of constitutional drafting. This is to ignore her unique life and professional experiences.

Her parents were secular, cosmopolitan Jews whose values of tolerance, respect for diversity and belief in the ennobling powers of the arts their only daughter inherited. Her mother, an artist and sister of the famous conductor Jascha Horenstein, was a feminist well before her time. Her father Leo was born in Ukraine, educated in Saint Petersbourg, and developed a glittering piano career in Vienna. He came to Japan in 1929 for a six-month concert tour -- and stayed for almost 17 years, a revered teacher at the then Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo.

Beate was born in Vienna, raised in Tokyo and educated at Mills College in California. Remarkably, by the age of 22 she had already acquired years of professional experience -- most notably at the Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, but also briefly at Time Magazine, where she perfected her research skills. Since the outbreak of the war, from the age of 18 when her parents could no longer send her money from Japan, she had funded all her studies herself. She was fluent in six languages.

Beate had observed first-hand, growing up in Japan, that women there had no rights. This influenced her throughout life. As she succinctly wrote in the Hiroshima conference introduction ‘The basic rights of women remain, regardless of what one may say about cultural differences, one of the pillars in the rebuilding of post-war societies’. She was proudest when she could point at how much Japanese women had achieved, in the short few decades since the promulgation of the new constitution. Yet she also urged caution, reminding of the need to protect those gains. She spoke of recent examples of women’s rights back-sliding or under siege in countries like Iran and Iraq, where over a mere few years they had eroded significantly -- depriving half the population from influence in politics, academe, business or even in their own destiny.

There are also those who still believe that the Japanese constitution is not Japanese enough. This is maybe more about form than content. The Meiji Constitution, despite having been the product of years of research and the dispatch of numerous national delegations to Europe, ended up nonetheless looking quite similar to the German constitution. Still, with visible emotion and from exile at the time in London, the foresighted politician Yukio Ozaki wrote in his memoirs that its promulgation was one of the most important moments of his entire life.

General MacArthur’s original intent, almost immediately upon arriving in Japan in 1945, had been for a new progressive constitution to be drafted by the Japanese government itself. But two attempts to do so failed -- the conservative elite in power was fundamentally opposed to changing the existing laws of the land. The Japanese public, on the other hand, seemed ahead of its leadership and had already rallied -- more than a dozen groups, advised by prominent intellectuals, had submitted ideas to GHQ for the new constitution.

During one feverish week when the drafters worked on a new text, Beate’s knowledge of Tokyo’s libraries allowed her to find samples of constitutions from many countries -- France, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, the Soviet Union, Uruguay, the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence among them. She often quoted the writer James Miki -- that the Japanese constitution embodied the ‘wisdom of history‘ -- and wrote in her memoirs that ‘Only the article renouncing militarism really touched the hearts of people who had suffered such devastating losses‘.

Beate remained, to the end, opposed to the notion that ridding the constitution of Article 9 would allow Japan to become an ‘ordinary’ country. Her invocation was clear: why should Japan give up its peace clause -- surely alongside the Swiss neutrality clause a true national treasure? For her the right thing - the obvious course -- would be for other countries, to emulate Japan’s peace constitution.

My last conversation with Beate was on 10 December. By then she sounded quite frail, but was as always lucid, precise and generous with her time. Later I realized that this last exchange had taken place on International Human Rights Day - for Beate it seemed perfectly fitting.

At some point in the future the Japanese constitution may well be amended. But it is the spirit of their constitution, its embrace of universal rights and especially its precious peace clause that hopefully the Japanese will defend vigorously, if that time comes. I believe this will be the most apt response to the legacies Beate left us all.

Nassrine Azimi was born in Iran in 1959 and educated in Switzerland. She established the Hiroshima Office of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in 2003, and served as its founding director until 2009. Previously, she had been coordinator of UNITAR’s environmental training programs in Geneva, and chief of the Institute's New York Office. From 1994 to 2005 she directed a publication series on peacekeeping, for which she edited or co-edited seven books, and has also written extensively on post-conflict reconstruction and environmental stewardship of the seas. Her opinion pieces appear regularly in the International Herald Tribune and global edition of the New York Times. She has an MA in international relations from the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies, and a post-graduate degree in urban studies from the School of Architecture of the University of Geneva. In 2011 Ms. Azimi launched the Green Legacy Hiroshima Initiative, a campaign to spread worldwide the seeds and saplings of trees that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.