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Sunday, Aug. 17, 2008
There's a lot to learn from the life and times of Beate Sirota Gordon
"This film is a requiem to people who have been persecuted and died in war."
In this way documentary film director Tomoko Fujiwara characterizes her moving tribute to the life of Beate Sirota Gordon and her relatives. "Sirotake no 20-Seiki (The Sirota Family and the 20th Century)" will be screened in a three-week season at Iwanami Hall in Tokyo beginning Sept. 27. However, the film and its story deserve a much wider audience, both in Japan and overseas.
Beate Sirota, to use her maiden name, is the woman known for composing, in 1946, Article 24 of the Japanese Constitution, establishing full rights for women in all matters dealing with marriage and family. But her story begins long before, and Fujiwara meticulously traces it back to the town of her ancestors' birth.
Kamianets-Podilskyi lies just north of the Moldavian border in Ukraine. At the crossroads of Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Ottoman Turkish cultures, this is where her father, Leo Sirota, was born into a Jewish family. The Sirotas moved to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, at the end of the 19th century. Leo was one of five children, all artistically talented. The three brothers fled the anti-Semitism that overtook Russian life in the early years of the 20th century. They went their separate ways — Pierre to Paris, Wiktor to Warsaw and Leo to Vienna — where Beate was born in 1923.
In 1929, Leo Sirota, by then a famous pianist and teacher, was invited to teach at what is now the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Beate entered the Tokyo German school, transferring to the American school for her last two years of secondary education. Then, in 1939, not yet 16, she was sent by her parents to Mills College in Oakland, California. She was not to see her parents again for nearly seven years.
Last month I interviewed Beate Sirota Gordon by e-mail. I was particularly curious to know how she learned to speak fluent Japanese.
"My parents spoke Russian, German, French and English. I used some Russian at home with them, but (generally) German and English," she wrote. "I learned Japanese well because I played with Japanese children and used Japanese on a daily basis. I always had many Japanese friends."
The Sirota family depicted in Tomoko Fujiwara's film appears totally at home in Japan. Leo Sirota was adored by his Japanese students, some of whom were interviewed for the film. Home movies taken by and of the Sirotas under the cherry blossoms at Ueno, by the old Imperial Hotel and at their home near Nogi Shrine portray a family both assimilated into Japanese culture and also making an immense contribution to it.
When the war ended, Beate, working in New York as a researcher for Time magazine, was anxious to return to Japan as quickly as possible to see her parents, who had spent the war years under "village arrest" in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture.
Being one of the very few non-Japanese in the United States who spoke and read Japanese, she landed a job as a civilian attached to the U.S. Army. When she arrived in Japan in the winter of 1945, she found that the family home had been burned to the ground in the bombing.
In Tokyo during the Occupation, she worked as a translator for General Headquarters (GHQ), the central secretariat of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers; and, by what she herself describes as "a stroke of luck," she was assigned to a team of 20 Americans tasked with composing — in the space of just a week — the new Japanese Constitution.
"I was just 22 and, needless to say, I had never written a constitution before! But because I was the only woman working on the civil rights section, the job of writing what became Article 24 came to me."
It is well known that the powerful enforcer in SCAP, Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, whom SCAP chief Gen. Douglas MacArthur called "my lovable fascist," was not well disposed toward Beate. Willoughby looked upon all progressives as procommunist.
"Gen. Willoughby bothered me on a personal basis," Beate wrote me, "not on a professional basis. He wrote memos about me which were completely false, and he also attacked my father. One can get these memos now through the Freedom of Information Act, but I don't want to see them. It's too painful."
For many years, she kept her pivotal role in the writing of Article 24 to herself. For one thing, there was a 25-year U.S. government ban on speaking about it. After that, the Japanese authorities were not keen on advertising the fact that their Constitution had been "handed down" to them by Occupation forces.
But in 1997, Col. Charles Kades, under whom Beate worked, and a man she greatly admired, spoke in public of her contribution. It was at that time that she decided to reveal her story to the world.
Now nearly 85, she frequently lectures to students and women's groups in Japan and many other countries. She is a staunch opponent of revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, the so-called peace clause. And she is an equally staunch supporter of Japanese women and an admirer of what they have achieved in the years since the war.
"The women of Japan," she wrote me, "have done extremely well. They have gone to court; many have been elected not only to the Diet but to local legislatures; they are really peace-loving and ready to fight for peace. They are strong, they persevere. . . . It has only been 60 years — I am surprised at how far they have come."
Beate Sirota Gordon is an inspiration not only to Japanese women, but to anyone who believes that it is worth fighting for a cause. Sadly, not all the members of the Sirota family were able to accomplish this.
"The Sirota Family and the 20th Century" follows the fate of Beate's uncles, Pierre and Wiktor. Pierre, a highly successful impresario in Paris, was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where he perished in 1944. Wiktor, who won acclaim as a conductor in Warsaw, was arrested for political activities and never heard of again. His son, Igor, took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy, but was killed in action on Aug. 20, 1944.
The beauty of Fujiwara's film is in the recreation of history accomplished entirely through the depiction of the lives of this extraordinary family. It intertwines their stories from the end of the 19th century in Central and Western Europe through to the United States and Japan.
It is both sweeping and intimate. And the remarkable life of Beate Sirota Gordon is at its center.