NEW YORK — Beate Sirota Gordon, one of the last living members of the team that worked under Gen. Douglas MacArthur to draft Japan’s post-World War II constitution, passed away at her home in Manhattan on Dec. 30 at the age of 89.

In the writing of Japan’s new constitution, which took effect in 1947, Gordon played an integral role, drafting the language regarding legal equality between men and women in Japan, including Articles 14 and 24 on equal rights and women’s civil rights.

Beate Gordon leaving Japan in 1947. (Asia Society)

Recognized as a feminist heroine in Japan, Gordon wrote “The Only Woman in the Room,” a memoir that looks back on this and other episodes from her life.

Born in Vienna in 1923, she was the only child of noted pianist Leo Sirota and Augustine Horenstein. She went to Japan in 1929 when her father was invited to teach at what is now the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.

In 1939, Gordon moved to California to study at Mills College in Oakland and became a U.S. citizen. After graduation, she worked as an assistant at the Time magazine in New York before returning to Japan in 1945 as an interpreter and translator, serving the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces that occupied the defeated nation.

In addition to English and Japanese, she was fluent in German, French, Spanish and Russian.

Moving to back the U.S. in 1948, she married a fellow GHQ interpreter, Joseph Gordon, and they raised a son and a daughter. Mr. Gordon died last August; Mrs. Gordon is survived by her children and three grandchildren.

In 1953, Gordon started the Performing Arts Program at the Japan Society in New York. During her tenure as director of performing arts, which lasted until 1981, many well-known Japanese artists made their American debuts at the Japan Society and often gave return engagements after their careers had been successfully launched.

Later, Gordon became director of the Performing Arts Program at the Asia Society (1970-1991), eventually becoming the director of performances, films, and lectures.

A recipient of the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette, from the Japanese government, she was a frequent speaker and participant in Japan Society events and programs throughout her later years.

Her daughter, Nicole, told Kyodo News, “Her last public statements had to do with preserving the peace clause and the women’s rights sections of the Japanese constitution. She was opposed to amendment of the constitution in general, but those are the parts that (were) of the most concern for her.” (Under Article 9, Japan forever renounced war.)

“Beate was iconic — from her work on the Japanese constitution to her groundbreaking work bringing performing artists to audiences across the U.S. as part of her work at the Asia Society,” said Rachel Cooper, Asia Society’s director of global performing arts. “She is famed in Japan for her work with MacArthur, and had a major impact on Asian performance, from traditional Burmese music and dance to butoh-esque contemporary Kazuo Ohno. She will be remembered for inspiring a generation of artists and audiences on two continents.”

From right: Beate Gordon with American playwright Arthur Miller and Chinese playwright Cau Yu at the Asia Society in New York in 1980. (Asia Society)

Vishakha Desai, a former Asia Society president, said, “It’s an understatement to say that Beate Gordon was a legend in the field of Asian performing arts. She traveled the farthest corners of the region in search of the wonderful, and the rarely seen forms of dance and music at a time when most people in the U.S. were barely aware of the names of Asian countries, let alone their rich traditions of performing arts …

“Beate had the uncanny ability to spot the star quality of avant-garde Japanese dancers such as Eiko and Koma, whom she premiered in 1976, while also recognizing the immense beauty of a voice of a Korean pansori singer. Today, when Asian dance and music seem ubiquitous all over the United States, it’s hard to remember that Beate Gordon played a singular role in introducing the finest forms of Asian performing arts to American audiences through her role at Japan Society and at Asia Society for more than three decades.

“Although my professional connection with Beate was entirely in the field of Asian arts, I feel equally privileged to have known as a true feminist who helped draft the section on women’s rights for the Japanese constitution. As a daughter of an early feminist who fought in India’s independence movement, I realize that we stand on the shoulders of great women leaders of the earlier generation for whom it was far more difficult to stand for the rights of women.”

Dancer/choreographer Eiko Otake recalled, “Beate brought performing groups from so far away. Many of them had never left their villages before. How stunning these dancers, musicians and actors were! In addition to performances in New York, she also toured these artists to other cities in the U.S. Thus for two decades, many presenters and audiences were surprised, impressed, and affected by the art forms coming from very different cultures and lives in Asia. People were also educated by how she presented these artists.

“Attending Beate’s concerts, Koma and I learned so much about performing arts and about Asia. We felt connected to the rituals, bodies and faces of these people who came from places much further than Japan, distance-wise and lifestyle-wise. We grew up in Japan as Japanese, but in New York we felt we were becoming, or rather uncovering ourselves as, Asians.

“It was also at her concerts that we witnessed many American artists and audience members really taking in such different cultures from what they grew up with. For so many, Beate was a guide to a new world, a world which operates in a very different manner from that of America … This was the time before the Internet; the world was further apart and people lived more differently from other cultures, knowing much less about each other …

“Beate, you were a big tree. Many gathered near you to be encouraged. We met lifelong friends through you. You brought us many different kinds of nourishment from anywhere you extended your roots. Koma and I devoured what you gave us.”

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  1. Ms. Beate SIROTA GORDON was not “the last surviving member of that small cadre of American Occupation officers and civilians who drafted Japan’s post-war charter”. At least one other member, Mr. Milton J. ESMAN, is still alive.