For the fifteen years preceding her death, Beate Gordon was an enormously popular figure in Japan. Women stopped her constantly, asking to shake her hand or take pictures with her. They desperately wanted to meet her — to thank her — and who could blame them? After all, she was the one who wrote equal rights into their constitution.
Beate was born in Vienna in 1923 to Jewish parents. In 1929, her father Leo, a famous pianist, was invited to teach at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, so Beate and her family relocated to Japan. Beate quickly fell in love with Japanese culture. She picked up the language quickly, learning it in only three months despite its complexity, and she made fast friends at The Tokyo German School her parents enrolled her in. She remained at the Tokyo German School for most of her secondary education, but as anti-Semitism began making its way to the German schools in Japan, her parents, obviously concerned that their Jewish daughter was being taught to heil Hitler, transferred her to the American School in Japan. Two years later, before she had even turned sixteen, her parents sent to her to the United States, where she began pursuing a degree in modern languages at Mills College in Oakland, California.
In 1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Beate’s life changed dramatically. She lost all contact with her parents and, with it, their financial support. She reached an arrangement with Mills College that allowed her to sit for exams without having to attend classes and subsequently got to work as a translator. As one of only 65 Caucasians in America who could speak Japanese, she was in high demand. Her fluency in German, Spanish, Italian, and Russian definitely didn’t hurt either. She began working at a listening post in San Francisco and from there at the United States Office of War Information. During this time, she continued her education at Mills College, and in 1943 she received her bachelor’s degree. Two years later, in 1945, she became an American citizen.
By the war’s end in 1945, Beate still had not received word from her parents. It had been four years since she had last heard from them, and she had no idea whether they were dead or alive. She longed to return to Japan and check on them, but civilian travel was restricted. Thankfully, General McArthur was assembling a team that would travel to Japan and help the country rebuild. Beate’s language skills made her a natural fit as an interpreter and so, as a member of General McArthur’s team, she was able to become the first female civilian to travel from America to Japan after the war.
Beate arrived in Tokyo on Christmas Eve 1945, and immediately rushed to her parents’ home. To her horror, she found the house destroyed. Thankfully, she soon learned that her parents were alive. But they had suffered a great deal during the war. They were held as prisoners in a local village for years and given very little food and water. Still, they survived. Thanks to her job with General McArthur, Beate was able to bring them back to Tokyo and care for them, but that was far from her only responsibility. There was groundbreaking work to be done.
Less than two months after her arrival in Japan, McArthur’s team was tasked with secretly drafting Japan’s constitution. As the only woman on the team, it was decided that Beate would handle the section on women’s rights. It was an enormous task. Growing up in Japan, Beate knew how essential her role was. Women in Japan had previously been treated more like property than people. They were rarely given any say in who they married. In fact, they rarely even met their future husbands until right before the wedding. They could not inherent anything, no matter how wealthy their families were. They could, however, quite literally be bought and sold. Beate, who was only 22 at the time, would not just be giving Japanese women more rights—she would be giving them rights for the very first time—and, if that wasn’t enough pressure, she would have to do in only seven days.
Japanese women were historically treated like chattel; they were property to be bought and sold on a whim… Women had no rights whatsoever.
Beate knew better than to waste a moment on such a tight deadline. She quickly requisitioned a jeep and began scouring the local libraries for other countries’ constitutions to use as inspiration. She read and worked and rarely slept, and in seven very busy days, she managed to construct drafts of two key components of the Japanese Constitution: Article 14 and Article 24.
Article 14 focused on civil rights, declaring that “All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.” Article 24 focused more specifically on women and granted them rights to “choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters.” With the stroke of her pen, Beate declared all Japanese citizens equal under the law and demanded they be treated as such. Less than a year later, her words became the law of the land.
They always want their picture taken with me. They always want to shake my hand. They always tell me how grateful they are.
For decades, Beate’s contributions to the constitution remained a secret; first because she was ordered to keep it that way and second, because she worried that learning that part of the constitution was written by a 22-year-old girl might give opponents of the constitution leverage with which to undercut it.
Instead of speaking out about her role, Beate returned to the United States. She married and had children and began work with the Japan Society of New York before moving on to the Asia Society in New York. She served as the performing arts director for both organizations, and in that capacity, she spent more than three decades introducing America to traditional Japanese artists and art forms before retiring in 1991. In 1995, she released a book, entitled The Only Woman In the Room, about her experiences after the war. The book soon inspired a play and a documentary, and it catapulted Beate to a sort of celebrity status in Japan, which she enjoyed until her death in 2012, at the age of 89, of pancreatic cancer.