Beate Sirota, or how a 22-year old American girl changed the condition of the Japanese women

Beate Sirota, or how a 22-year old American girl changed the condition of the Japanese women

An 89-year-old american lady, whose name will probably be unknown to a majority of the readers of the Réseau Asie, died on December 30th, 2012, amid a flurry of loving homages in the world's most prominent newspapers, which praised the work accomplished by a 22-year old girl during nine hectic days in early 1946. Responsible for the article on the equality of sexes in the 'Peace Constitution' imposed by the Americans on Japan, Beate Sirota had spent thereafter 40 years of her life introducing Asian theatrical traditions to the american audience, an activity as innovative and far more consuming of time and energy than her work on the constitution, even if on her last day it was not what she would be remembered for. Feeling that this part of her lifework had slowly fallen into oblivion, Beate harbored in her old age some frustration about this state of affairs - frustration which she shared with a friend of her. It is on these premises that this friend, Nassrine Azimi, and myself were brought to write a biography of Beate, for which she had time to write the foreword two months before passing away. The book was published in France a few months afterwards. Translated into Japanese, it benefitted from the nationwide reflection that her death had caused in Japan, her passing coinciding with the return to power of the conservative right, which had actually never accepted the constitution imposed by the American Occupation. It has therefore put the revision of the country's fundamental law at the core of its political agenda. Our manuscript was therefore accepted by the prestigious Iwanami publishing company, which decided to release the book on the first anniversary of Beate's death in their famed "Booklets" series : this publication, which is quite similar in caliber to the Que sais-je ? series, has been released for thirty years or so at the pace of two or three monthly issues, signed by some of the country's most prominent intellectuals. Our book, which had to be reduced to the immutable size of the Booklet series by the able hands of one of Iwanami's editors, was released last January : on the same constitutional theme, so controversial these days that it generates specific sections in Japan's main bookstores, we follow, in all simplicity, on the footsteps of no less than Ôe Kenzaburô, Nobel Prize of Literature and great humanistic conscience of today's Japan, who had not missed the occasion of making his own contribution to the debate during the summer of 2013.

The Sirotas in Japan, circa 1930 (© )
The Sirotas in Japan, circa 1930 (all rights reserved)

I must admit that I had myself never heard of Beate Sirota when Nassrine Azimi, a UN official based in Hiroshima where she worked in one of the United Nations' institutes dedicated to the training of professionals from developing countries, presented to me this book project. I knew however quite well the work of her father, the famous pianist Leo Sirota, having myself undertaken some research on the reception of Western music in Japan. Some years ago, I even devoted a book, Le Sacre de l'Hiver, to a strange social phenomenon, the infatuation of the Japanese with Beethoven's Ninth, considered, of course inaccurately, as a germanic rite for the end of the year. The origin of this curious belief goes back to a tradition imposed by an Austrian Jewish conductor, Joseph Rosenstock, who had come to Japan in 1936 to flee Nazism, and had assumed the direction of what is today the NHK Symphony Orchestra, which he contributed to transform into one of the great formations of the international circuit. I had therefore been led to pay attention to the question of the famous Jewish musicians who had found refuge in Japan during the Nazi period and had trained the country's musical elite. The Germans had of course asked for the expulsion of those masters, but the Japanese government, keen not to jeopardize the foreign investments and selective immigration on which it counted to develop its colonial conquests, especially in Mandchuria, was not willing to yield to Nazi pressure on a question which was felt after all as rather secondary. The government was therefore led to define in 1938 an ad hoc policy, which stipulated that the Jewish residents of Japan or of the territories under Japanese control should be treated according to the same principles as other foreign nationals. The great music masters were therefore able to continue with their teaching, all the more so as the beginnings of the Pacific War, very favorable to Japan, had led to no slowing down of the musical life : on the contrary, Rosenstock's subscription concerts as head of the radio orchestra were duplicated from October 1940 onward, and Sirota, who had been a permanent resident of Japan since 1929, was seemingly never as busy as a concertist as he was during year 1942.

Leo and his
students at Tokyo Music Academy (© 1934) 
Leo and his students at Tokyo Music Academy (1934, all rights reserved)

It is only with the turning of the tides of war, and with the unexpected and painful defeats of 1942-43 (Midway, Guadalcanal), that the festive mood began to sour. The foreign residents, especially those who did not support the views of the Axis, were perceived as a potential fifth column, and this led in the musical field to the prohibition for Japanese performers to appear in concert with foreign artists who did not belong to the Axis powers. Sirota's contract with the prestigious Tokyo Music Academy, which had been constantly renewed since 1931, was brought to an end in 1944, and he was, as many foreign residents, sent with his wife into forced residence to a mountain resort where they possessed a summer log-house, hardly built to endure, practically without any fuel, 15 degrees-below zero winters. The Sirotas suffered therefore from cold, hunger, and also from the fear instilled by the omnipresent military police. But at least they did survive, which was not the case of many in Leo's family back in Europe, annihilated during the Nazi period.

Beate at Mills College, Oakland (© 1941) 
Beate at Mills College, Oakland (1941, all rights reserved)

Their daughter Beate, who had lived in Japan between the ages of 5 and 15 and who spoke the language fluently, had left in 1938 to study in a Californian college. She came back in 1945 to look for her parents, of whom she had had no news since the beginning of the Pacific War : fluent in Japanese, she had been able to enroll as a civilian in MacArthur's military staff, and when the great man gave nine days to the Government Section to which she belonged to draft the country's constitution, as she was "The Only Woman in the Room" (the title she gave to her Memoirs published in 1997), she was to be responsible (at age 22 !) for the revolutionary clause on the equality of the sexes, which notably stipulates that with regard to "matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall been acted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes" (Article 24).

The other members of the section were definitely no constitutionnalists, but at least some had been trained as jurists. Yet Beate had what the others did not, a first hand knowledge of the country and of the language, and she had been able, as a young girl, to observe the way Japanese women were treated (in her own words as "property to be bought and sold on a whim").

Though it was but an open secret, for decades officialdom refused to recognize the American origin of the drafters, and especially the fact that a fundamental article of the constitution had been written by a young woman barely out of college. Once her role was made public however, Beate became an idol for Japanese women, and remains so to this day.

Beate's immigrant identification card (© 1939) 

Beate's immigrant identification card (1939, all rights reserved)

Having returned to the United States after working 18 months for the Occupation Forces, Beate was soon to play a major role in the restoration of US-Japan relations, and more generally in the development of cultural links with Asia. She joined the Japan Society in New York, part of the Rockefeller constellation, after the reopening of the institution which had been dormant during the war. After working for the welfare of Japanese students that were timidly returning to America, she assumed in 1958 the direction of the Performing Arts section, and thereafter joined in the same position, in 1970, the Asia Society, a sister organization. Her mandate there required that she invite three groups a year : though one of the three was often from Japan, she still had to cover an immense cultural zone, known only until then to just a handful of scholars, 22 countries extending from West Asia to Oceania which she visited, five or six a year, to audition traditional artists (as a matter of principle, she would not stage a performance unless she had personnally watched it beforehand).

When she, of course reluctantly, retired in 1991 (she was 68), she had managed to organize some 40 tours, each with some 20 to 25 performances presented at Asia Society itself or through the very cooperative network of universities around the country. Her artists had travelled to 400 cities in 42 American states, and their performances had been attended by one and a half million Americans. The Village Voice thanked her for 20 years of "Asian gifts", and the stage director Peter Sellars, to whom she was "a legend", told her once that he had had no experience whatsoever of Asian performing arts until the day he had seen a performance organized by Beate at the University of California in Los Angeles, and that it had simply changed his life.

Michel Wasserman
College of International relations
Ritsumeikan University (Kyôto)