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Japan pays tribute to feminist cultural pioneer

The Japanese press has given thanks for the memory of Beate Sirota Gordon who, in 1945, drafted the far-sighted equality and women’s rights section of its post-War constitution. Gordon, who worked all her life to promote bilateral cultural ties, died on Sunday in New York. Here is a personal tribute from a long-term friend, the record producer Allan Evans:

sirota yoko ono


(BSG with former protegee, Yoko Ono)

One rarely encounters unique beings whose involvement with many cultures at their deepest levels opens entire worlds in mere tangents of their experience. Beate Gordon was such a marvel, a vibrant catalyst for traditional arts and cutting-edge challenges. I located her soon after hearing obscure recordings by the pianist Leo Sirota, their long-overlooked legacy stuck in the 1920s, and began wondering if anything else survived. Mention was made of his daughter: Beate Gordon, director of the arts programs at New York’s Asia Society.

Beate had a dream career that took her annually throughout Asia to seek dancers, musicians, theater groups, artists, architects, and bring over the most traditional and innovators to New York. She guessed that a tape of his playing was made in St. Louis, where he taught for two decades after living and performing in Japan for some sixteen years but was inaccessible for the moment.

Listeners encountering Asian traditions often walked away enlightened by every event that transpired under Beate’s guidance. Her close friend Teresa Sterne coordinated projects for her work as director of Nonesuch Records’ Explorer Series, and both shared contacts and strategy. Their work elevated non-western arts above the superficial labels of International, then considered mere exotica. After knowing her for over a decade, surprising news hit: when the US government declassified fifty-year old files, her activities as a twenty-two year old “research expert” on a mission to Japan were suddenly in the open.

Having learned that her Russian-Jewish parents had survived bombings in Tokyo and had been interned in a remote fishing village, Beate sought all means to reach them in Japan, as she had just graduated in modern languages at Mills College, California and worked as a research journalist. General MacArthur’s staff was recruiting for a mission to Japan during the 1946 occupation and Beate was one of the ten non-Japanese chosen for their skills and fluency in the language.

Their project was to draft in secret a post-war constitution that the National Diet would adopt as their own. During her upbringing in Tokyo, Beate witnessed daily how women were deprived of all rights and demanded that the new constitution include sections guaranteeing them liberties. Driving through bombed-out Tokyo in a jeep commandeered by a soldier, she located functioning libraries to borrow at each two or three novels and also a foreign constitution: “We had to limit ourselves to one constitution at each library so as not to arouse suspicion.” Beate studied their terminologies (in five languages) and drafted her sections that guaranteed women legal rights and suffrage. At first the American staff balked but she prevailed and the constitution went into effect with her contribution.

As soon as the Japanese became aware of her activity of a half-century earlier, “Thank You Beate” clubs sprung up overnight and her memoir “The Only Woman in The Room” was published by Kodansha in English and Japanese, followed by a film and a tribute play that ran throughout Japanese theaters.

She called one day: “Come over and have a look:” her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment was to be painted and a closet containing the sole possible tape of Sirota would finally become accessible. Instead of one, a box with over forty reel-to-reel tapes of Sirota’s weekly radio programs came to light, with one containing Schoenberg’s Klavierstuck op. 11, no.2 in Busoni’s transcription, a work Busoni arranged when Sirota was his pupil in Vienna. On a later visit, Beate blithely motioned to five albums of 10” 78rpm discs on a low bookshelf: “Donald Ritchie the film scholar was with me in Japan in 1946 and he found them and gave them to me.” It was a set of Japanese traditional music prepared by a team of experts in 1941 to cover every genre from Gagaku and Buddhist chant to geisha music and folk songs. Subsequent research revealed that only two complete sets survived the war and I began publishing them with Dr. Naoko Terauchi (Kobe University), an ethnomusicologist who was astonished by its contents and chance survival.

Every meeting at Beate’s home brought forth historic and cultural dimensions as her guests were an astonishing array of writers, avant garde artists, musicians, architects, designers, all feted and grilled by an ageless Beate. A never-ending font of surprises, she pulled out an unmarked tape at one of our last meetings and asked me to go through it, “just in case”: the early 1960s finds her interviewing the composer Henry Cowell on Schoenberg, Asian music, and much else. No matter how long or how well one knew Beate, you felt as if you had just skimmed the surface,
©Allan Evans 2013

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