THE 22 YEARS OLD JEWISH WOMAN WHO CHANGED JAPAN FOREVER
The January 12th – 18th, 2013 issue of the Economist magazine published an obituary of a woman who, at the age of 22, changed Japan forever. She was an American by naturalization, born in Vienna, Austria of Jewish parents. Her name was Beate (Pronounced Bay-ah-tay) Gordon Serota. She was assigned to be a member of a secret drafting group of New Japanese Constitution, a group of twelve men and one woman, Beate Serota. The reason for this extraordinary turn of event was her fluency in Japanese language. This was how she ended up drafting Article 24 of the Constitution of post-war Japan defining the rights of women. What she drafted was so radical that a member of the group, an American Army colonel, commented that even the Constitution of the United States did not give so many rights to women.
In 1945, she was in Japan as an interpreter in the General Headquarters of the Allied Occupation Forces. She had lived in Japan before the WW II for more than a decade as her father was a professor at Tokyo Imperial Academy of Music (now a part of the University of the Fine Arts in Tokyo), hence she was fluent in Japanese language by the time she became of age. She loved Japan, its culture and people. She went to the United States to advance her study in an university. While studying in the U.S., the war in the Pacific broke out. Thus she lost contact with her parents. She joined the Army as a civilian after the war to go to Japan, in order to find her parents. She eventually found them in an internment camp for enemy aliens. However, the story does not end there. She played a much more earth shaking role in the history of Japan, in fact in the history of women’s advancement in the world.
Article 24 of Japanese Constitution spells out marriage as one based on the mutual consent on both sexes, with equal rights and mutual co-operation. There is equal rights in regards to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce, rights to paid work, custody of children, equal rights to education, and many other matters. Japanese bureaucrats hated it. Americans took some of them out because they thought them too radical. Miraculously most survived and was passed by the Diet (Parliament). Now it is considered to be the most valued part of the constitution. It is one of the two revolutionary articles of the basic law in Japan: (the other one being Article 9 renouncing war.)
I am writing this for two reasons: one personal and the other out of my astonishment.
As is mentioned in the article “Two Rogues in My Family” in the Memory and Stories section of this website, I lost family fortune because my grand mother did not have right to hold on to her property. My branch of the Mitsui’s was a very wealthy family in Japan. My grand father had a control of my grandmother’s wealth, which he wasted away. She was the only remaining child after two of her brothers were killed in the Russo-Japan War of the early twentieth century. The post WW II constitution could have prevented that.
Secondly, after nearly seventy years, there is still strong resentment amongst Japanese about the fact that their basic law is drafted by a foreign power, the United States of America. However, Article 24 has never been in dispute. It is deeply entrenched in Japanese psyche. The target of resentment was Article 9. Every conservative government that came into power tried hard to amend the constitution in order to abolish Article 9. It has never succeeded because no party ever achieved a 2/3 majority in the lower house, required by the Constitution.
It is quite an achievement for a 22 years old woman.