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Don Robinson: How people with Valley ties helped seed democracy in Japan

Meanwhile, post-Fukushima, this island nation devoid of fossil fuels must find another way to power its economic recovery. Simultaneously, China is demanding that Japan’s neo-nationalist prime minister cough up its claims to several small islands near Okinawa. Can Japan’s acutely democratic government find a way to navigate these threatening seas?

This column is devoted to three people with local connections and strong ties to Japan: two who helped to lay the constitutional foundation of modern Japan, and another who became a leading scholar of Japan’s postwar development.

Beate Sirota Gordon was awarded an honorary degree from Smith College in 2004. According to her recent obituary in the New York Times, she was the “last living member of the American team that wrote Japan’s postwar Constitution.” The Times adds that Beate “at 22 almost single-handedly wrote women’s rights into the Constitution of modern Japan.” It takes nothing from her achievement to say that the account in the Times misrepresents what happened in several key respects.

Beate’s father, Leo Sirota, was a concert pianist of international renown. He was invited in 1928 to teach at the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo (Beate, born in Vienna, was 4 years old at the time). As Nazi terror closed in on Europe’s Jews, Sirota and his family stayed in Tokyo.

In 1939, Beate, almost 16, left for Mills College, an institution for women in Oakland, Calif. Fluent in English, Japanese, German, French, Spanish and Russian, she worked in San Francisco monitoring radio broadcasts and writing scripts urging Japan to surrender. She became a U.S. citizen in 1945, worked briefly for Time magazine, then took a job as an interpreter for Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur’s staff. She arrived in Tokyo on Christmas Eve 1945.

Beate joined the top-secret team of about 20 that would draft a new constitution for Japan. The Times says that she was “deputized to compose the section on women’s rights.” Colonel Charles Kades (who retired to Heath and lived there until his death in the mid-1990s) did the deputizing on this project. He assigned three people, Beate and two men, to gather materials for Japan’s new bill of rights. Beate went quietly to Tokyo’s surviving libraries and collected copies of 20th century constitutions, many of which (unlike America’s) included women’s rights.

When Beate and her two fellow-drafters presented their list of about 30 clauses detailing the rights of women and families to Colonel Kades, he was flabbergasted. If Japan’s parliament wanted to enact some of this, fine, he said, but this material did not belong in a constitution. The drafters replied that introducing democratic principles into the family was essential if Japan were to become a democracy.

They took their appeal to Gen. Courtney Whitney, MacArthur’s right-hand man, who Solomonically directed them to choose their two favorites and drop the rest. These became articles 14 and 24 of Japan’s Constitution.

Susan Pharr, a scholar at Harvard, has shown how a women’s movement sprang up in the spring, summer and fall of 1946 to defend these clauses against conservative attacks. The Occupation’s dramatic enfranchisement of women helped. It is certainly true that Beate’s role was critical. The inclusion of two clauses declaring the rights of women would not have happened if she had not been in a position to propose it.

The other person who made crucial contributions to Japan’s postwar recovery is professor Ray Moore. In December, the government of Japan paid him a great honor, bestowing the Order of the Rising Sun in recognition of his unique and enduring contributions to good relations between Japan and the United States.

Growing up near Waco, Texas, Ray at 14 needed to escape a difficult home situation, so he fibbed about his age and joined the Army. Scrawny but tough, he did some boxing in the service, but soon began his journey to an unimagined vocation. The Army sent him to Korea (the war there had ended). His officers recognized his quick, disciplined mind and set him to work analyzing intelligence. After his discharge he went to Japan and enrolled at International Christian University in Tokyo. After a solid start there, he finished his undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago, then did a doctorate at the University of Michigan. He joined the Amherst faculty in the mid-1960s.

Amherst already had a strong reputation as a place where promising young men from Japan could learn the ways of the West. Ray’s sensitivity to the Japanese mentality made him a perfect tutor to these young men, but he had other ideas, too. To encourage American young people to know more about Japan, he established a program at Doshisha University in Kyoto (whose founder had studied at Amherst in the 19th century).

The program thrives to this day, providing a junior year in Japan for students from 12 colleges, including Amherst, Smith and Mount Holyoke. Faculty members who teach in the program are asked to develop a Japanese component to their usual courses, a requirement that led several of us to embark on new scholarly ventures.

Teachers at undergraduate colleges often produce significant scholarship, but Ray’s standing among scholars of Japan is exceptional. Among other seminal contributions, he produced new evidence of Douglas MacArthur’s quixotic effort to convert Japan to Christianity by proselytizing the imperial family and giving special opportunities to missionaries. His book, published in 2002, told of the important role that Japanese political leaders played in the framing and ratification of Japan’s postwar constitution, fundamentally modifying the myth that it was simply dictated by MacArthur and his aides.

As Japan struggles against hard challenges, it will be aided by the legacy of these three people with strong ties to western Massachusetts.

Don Robinson writes a monthly column for the Gazette. He is co-author, with Ray Moore, of “Partners for Democracy: Crafting the New Japanese State Under MacArthur.”

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