In the above photo Beate is with another US-Japan giant, Prof. Donald Keene
For Beate Sirota Gordon (October 25, 1923 – December 30, 2012)
Beate was a remarkable person and we have always felt a deep pride in being her friends.
In our field, Beate was highly respected for her decades of work bringing performing arts, mostly authentic traditional forms, from Asian countries to the U.S. From 1953-1981, she was the director of performing arts at the Japan Society. Starting in 1960, Beate also worked in the Asia Society's performing arts program, first as a consultant then as the director from 1970-1991.
In these capacities, Beate brought to the U.S. authentic traditional performing artists. How stunning they were! In addition to performances in New York, she also toured these artists to other cities in the U.S. Thus for decades, many presenters and audiences had been surprised, impressed, and affected by the living arts Beate found and people were also educated by how she presented these artists. Koma and I, too, devoured her offerings. Korean drummers Samul-Nori, the Royal Dancers and Musicians from Bhutan, dancers from Kamchatka, and Javanese dance from Indonesia -- just to name a few. Attending Beate's concerts, Koma and I learned so much about performing arts and about Asia. We felt connected to the rituals, bodies and faces. We grew up in Japan as Japanese, but in New York we felt we were becoming, or rather uncovering ourselves as, Asians.
It was also at her concerts that we witnessed many American artists and audience members really taking in such different cultures from what they grew up with. For so many, Beate was a guide to a new world, the world which operates in a very different manner from that of America. Each village is the center of that world for those who live and dance there. In New York, Beate called us and many others, speaking politely but with a command, "Magnificent dancers and musicians are here. You have to come see them." And so we all did. Always extending more invitations. Beate has significantly affected the American psyche, at least of artists and art audiences.
In our home country of Japan, where she also grew up, Beate is another kind of heroine. At age 22 Beate was one among twenty-five people assigned to draft the Constitution of Japan, herself writing the articles on women's rights. Also, since the secrecy was lifted in 1980's, Beate was the only person who had spoken publicly about the Constitution's creation process, history, and value. Her life story is depicted on stage, on TV, and in film. People weep imagining how the 15-year-old Beate started college in the U.S. alone, how, for four years during the war, Beate had not known the whereabouts of her parents, and how 22-year-old Beate joined the occupation force so she could look for them.
Performing this role of a Japanese liberal and feminist icon was Beate's post-retirement passion. She traveled to Japan often, a few times a year, to defend the Japanese Constitution, which she called, from her own experience, a representation of humanity's total wisdom. Back in February 1946, it was Beate who scoured firebombed Japan to gather many different countries' Constitutions. These documents provided valuable references for the entire Constitution team, none of whom were law specialists. As the most nuanced interpreter at the negotiating table (and a charming young woman who grew up in Japan), Beate was also tremendously helpful in getting the Japanese officials to accept the most important parts of the Constitution draft.
The fact that the Constitution of Japan was drafted by Americans made its radically progressive articles more controversial in Japan. Japanese conservatives have insisted the Constitution was "forced" by the U.S. and they have been trying to rewrite the Constitution, especially Article 9, which bans war and any use of arms to solve international conflict. Some conservatives even attacked Article 24 written by Beate calling the equality of the sexes in marriage against "Japanese culture." Beate was extremely aware of this. In a 2005 TV interview, Beate argued, "it is odd to say the Constitution of Japan was 'forced' by the U.S. Japanese Constitution is so much better than that of America. So please see its value as it is" Beate also pointed out that the draft was fully negotiated with Japanese government representatives before it became the Japanese Constitution. Hearing the grave result of the recent election in Japan, Beate spent her last days answering Asahi newspaper's interviews to again defend the Constitution as one of its two surviving authors.
It is this total willingness in Beate that made her so famous in Japan and quite popular elsewhere. As the only child of the world renowned concert pianist Leo Sirota and an eager dance student in her childhood in Japan, Beate was a joyous performer. She thrived on public speaking and she made herself quite available, approachable, and understood. She had no trouble convincing anyone --even village chiefs in far away places-- that Beate was a star one could trust. With us, performing artists, it was this “thriving” in her that made Beate a friend more than a presenter.
On a personal note, Beate produced our New York debut concert at Japan Society in 1976 giving us the first taste of New York audiences. When we revived that first piece, White Dance, in 2009 as part of our Retrospective Project, many of our producer friends were amazed, not that Eiko & Koma had performed this piece, but that Beate had presented this show in 1976. The secret was Beate had not seen White Dance beforehand, having trusted her cousin who told Beate her impression of seeing us in Africa. But Beate must have liked White Dance too, because she immediately invited us back the following year for Fur Seal. Though, we wonder how she felt when we danced on Japan Society's stage to the Beatles' "I am the Walrus" and Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee.”
This second invitation made it possible for us to move to New York. Several years later at our Asia Society debut, we surprised Beate after the dress rehearsal of By the River. Koma and I told her that it felt wrong for me to wear a costume in this piece, which is about the river one has to cross to die. In the next 24 hours Beate called every board member and managed to get their permission for me to perform nude. It was the first evening-length event where I had no costume on. I certainly didn't plan to do that at the Asia Society, but Beate made it possible.
When our teacher Kazuo Ohno had his New York debut in 1981, it was Beate who persuaded Ellen Stewart of La Mama to present him. The Asia Society was not available for the dates, so Beate told Ellen, “Just trust me.” When the audience was stunned by Ohno’s performance and did not know what to do, it was Beate and her mother, Augustine, who "instructed" (by example and by insistence) a standing ovation. "This is a unique artist. Show him that you understand his greatness by standing up," said Beate’s mother as she moved her cane to motion audience members to stand up. Beate did not stop her. Rather, she looked proud of her mother’s theatricality and loudly called out, “Bravo!" Soon everyone realized that, indeed, they had just witnessed something amazing, not weird. The standing ovation continued through three encores. Ohno is truly a genius, but these two amazing women had just decided that for history. A true impresario in her very blood.
On September 12, 1990, I had the honor to present a Bessie Award to Beate. I spoke;
We are among the many Asians who are encouraged by her motherly guidance and passionate belief in the performing arts. She has even paid some of the dental bills for those who need them!
Every year she goes to these far countries alone, high up in the Himalayas or deep into the jungles of South Asia, to find authentic and genuine performing arts rituals. Often these are people who have never left their villages before. She presents them with integrity and in an unspoiled manner. She personally writes the program notes to promote an audience's understanding of a culture we have yet to learn. She speaks six languages and answers all her letters and phone calls. She is knowledgable yet instructive and passionate. Therefore she creates many meetings beyond the cultural boundaries and originates artistic collaborations
Let me also add that in 1946, she was working in Tokyo with General McArthur to create a new democratic Japanese constitution. She drafted the women's rights section. That was for me. Without it, I might have been in a different position when collaborating with Koma.
Looking at her, I am amazed how much one person can do to help others.
Then I read the citation prepared by the Bessies committee:
For beating an ever-widening path between the cultures of East and West; for understanding the essential creative dialectic between tradition and experimentation and the fundamental partnership of artists involved in both; for establishing an avenue of opportunity for Asian dance and performing artists, at work and abroad, a Lifetime's Achievement at the Asia Society
Many memories: If she was in town, Beate never missed our concerts. Her remarks were always so candid that they taught us what it is to be a friend. Every time Beate saw my mother, she offered most complimentary remarks in her fluent Japanese, trying to persuade my mother that I did not choose an "embarrassing" career. Strangely enough, our personal conversations with Beate were, in large part, in English unless someone vising from Japan joined us. How frustrating it must have been for Beate that, after short gossip in Japanese, we shifted to more serious talk in English. She had to endure our broken English like everyone else when she could have easily carried on the entire conversation in more sophisticated Japanese. In our childish eagerness, we somehow did not pay much attention to how beyond fluent her Japanese was. As another immigrant to the U.S., Beate must have understood we were trying to make a living here, and that meant largely experiencing things in English. She never took the initiative to shift back to Japanese speaking. When we met for the last time, however, we talked solely in Japanese, which is now another memory we treasure.
Over the last several years, whenever I have a chance to teach in colleges, I ask my students to read the Japanese Constitution, introducing it as "partly written by my dearest friend Beate." My syllabus always includes the assignment: to imagine yourself as a part of the team drafting the Constitution in 1946 in Japan, then compare/contrast to the actual constitutions of Japan and the U.S. It was such a privilege then to show Beate's book and her videos. (please see the links below). For all of these, I had never thanked Beate properly.
Beate, you were a big tree. Many gathered near you to be encouraged. We met life-long friends through you. You brought us many different kinds of nourishment from anywhere you could extend your roots. Beate, you were not at all limited by national borders. You left so much for all of us.
Thank you, Beate, Koma and I miss you.
Any information about memorials will be announced on the Asia Society page and the Japan Society page.
Beate Sirota Gordon updated Wikipedia article. This article is fact checked and approved by Beate's family.
New York Times obituary.
Another great article on Beate from the New York Times Fighting to Protect Her Gift to Japanese Women.
Transcription of Nightline with Ted Koppel, February 10, 1999 The Story of Beate Sirota
The Constitution of Japan. Beate wrote Article 14 and 24. Please also read Article 9. Beate gave an extensive interview in her last days to the major Japanese newspaper, Asahi, all about how precious the Japanese constitution is.
Beate's GREAT 2011 commencement address at Mills College.
Please note In Japan on January 3, 2013, major newspaper Asahi (7,780,000 circulation) carried three articles about Beate's passing including the one I mentioned above. Please find English translation of all Asahi articles by Margaret Mitsutani.
Article 9 Association to which Beate's family asks people to donate in Beate's honor.
Donations may also be made to her alma mater Mills College in her memory for the preservation and dissemination of her papers (which will be housed at Mills pursuant to her wishes) and for Asian performing arts there:
Mills College, Office of Institutional Advancement
5000 MacArthur Blvd.
Oakland, California 94613