NEW YORK — Beate Sirota Gordon — the daughter of Russian Jewish parents who at 22 almost single-handedly wrote women’s rights into the constitution of modern Japan and then kept silent about it for decades, only to become a feminist heroine there in recent years — died Sunday at home in Manhattan. She was 89.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said her daughter, Nicole Gordon.
A civilian attached to General Douglas MacArthur’s army of occupation after World War II, Mrs. Gordon was one of the last living members of the US team that wrote Japan’s postwar constitution.
Her work — drafting language that gave women a set of legal rights pertaining to marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance that they had long been without in Japan’s feudal society — had an effect on their status that endures to this day.
‘‘It set a basis for a better, a more equal society,’’ Carol Gluck, a Japanese history professor at Columbia University, said Monday. ‘‘By just writing those things into the constitution — our Constitution doesn’t have any of those things — Beate Gordon intervened at a critical moment. And what kind of 22-year-old gets to write a constitution?’’
The daughter of Leo Sirota and the former Augustine Horenstein, Beate Sirota was born on Oct. 25, 1923, in Vienna. When she was 5, her father was invited to teach at the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo, and the family moved there. In 1939, shortly before her 16th birthday, she left for Mills College in Oakland, Calif. Her parents remained in Japan.
In December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it became impossible to contact Japan. Mrs. Gordon had no word from her parents.
She received her bachelor’s degree in modern languages from Mills in 1943 and became a US citizen in 1945. At war’s end, she did not know whether her parents were alive or dead.
For US civilians, travel to Japan was all but impossible. She went to Washington, where she secured a job as an interpreter on MacArthur’s staff. Arriving in a devastated Tokyo on Christmas Eve 1945, she went immediately to her family’s house. Where it had stood was only a single charred pillar.
She eventually found her parents, who had been interned in the countryside and were malnourished. She took them to Tokyo, where she nursed them while continuing her work for MacArthur.
One of MacArthur’s first priorities was drafting a constitution for postwar Japan, a top-secret assignment, begun in February 1946, that had to be finished in just seven days. As the only woman assigned to his constitutional committee, along with two dozen men, young Beate Sirota was deputized to compose the section on women’s rights.
‘‘Japanese women were historically treated like chattel; they were property to be bought and sold on a whim,’’ Mrs. Gordon told The Dallas Morning News in 1999. ‘‘Women had no rights whatsoever.’’
The new constitution took effect in 1947; the next year, Beate Sirota married Joseph Gordon, who had been the chief interpreter for US military intelligence in postwar Japan.
In the 1950s, she joined the staff of the Japan Society in New York, becoming its director of performing arts. In that capacity, she introduced many Japanese artists to the West. In 1970, she became director of performing arts at the Asia Society in New York. She retired in 1991.
For decades, Mrs. Gordon said nothing about her role in postwar Japan.
But the release of her memoir — ‘‘The Only Woman in the Room,’’ published in Japanese in 1995 and in English two years later — made her a celebrity in Japan.
Mrs. Gordon’s husband, who became a real estate developer, died last August. Besides her daughter, she leaves a son, Geoffrey, and three grandchildren.