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Japanese Women Should Honor Their Gloria Steinem

By William Pesek
January 04, 2013 9:18 AM EST

Few young Japanese women knew much about Beate Sirota Gordon when she died in New York on Dec. 30 at 89. That's a shame, considering how much they owe her for the freedoms they enjoy.

The daughter of Russian Jewish parents achieved some notoriety in the mid-1990s with her memoir, "The Only Woman in the Room.” It chronicled the unlikely role of a 22-year-old woman crafting Japan's post-war constitution. The team's only female member was entrusted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to draft its women's-right section.

Gordon's musician family emigrated to Japan in the late 1920s and she saw first-hand how few rights women had -- they were merely property. She helped make sure the all-important Article 14 made it into the final document. It stated, in terms that in 1946 were nothing short of revolutionary: “All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.”

For generations, Gordon stayed out of the limelight. She feared that the conservative men running post-war Japan would exploit her youth and inexperience to revise the constitution. She joined the Asia Society in New York in the 1950s, where she had an illustrious career focusing on performing arts. Thankfully, Gordon began speaking out more in recent years, recounting her experiences in Tokyo during the U.S. occupation.

It's time for Japanese to take up the flame of a woman some consider their answer to Gloria Steinem. Nearly 67 years after Japan's constitution was written, sexism remains rampant. In 2012, the World Economic Forum ranked Japan 101st out of 135 countries in gender equality, after Indonesia and Azerbaijan. Such inequality holds back Japan's economy by reducing the quality of its labor force.

Women must demand their due. Japan’s history, as Gordon would surely agree, is replete with flashes of feminist energy, but few caught on in a cohesive, sustained and formidable way. A little Steinem-style agitation, or even taking a page from

Lysistrata,” might go a long way in a nation badly in need of an economic shakeup. After all, those in power don’t tend to yield it easily, least of all Japan’s old-boys club.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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