Friday, October 17, 2014

Between Chinese and Japanese

October 2, 2014 12:00 am JST

Yamaguchi dies at 94

YASUNOBU NOSE, Nikkei senior staff writer

Yoshiko Yamaguchi © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Wartime actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi, who later served 18 years in the upper house of the Japanese Diet, died of heart failure at her home in Tokyo on Sept. 7, her family announced. She was 94.

     She grew up in Japan-occupied Manchuria, which is now northeast China, and debuted under the Chinese screen name of Li Hsianglan (Ri Koran in Japanese) in 1938 as a member of the Manchuria Film Association. She broke out in Japan with the 1940 film "Shina no Yoru" ("China Nights"), starring opposite Kazuo Hasegawa. The song "Soshu Yakyoku" ("Suzhou Serenade"), which she sang in the film, also became a big hit.

     When she held a concert in Tokyo in 1941, there was famously a line for tickets that circled the theater more than seven times.

     After the war, she appeared in several films credited as Yoshiko Yamaguchi, including "Akatsuki no Dasso" ("Escape at Dawn") and director Akira Kurosawa's "Shubun" ("Scandal"), with actor Toshiro Mifune. She was also in several American films and stage productions.

     In 1951, she married Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, but they divorced about four years later. In 1958, she married a Japanese diplomat and temporarily left the entertainment scene. She returned in 1969, hosting a TV show, on which she reported on current affairs such as the Vietnam War and the Palestinian issue.

     In 1974, she was elected to Japan's upper house as a Liberal Democratic Party candidate. She served three consecutive terms until 1992, during which she held several portfolios, including parliamentary vice minister of environment.

     Among her books are autobiographies "Ri Koran wo Ikite" ("My Life as Li Hsianglan") and "Ri Koran -- Watashi no Hansei" (Half My Life as Li Hsianglan), the latter of which she co-authored. Both books tell of her life growing up with two homelands -- Japan and China -- during turbulent times, and were adapted into TV dramas and a musical.

Many stories, one life

Yamaguchi said her first memory was of a Chinese person being beaten to death by a Japanese soldier next to her home in the Manchurian city of Fushun, and served as an ominous precursor to the era of war in which she would grow up.

     Born in the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria, she became a singer for Mukden radio station before working in movies. Behind her early life loomed the national policies of militaristic Japan.

     She remembered that in those days she already felt guilty about having to pretend to be a Chinese actress named Li Hsianglan. "It was agonizing, really agonizing," she said about that time.

     In China after the war, she was put on trial as a traitor to China due to the belief that she was Chinese. She was able to prove that she was Japanese, and narrowly escaped execution. These struggles early in her life likely translated into her on-screen performances, often characterized by a calm demeanor and penetrating gazes.

     She maintained her captivating, starlike beauty even after leaving the stage and screen. She was known for her clear, lyric soprano voice, and her frequent laughter. But those who talked with her could not help but feel that she was also full of conviction and strength.

     Her home was filled with books on Manchuria and the history of the Showa era (1926-1989), which she said she read from time to time. Last year, when I spoke with her, she asked about herself, "Am I Japanese or Chinese?" Throughout her life, she never shied away from her position as someone torn between two lands.

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