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Orchid from the North - Part 1


On the 75th anniversary of the tragic bombing of Pearl Harbor, don’t you think it’s time to put to rest all the misinformation about Japan that is currently treated as “historical dogma?”

One of the most blatant misconceptions, which really irks me as an insatiable history buff, is the shibboleth that relations between Japan and China have always been antagonistic and tragic, because Japan has been China’s eternal enemy and worst oppressor, and China its childlike, innocent perennial victim. (Or words to that effect.)

Since the 1950’s, much has already been written to enable us to step out of that foul slough of misinformation and better understand what has moved each of the two countries to behave as they did, particularly during the restless and mesmerizing Japanese transition from oligarchy to modern polity.

Despite their bitter spats and mutual vows of total annihilation, both China and Japan have invariably ended their conflicts learning much about each other, and generously applying that learning to their own progress.1 Certainly, since the sunrise of Asian culture, Japan has been China’s most prized student. In turn, China’s emergence as a modern nation couldn’t have occurred without Japan’s valuable aid, particularly after the fall of the Qing Empire.2

Something else is equally irksome: most journalists, and many historians, may continue focusing on the accomplishments of male heroes and the misdeeds of villainous men, as if women were only figments of the masculine imagination. So let us ask: Were there any women of note who shared in the trials and tribulations of Japan during its formative years as a modern nation?

Of course there were!

Fragrant Orchid3 from Manchuria

Photo: Wikipedia

Allow me to introduce you to Yoshiko Yamaguchi. Considered the most beautiful girl of her time, she rose to become the prized star of the Asian cinema—a distinction she retained for many years, before and after World War II. Her unique life contained more thrills and adventure than most novels of her time. She was a champion of survival—extraordinarily successful at it despite all the obstacles thrown her way.

Yamaguchi was born on February 12, 1920, in Beiyantai, a suburb of what is now Shenyang, in the Liaoning Province of Manchuria4. Soon after her birth, the family relocated to the coal mining town of Fushun, which through Japanese efforts had developed a vibrant economy. The carefully planned center of the town was always kept clean and beautiful. The mines operated in the southern part of town, in the suburban area.

Only one thing occasionally disturbed the idyllic peace of this Japanese colony: the fear that anti-Japanese bandits might one day decide to attack and ransack their privileged area. But this was just a mild concern, because a well-trained garrison of the powerful and disciplined Kwantung Army was there to act as the town’s guardian.5

Yoshiko Yamaguchi was the first daughter of two Kyushu natives: Fumio (Saga Prefecture) and Ai Yamaguchi (Fukuoka Prefecture). Fumio was considered a self-educated man; he had spent considerable effort studying both the Chinese language and Chinese classical literature. In those days, Japanese universities concentrated on European culture and languages; most curricula did not include Chinese studies.

Fumio’s father, a Sinologist of repute, had taught his son all he knew about China, and encouraged him to explore the total beauty of that country. In 1905, shortly after the end of the Russo-Japanese War, Fumio traveled to China to continue his self-managed education. He soon became a Sinophile and determined to live in China until his death. To attain this goal, he sought and obtained a job with the powerful South Manchuria Railway Company, known as the “Mantetsu.”6 Taking note of Fumio’s mastery of the Chinese language and familiarity with Chinese culture, the company soon made him its language instructor. He was stationed at the Mantetsu coal mine in Fushun, which was the largest industrial and mining center in Manchuria at the time of the Japanese occupation. He also became a consultant to Fushun County.

Fumio’s wife Ai was a true intellectual and a graduate of Tokyo’s Japan Women’s University. She was also the niece of a rice dealer in Fushun, where she met and married Fumio. And, before you ask the question, Yoshiko gives you the answer in her autobiography: she did not know, and she never cared, whether her parents’ marriage was a true romance or an omiai (arranged marriage). She wrote: “…people from the Meiji generation never talked about such matters.”7

Perhaps because of her own scholastic accomplishments, Ai was very strict and demanding about schooling; nevertheless, she was also a very loving mother who enjoyed playing with her children. Yoshiko’s formal instruction in Mandarin Chinese began at Fushun, when she was barely four years old; her father served as her tutor before she was enrolled in public school.

Growing up “Chinese”

While Yoshiko’s parents did not have specific plans for their first child, they believed in the importance of a liberal education, which would prepare her for a variety of exciting possible occupations: journalist, ambassador, and so on. So instead of teaching her the domestic skills of a housewife, Yoshiko received lessons in several musical instruments, including the koto. At the age of six, she was enrolled at the local Yong An School, where her classmates were many times her age. Yoshiko would go to school all day and then received even more lessons from her father at night.

Four more children were born into the Yamaguchi home. Being much older than all her brothers and sisters, Yoshiko added to her busy educational routine the responsibilities of ne-chan (older sister).

Yoshiko made several close friends among her public school classmates, which helped accelerate her mastery of Chinese; soon, speaking in the adopted language became as natural as speaking her native language. Liuba Monosova Gurinets, a Russian girl, became her closest pal and lifelong friend; she would save Yoshiko’s life only 15 years later.

The first of many crises that disturbed Yoshiko’s life struck on the night of September 15, 1932, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, when the events known as the Pingdingshan Incident awoke her to the ugly political realities of her time.8

Most of the Kwantung military troop had left Fushun to engage in field operations, leaving the town temporarily protected by only a small garrison. A group of about a thousand Chinese guerrillas9 decided to take this opportunity to conduct a hit-and-run attack on the Mantetsu coal mine, quietly infiltrating the outskirts of the town the night before the festival. With the complicity of some Chinese coolies who worked in the mines, the bandits set fire to the hills, turning the side of the mountain into an inferno. It took almost until dawn for the small military garrison, working with the local militia, to repel the insurgents and control the fire. Several buildings were ransacked and destroyed, and seven or eight Japanese officials were assassinated in the attack.

Under the command of a low-ranking officer, the garrison conducted an impromptu investigation. In Pingdingshan, they found some of the articles stolen from the mines during the attack. The patrol’s commander, a lieutenant, became enraged. How could he explain how such a disaster could occur during his watch?

The lieutenant commanded all the residents of Pingdingshan, women and children included, to be rounded up and summarily executed.10 They were massacred with machine-gun fire; their corpses were then doused with oil and burned. After a few days, they were buried under an avalanche of loose rock from the mountain, which garrison soldiers triggered with a dynamite explosion.

It is important to note that neither the mine’s director nor any of his officers were supportive of the lieutenant’s atrocity, and it is not difficult to speculate that the commander of the full Kwantung military unit might have acted differently than his violent subordinate. Most, if not all, the Japanese residents of Fushun were also deeply shocked by the brutality of this man’s response.11

Watching from the window of her home and seeing how the fire devastated the beautiful mountain landscape, one of Yoshiko’s most cherished sights, was indeed a shock for the twelve-year-old. Worse, however, was witnessing how the mine’s chief coolie, assumed to have been the bandits’ main contact, was brutally interrogated and killed in the town’s square, right in front of her home.

After the nightmare

Thanks to his position at the mine and his genuine love for the locals, Fumio had been able to meet some very influential Chinese people who were sympathetic to the Japanese. Among them were General Li Jichun and the politician Pan Yugui, both of whom became Fumio’s “sworn brothers” and Yoshiko’s “godfathers.” Admired for his strong efforts to create a better understanding between natives and immigrants, it isn’t farfetched to infer that Fumio’s conciliatory efforts may have prevented other attacks on Fushun. Unfortunately however, following the Pingdingshan incident, Fumio became suspected of disloyalty, treason, and collaboration with the Red Spears. He was arrested by the local military police and subjected to interrogation, but found innocent.

“Father was subsequently cleared of suspicions of working with the enemy, but life for him in Fushun became difficult. He decided therefore to leave the place…and avail himself of the goodwill of his friends, to move to Fengtian…--Fengtian was my castle of dreams.”12

During the occupation, Fengtian was the name that the Japanese had given to Shenyang (also known as Mukden), the lovely place that, in 1625, the founder of the Qing Dynasty had chosen as his capital city. Fumio moved to Fengtian at the invitation of his dear friend General Li Jichun, then president of Shenyang Bank. Here, our bi-cultural heroine was to experience yet another dramatic change.

Part 2 >>


1. Some historians may not agree, choosing to focus on the conflicts. However, for just one little example of accommodation after conflict, please refer to Donald Gillings and Charles Etter’s article : “Staying On: Japanese Soldiers and Civilians in China, 1945-1949.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol.42. No.3 (May, 1983), 497–518.

2. The last Chinese empress, Cixi, died on November 15, 1908, and with her death, the imperial form of government died in China, despite the many pretenders who tried to resurrect it. Please see “Empress Dowager Cixi,” accessed May 26, 2016.

3. Fragant Orchid was the Chinese name given to her; which plays well with her father’s affection for China well-detailed in the copy thereafter.

4. During the occupation, the Japanese referred to Shenyang as Fengtian.

5. After the Russo-Japanese War, the Kwantung Army became the most prestigious and powerful division of the entire Imperial Japanese Army. For more information, see Harries, Meirion, and Susie (sic) Harris, Soldiers of the Sun, New York: Random House, 1991.

6. The “Mantetsu,” modeled after the British East India Company, was a Japanese multi-enterprise—a state-within-the-state, with many different functions besides railroad building.

7. Yamaguchi, Yoshiko, and Fujiwara Sakuya (trans. Chia-Ning-Chang), Fragrant Orchid: The Story of My Early Life, Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2015, 3.

8. The Pingdingshan or Round Top Hill Incident occurred almost a year after the Manchurian Incident, which resulted in the creation of the Manchukuo Empire. The Mid-Autum Festival was a celebration that both the Chinese and Japanese observed. For more information, please see Morito, Morishima, Conspiracy, Assassination, Saber: Recollection of One Diplomat, Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 199. Morishima was then the Japanese Consul at nearby Fengtian.

9. It’s possible they were members of the anti-Japanese Red Spear guerrilla cult.

10. Reports of the incident vary on their victim counts. The numbers range from 400 to 3,000. Archaeological excavations of the site have only produced some 800 remains.

11. For a detailed description of the incident, please see: “Revisiting the Pingdingshan Massacre Memorial Hall” (All HIstorical Photos). The article is difficult to read; translation of the original was probably done electronically.

12. Yamaguchi, 14–15.


© 2017 Ed Moreno

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