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Orchid From The North - Part 5

Read Part 4 >>

Again, we stray a bit from Yoshiko’s personal story to review the situation between China and Japan at the close of the Pacific War. Why? On the 75th anniversary of what President Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy” (December 7, 1941), many Western media outlets revisited the “safe versions” of World War II history—those that portray the Allies (China and Russia included) as icons of righteousness and Japan as a most ignoble country. Yoshiko had already become a significant artistic figure in that period, so we cannot talk about her and ignore the milieu that lead to her reinventions.

On August 9, 1945, the day after the second American atomic bombing (on Nagasaki), the Soviet Union invaded Japan-occupied Manchuria without first declaring war. Japanese Ambassador Naotake Sato confronted Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and asked him why, since the 1941 Non-Aggression Pact between both countries would not expire until April 1946.1 Molotov merely conceded that the treaty had been violated… and Sho ga nai!2

The magnificent MFA Studios (Man’ei’s new moniker) were a gorgeous trophy no one could ignore, so the Soviet Army lost no time “liberating” them. Amakasu Masahiko, MFA’s head and Yoshiko’s direct boss, committed suicide rather than allow the Soviet forces invading Manchuria to capture him.3

Hate You, Love You, Need You

In their wars against each other, Japan and China never ran out of mutually irritating epithets. We have been led to believe that the Chinese detested everything Japanese in their territory; hence we could safely assume that after Japan’s surrender, the Chinese would try to purge from their land everything Japanese.

However, in the last months of World War II, the Chinese Nationalists and the Japanese began colluding as an essential strategy in their mutual opposition to Communism. Thus went their reasoning: If Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces were to fall, an enormous gap would open up that the Communists could exploit; the same would happen if Japan’s military forces in China were kicked out or destroyed.

And so in September of 1945, shortly after the war ended:

“The Commander in Chief of the China Expeditionary Army, Gen. Yasuji Okamura, set a basic post-surrender policy for his forces: they were to cooperate in the reconstruction of China, to assist the Nationalist Government in its efforts to unify the Chinese people, and to ‘resolutely chastise’ the Chinese Communists if they should evidence anti-Japanese behavior.”4

Chiang would have used every member of the 1.5 million-strong Japanese Expeditionary forces in his fight against the Communists, were it not for the fact that doing so openly would infuriate Britain and America.5 However, there are ways. Just after the war ended, the Nationalists, the Communists, and most of the unaffiliated warlords all welcomed the Japanese military to stay put, even seducing them with perks and privileges. The “enemy” gladly went along.

What Boyle reveals in the citation above is further amplified by Donald J. Gillin and Charles Etter in their essay, “Staying On: Japanese Soldiers and Civilians in China, 1945–1949,”6 and by what many other postcolonial historiographers have brought to light. For example:

“…the presence of a treaty between the Japanese government and that of Chiang Kai-shek… was still an important factor in 1978, and inhibited the conclusion of a trade treaty between Japan and Peking for some time.”7

As for the Japanese technicians at Man’ei/MFA, they were also welcomed to stay as if nothing ever happened.

The Orchid’s Success Spreads

In Chapter 4, we reviewed the death of Yoshiko’s “discoverer,” Col. Toru Yamaga, who, a few months before his tragic demise, sought Yoshiko’s help. Unable to provide him with the large sum of money he needed to pay off his huge debts, she agreed instead to take care of his daughter when he was gone. Unfortunately, the daughter soon died tragically, too.

In 1951, with her career thriving again, Yoshiko married the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi and moved with him to Kamakura, one of the most beautiful areas of Japan. The demands of their artistic careers, however, would keep them constantly apart, and when they were together, major personality differences created difficulties. Under such conditions, the marriage would soon break.8

In 1952, Yoshiko signed a three-year contract with the powerful Toho Company film studio, and made several features for them. In 1953, she requested a visa to join her husband in America. Her request was denied on the grounds of “suspected communist espionage.” The American press merrily gossiped about the incident.9

Press clippings courtesy of Yoshiko Yamaguchi’s blog.

In 1954, Yoshiko succeeded in getting her visa. That same year, she starred in a series of pictures produced by the Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. She also came to America to star in 20th Century Fox’s House of Bamboo, a mediocre, somewhat flawed film on postwar Tokyo (it wasn’t one of her favorites). By then, Yoshiko and Noguchi had separated, and while she regained her status as queen of Asian films, he experienced a number of serious setbacks. Finally, in 1956, after years of stress and constant separations, they divorced amicably.

Later that year, Yoshiko met Otaka Hiroshi, a junior member of the Japanese diplomatic team in America. Between 1956 and 1959, she made two more pictures for Shaw Brothers—Mysterious Beauty and A Night of Romantic Love—as well as her final movie, A Tokyo Holiday,for Toho Company.

In 1958, after much deliberation,10 Yoshiko and Hiroshi, who was seven years her junior, decided to marry. He would be transferred to Myanmar (a demotion for him) and she would accompany him; the time had arrived for her to quit the limelight, to become a proper diplomatic wife and homemaker. When the newlyweds returned to Japan a year later, she agreed to appear on radio and television a few times. In 1965, Hiroshi was assigned to a new post in Geneva, Switzerland, and she followed him there.

After their return from Geneva in 1968, she co-hosted several TV shows. Starting in April 1969, she served for five years as anchor of Fuji’s You at Three o’clock. Again, she was reinventing herself, this time as a world affairs correspondent capable of tackling in-depth the situations in Vietnam, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel. She became an expert on the Palestinian situation, and championed the voices of the alienated, including those of the Japanese communists.

For her interview with Ms. Fusako Shigenobu, the leader of the Japanese Red Army, Yoshiko won the prize for Individual Excellence at the Japan Television Awards of 1973. Then in 1974, she was elected to the Upper House of the Japanese Parliament, where she became a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Later, she became Vice Minister of Political Affairs at the Agency for the Environment.

As a delegate from the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party, Yoshiko traveled back to China in 1978 and to North Korea in 1979. She was re-elected to the Upper House and became very active in the fields of foreign affairs, the environment, and the elderly. At age 66, she won a third term and rose to Chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Her mission became the improvement of relations with the People’s Republic of China; and when she was 71 she was invited to visit China again.

Meanwhile, her husband was promoted to full Ambassador to Myanmar (Burma). By now she had realized two of her most cherished dreams: her father’s and hers of becoming a successful politician/diplomat, and her own of breaking a few “glass ceilings.”

She finally retired from active political life in 1992. That same year, however, she began fighting for the most sensitive cause in the entire nation: recognition of the problems the Japanese military caused in the areas they occupied during the war.

In 1995, Yoshiko joined the newly established Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) to seek reparations for the Filipino and Korean comfort women. She became the organization’s Vice-President and one of its most active members, before both the public and the Japanese government. It’s interesting to observe that Yoshiko embarked on this quest 20 long years before Japan and Korea finally agreed on a protocol on that issue. The following quote states her reasons for joining AWF:

When former comfort women stepped forward and identified themselves, I felt absolutely terrible about what happened to them, especially when I realized that I was more or less their own age. I really wanted to do something for them, and to do it as soon as possible, because there was not much time left. Of course, I realized that their past humiliation and suffering can never be fully atoned for, but I wanted there to be some way for them to live more at ease. That’s the main reason I decided to participate in the Asian Women’s Fund.

Quote and photo courtesy of Yoshiko Yamaguchi blog.

In 2001, her husband, Hiroshi Otaka died at age 73. She survived him for 13 years.

Here is how the Japan Times headlined her obituary:

“Wartime film idol, propaganda tool Rikoran dies at 94”

The New York Times went with the following:

“Yoshiko Yamaguchi, 94, Actress in Propaganda Films, Dies”

Don’t you wonder why her later accomplishments in politics, journalism, international relations, racial equality, welfare of the aged, and justice for women were somehow less notable than her earlier roles in propaganda films?


John Shubert, a 70-year-old civil engineer (sometimes rather uncivil, he claims) and top historiographer, upset at the media’s neglect of Yoshiko’s real story, determined to scour every source he could think of, from personal papers to classified documents, to construct this blog:

A Biography of Yamaguchi Yoshiko 山口淑子 also known as Li Xiang Lan 李香蘭 (Ri-Koran)

The blog is a superlative resource, recounting even the most minute details of her life. It also features sound files of many of her songs. In my opinion, it should be preserved forever as the “Yoshiko Yamaguchi Online Museum.” Please consult it in depth as an antidote to some of the erroneous memories of what happened three-quarters of a century ago.

My immense gratitude to John Shubert for his enormous help.

1. The threat of gossip and scandal frightened the straight-laced Japanese diplomatic establishment. See Yamaguchi, pp.283–85.

2. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender Of Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005, pp. 46–7.

3. Sho-ga-nai is a shortened version of the common Japanese expression, shikata ga nai. Its literal English translation is “Nothing one can do,” however, its full meaning can only be grasped by native Japanese speakers. The phrase is thought to have its roots in Buddhist philosophy, specifically the concept of akirame, which roughly means giving up worldly concerns in order to reach enlightenment. In my opinion, the expression is the equivalent of “It is what it is.”

4. For many years, Amakasu had been a Japanese intelligence agent with a notorious past. When chosen to head the studio, he traveled to Germany to learn all about filmmaking. As a result, Man’ei/MFA was a formidable film production company far superior to anything in Japan’s own territory. See Kleeman, Fay Yuan, In Transit: The Formation of a Colonial East Asian Cultural Sphere, Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2014, pp. 125, 127.

5. Boyle, John Hunter, China and Japan at War 1937–1945: The Politics of Collaboration, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972, pp. 320–35; also see Notes.

6. Did America and Britain really go nuts over Chiang’s idea? Not quite. In November 1945, General Albert Wedemeyer, Commanding General of the US Forces in China, gave several reasons to his Chief of Staff for not disarming the Japanese, especially in areas where the Chinese Communist forces were strong. Boyle, pp. 327–9.

7. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol XII, No. 3, published by the Association for Asian Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, May 1983. See also Masanobu Tsuji, Underground Escape, edited and with an introduction by Nigel Bradley, Leiden: Global Oriental, 2012.

8. Tsutsui, Kiyotada, Fifteen Lectures on Showa Japan: Road to the Pacific War in Recent Historiography, Tokyo: Japan Foundation, 2016, pp. 277–95.

9. As an aside, 1951 was also the year that the song “Shina no yoru,” (“China Night) featured in the1940 movie of the same name, became the rage among GIs stationed in Japan.

10. See clippings. Also see Yamaguchi, pp. 272–77.


© 2016 Ed Moreno

asian women's fund china li xianglan Shirley Yamaguchi toho company WWII yoshiko yamaguchi