Yoshiko Yamaguchi

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Yoshiko Yamaguchi
山口 淑子
Yamaguchi in the 1940s
Member of the House of Councillors
In office
8 July 1974 – 7 July 1992
ConstituencyNational district (1974-83)
National PR (1983-1992)
Personal details
Yoshiko Yamaguchi

(1920-02-12)February 12, 1920
Liaoyang, Manchuria, Republic of China
DiedSeptember 7, 2014(2014-09-07) (aged 94)
Tokyo, Japan
Political partyLiberal Democratic Party
(m. 1951; div. 1956)
Hiroshi Otaka
(m. 1958; died 2001)
OccupationSinger, actress, journalist, politician
AwardsOrder of the Sacred Treasure, Second Class
Musical career
Also known asYoshiko Ōtaka (大鷹 淑子)
Pan Shuhua (潘淑華)
Shirley Yamaguchi
Li Hsiang-lan (李香蘭)
GenresPopular music
Years active1938–1958
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese李香蘭
Simplified Chinese李香兰

Yoshiko Yamaguchi (山口 淑子, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, February 12, 1920 – September 7, 2014) was a Japanese singer, actress, journalist, and politician. Born in China, she made an international career in film in China, Hong Kong, Japan and the United States.

Early in her career, the Manchukuo Film Association concealed her Japanese origin and she went by the Chinese name Li Hsiang-lan (李香蘭), rendered in Japanese as Ri Kōran. This allowed her to represent China in Japanese propaganda movies. After the war, she appeared in Japanese movies under her real name, as well as in several English language movies under the stage name, Shirley Yamaguchi.

After becoming a journalist in the 1950s under the name Yoshiko Ōtaka (大鷹 淑子, Ōtaka Yoshiko), she was elected as a member of the Japanese parliament in 1974, and served for 18 years. After retiring from politics, she served as vice president of the Asian Women's Fund.[1]

Early life[edit]

Yoshiko Yamaguchi in 1933

She was born on February 12, 1920, to Japanese parents, Ai Yamaguchi (山口 アイ, Yamaguchi Ai) and Fumio Yamaguchi (山口 文雄, Yamaguchi Fumio), who were then settlers in Fushun, Manchuria, Republic of China, in a coal mining residential area in Dengta, Liaoyang.

Fumio Yamaguchi was an employee of the South Manchuria Railway. From an early age, Yoshiko was exposed to Mandarin Chinese. Fumio Yamaguchi had some influential Chinese acquaintances, among whom were Li Jichun (李際春) and Pan Yugui (潘毓桂). By Chinese custom for those who became sworn brothers, they also became Yoshiko's "godfathers" (also known as "nominal fathers") and gave her two Chinese names, Li Hsiang-lan (Li Xianglan) and Pan Shuhua (潘淑華). ("Shu" in Shuhua and "Yoshi" in Yoshiko are written with the same Chinese character). Yoshiko later used the former name as a stage name and assumed the latter name while she was staying with the Pan family in Beijing.

As a youth Yoshiko suffered a bout of tuberculosis. In order to strengthen her breathing, the doctor recommended voice lessons. Her father initially insisted on traditional Japanese music, but Yoshiko preferred Western music and thus received her initial classical vocal education from an Italian dramatic soprano (Madame Podresov, married into White Russian nobility). She later received schooling in Beijing, polishing her Mandarin, accommodated by the Pan family. She was a coloratura soprano.

Career in China[edit]

Li Hsiang-lan & Kazuo Hasegawa

Yoshiko made her debut as an actress and singer in the 1938 film, Honeymoon Express (蜜月快車), by Manchuria Film Production. She was billed as Li Hsiang-lan, pronounced Ri Kōran in Japanese. The adoption of a Chinese stage name was prompted by the film company's economic and political motives — a Manchurian girl who had command over both the Japanese and Chinese languages was sought after. From this she rose to be a star and the Japan-Manchuria Goodwill Ambassadress (日滿親善大使). The head of the Manchukuo film industry, General Masahiko Amakasu, decided she was the star he was looking for: a beautiful actress fluent in both Mandarin and Japanese, who could pass as Chinese and who had an excellent singing voice.[2]

The Chinese actors who appeared in the Manchuria Film Production movies were never informed that she was Japanese, but they suspected she was at least half-Japanese as she always ate her meals with the Japanese actors instead of the Chinese actors, was given white rice to eat instead of the sorghum given to the Chinese, and was paid ten times more than the Chinese actors were.[3] Though in her subsequent films she was almost exclusively billed as Li Hsiang-lan, she appeared in a few as "Yamaguchi Yoshiko".

Many of her films bore some degree of promotion of the Japanese national policy (in particular, pertaining to the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere ideology) and can be termed "National Policy Films" (国策映画).[4] While promoting Manchurian interests in Tokyo, Li would meet Kenichiro Matsuoka, future television executive and son of Japanese diplomat Yōsuke Matsuoka, about whom she would write in her biography, Ri Kōran: My Half Life, to be her first love. Although she had hopes of marriage, he was still a student at Tokyo Imperial University and not interested in settling down at the time. They would meet again after the war, at which time Kenichiro attempted to rekindle the relationship, but by then, Li was already involved with the artist, Isamu Noguchi.[5]

The 1940 film, China Nights (中國の夜), also known as Shanghai Nights (上海の夜), by Manchuria Film Productions, is especially controversial. It is unclear whether it was a "National Policy Film" as it portrays Japanese soldiers in both a positive and negative light. Here, Li played a young woman of extreme anti-Japanese sentiment who falls in love with a Japanese man. A key turning point in the film has the young Chinese woman being slapped by the Japanese man, but instead of hatred, she reacts with gratitude. The film was met with great aversion among the Chinese audience as they believed that the Chinese female character was a sketch of debasement and inferiority. 23,000 Chinese people paid to see the film in 1943.[6] After the war, one of her classic songs, "Suzhou Serenade" (蘇州夜曲), was banned in China due to its association with this film. A few years later, when confronted by angry Chinese reporters in Shanghai, Li apologized and cited as pretext her inexperienced youth at the time of filmmaking, choosing not to reveal her Japanese identity. Though her Japanese nationality was never divulged in the Chinese media until after the Sino-Japanese War, it was brought to light by the Japanese press when she performed in Japan under her assumed Chinese name and as the Japan-Manchuria Goodwill Ambassadress. Oddly enough, when she visited Japan during this period, she was criticized for being too Chinese in dress and in language.[7] When she landed in Japan in 1941 for a publicity tour, dressed in a cheongsam (or qípáo) and speaking Japanese with a Mandarin accent, the customs officer asked her upon seeing she had a Japanese passport and a Japanese name, "Don't you know that we Japanese are the superior people? Aren't you ashamed to be wearing third-rate Chink clothes and speaking their language as you do?"[8]

In 1943, Li appeared in the film Eternity. The film was shot in Shanghai, commemorating the centennial of the Opium War. The film, anti-British in nature and a collaboration between Chinese and Japanese film companies, was a hit, and Li became a national sensation. Her film songs with jazz and pop-like arrangements, such as her "Candy-Peddling Song" (賣糖歌) and "Quitting (Opium) Song" (戒菸歌), elevated her status to among the top singers in all Chinese-speaking regions in Asia overnight. Many songs recorded by Li during her Shanghai period became classics in Chinese popular music history. Other noteworthy hits include "Evening Primrose / Fragrance of the Night" (夜來香), "Ocean Bird" (海燕), "If Only" (恨不相逢未嫁時), and "Second Dream" (第二夢).[9] By the 1940s, she had become one of the Seven Great Singing Stars.[10][unreliable source?]

United States, Canada, Hong Kong and Japan[edit]

Yoshiko Yamaguchi with comedian Entatsu Yokoyama in 1948
Yoshiko Yamaguchi in the 1950s

At the end of World War II, Li was arrested in Shanghai by the Kuomintang and sentenced to death by firing squad for treason and collaboration with the Japanese. As tensions subsequently arose between the Kuomintang and the Communists, she was scheduled to be executed at a Shanghai horse track on December 8, 1945. However, before she could be executed, her parents (at the time both under arrest in Beijing) managed to produce a copy of her birth certificate, proving she was not a Chinese national after all, and have her childhood Russian friend, Lyuba Monosova Gurinets, smuggle it into Shanghai inside the head of a geisha doll. Li was cleared of all charges (and possibly from the death penalty).

In spite of the acquittal, the Chinese judges still warned Li to leave China immediately or she would risk being lynched; and so in 1946, she resettled in Japan and launched a new acting career there under the name Yoshiko Yamaguchi, working with directors such as Akira Kurosawa. Several of her post-war films cast her in parts that dealt either directly or indirectly with her wartime persona as a bilingual and bicultural performer. For example in 1949, Shin-Toho studios produced Repatriation (歸國「ダモイ」), an omnibus film which told four stories about the struggles of Japanese trying to return to Japan from the Soviet Union after having been taken prisoner following the defeat. The following year, Yamaguchi starred with actor Ryō Ikebe in Escape at Dawn (曉の脫走), produced by Toho and based on the novel Shunpuden (春婦傳). In the book, her character was a prostitute in a military brothel, but for this film her character was rewritten as a frontline entertainer who falls into a tragic affair with a deserter (Ikebe). In 1952, Yamaguchi appeared in Woman of Shanghai (上海の女), in which she reprised her pre-war persona as a Japanese woman passing for Chinese who becomes caught between the two cultures.[11]

In the 1950s, she established her acting career as Shirley Yamaguchi in Hollywood and on Broadway (in the short-lived musical "Shangri-La") in the U.S. She married Japanese American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, in 1951.[12] Yamaguchi was Japanese, but as someone who had grown up in China, she felt torn between two identities and later wrote that she felt attracted to Noguchi as someone else who was torn between two identities.[13] Li spent in Vancouver, Canada between 1953 and 1954. They divorced in 1956. She revived the Li Hsiang-lan name and appeared in several Chinese-language films made in Hong Kong. Some of her 1950s Chinese films were destroyed in a studio fire and have not been seen since their initial releases. Her Mandarin hit songs from this period include "Three Years" (三年), "Plum Blossom" (梅花), "Childhood Times" (小時候), "Only You" (只有你), and "Heart Song" (心曲 – a cover of "Eternally").

TV presenter and politician[edit]

She returned to Japan and after retiring from the world of film in 1958, she appeared as a hostess and anchorwoman on TV talk shows. As a result of her marriage to the Japanese diplomat Hiroshi Ōtaka, she lived for a while in Burma (modern Myanmar). They remained married until his death in 2001.

In 1969, she became the host of The Three O'Clock You (Sanji no anata) TV show on Fuji Television, reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the Vietnam War.[14] In the 1970s, Yamaguchi became very active in pro-Palestinian causes in Japan and personally favored the Palestine Liberation Organization.[15] In 1974, she was elected to the House of Councilors (the upper House of the Japanese parliament) as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, where she served for 18 years (three terms). She co-authored the book, Ri Kōran, Watashi no Hansei (Half My Life as Ri Kōran). She served as a Vice-President of the Asian Women's Fund. As part of the 1993 fall honors list, she was decorated with the Gold and Silver Star of the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Second Class.

Yamaguchi was considered by many Chinese in the post-World War II period to be a Japanese spy and thus a traitor to the Chinese people.[16] This misconception was caused in part by Yamaguchi passing herself off as Chinese throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Her Japanese identity not being officially revealed until her post-war prosecution nearly led to her execution as a Chinese traitor.[17] She had always expressed her guilt for taking part in Japanese propaganda films in the early days of her acting career. In 1949, the People's Republic of China was established by the Communist Party, and three years later, Yamaguchi's former repertoire from the Shanghai era in the 1930s and 1940s (along with all other popular music) was also denounced as Yellow music (黃色音樂), a form of pornography. Because of this, she did not visit China for more than 50 years after the war, since she felt that the Chinese had not forgiven her.[18] Despite her controversial past, she influenced future singers such as Teresa Teng, Fei Yu-Ching, and Winnie Wei (韋秀嫻), who covered her evergreen hits. Jacky Cheung recorded a cover of Kōji Tamaki's "行かないで" ("Ikanaide") and renamed it "Lei Hoeng Laan." (Both the original version and subsequent remake do not have any actual references to Li Hsiang-lan. The Chinese title instead refers to the unknowable quality and identity of the singer's lover.) In January 1991, a musical about her life was released in Tokyo, which generated controversy because its negative portrayal of Manchukuo upset many Japanese conservatives.

Yamaguchi was one of the first prominent Japanese citizens to acknowledge the Japanese brutality during wartime occupation. She later campaigned for greater public awareness of that part of history and advocated paying reparations to so-called comfort women, Korean women who were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military during the war.[19]

A recording of a 1950 concert performance in Sacramento, California, was discovered by a professor from the University of Chicago in 2012. The concert included six songs and was performed before an audience of Japanese Americans, many of whom had likely been interned during World War II. Speaking in 2012 about the concert, Yamaguchi said, "I sang with hope that I could offer consolation to the Japanese Americans, as I heard that they had gone through hardships during the war."[20] She died at the age of 94 in Tokyo on September 7, 2014, exactly ten years after one of her fellow Seven Great Singing Stars, Gong Qiuxia.[21]


She was credited as Shirley Yamaguchi in the Hollywood movies, Japanese War Bride (1952), House of Bamboo (1955), and Navy Wife (1956). She was once nicknamed The Judy Garland of Japan.[22]

Other names used as movie actress:

  • Li Hsiang-lan
  • Li Hsiang Lan
  • Ri Kōran
  • Li Xiang Lan
  • Hsiang-lan Li
  • Xianglan Li
  • Li Xianglan
  • Yoshiko Yamaguchi

Selected filmography[edit]

Year Title Role
1938 蜜月快車 (Mí yùe kuài chē / Honeymoon Express) Bride
1939 富貴春夢 (Fùguì Chūnmèng)
冤魂復仇 (Yuānhún Fùchóu)
鐵血慧心 (Tǐe xǔe hùi xīn)
白蘭の歌 (Byakuran no uta / Song of the White Orchid) Li Hsueh-hsiang
1940 東遊記 (Toyuki / Journey to the East) Liqin, a typist
支那の夜 (Shina no Yoru / China Nights) Chinese orphan
孫悟空 (Monkey King) Oriental Woman
熱砂の誓い (Nessa no Chikai / Vow in the Hot Sand) Li Fangmei
1941 君と僕 (Kimi to boku / You and I)
蘇州の夜 (Soshū no yoru / Suzhou Night)
1942 迎春花 (Yíng chūn hūa)
1943 戦ひの街 (Tatakai no machi / Fighting Street)
サヨンの鐘 (Sayon no kane / Sayon's Bell) Sayon
誓ひの合唱 (Chikai no gassho / The Choir's Vow)
萬世流芳 (Wàn Shì Liú Fāng / Eternity)
1944 野戦軍楽隊 (Yasen gungakutai / Military Band on the Battlefield) Ai Ran
私の鶯 (Watashi no uguisu / My Japanese Nightingale)
1948 わが生涯のかゞやける日 (Waga shōgai no kagayakeru hi / The Most Beautiful Day of My Life)
幸運の椅子 (Kōun no isu / Seat of Fortune)
情熱の人魚 (Jōnetsu no ningyō / Mermaid of Passion)
1949 帰国(ダモイ) (Damoi / Repatriation)
人間模様 (Ningen moyō / Human Patterns)
流星 (Ryūsei / Shooting Star)
果てしなき情熱 (Haté shinaki jōnetsu / Passion without End)
1950 暁の脱走 (Akatsuki no dasso / Escape at Dawn) Harumi
醜聞 (Shubun / Scandal) Miyako Saijo 西条美也子
1952 Japanese War Bride Tae Shimizu
霧笛 (Muteki / Foghorn)
戦国無賴 (Sengoku burai / Sword for Hire) Oryo
上海の女 (Shanhai no onna / Woman of Shanghai) Li Lili (Singer)
風雲千両船 (Fuun senryobune)
1953 抱擁 (Hōyō / The Last Embrace) Yukiko Nogami
1954 土曜日の天使 (Doyōbi no tenshi / Sunday's Angel)
The United States Steel Hour Presento
1955 金瓶梅 (Jīn Píng Méi) Pan Jinlian
House of Bamboo Mariko
The Red Skelton Hour Guest vocalist
1956 Navy Wife Akashi
白夫人の妖恋 (Byaku fujin no yōren / The Legend of the White Serpent) Madam White
1957 Robert Montgomery Presents (The Enemy) Hana
神秘美人 (Shénmì měirén / The Lady of Mystery)
1958 一夜風流 (Yí yè fēng líu / The Unforgettable Night) Ge Qiuxia
アンコール・ワット物語 美しき哀愁 (Ankoru watto monogatari utsukushiki aishu / The Princess of Angkor Wat)
東京の休日 (Tōkyō no kyūjitsu / A Holiday in Tokyo) Mary Kawaguchi

In the media[edit]

Movies about her[edit]

Other media[edit]

  • The novel, The China Lover (2008), by Ian Buruma is a fictionalized account of her life.[23]
  • A Japanese musical based on her life was produced by the Shiki Theater Company.[when?]
  • The character, Li Kohran, from the SEGA multimedia Sakura Wars game franchise is named for her stage name.


  1. ^ 大鷹淑子副理事長に聞く「21世紀のいま、若い人々に伝えたいこと」 Asian Women's Fund
  2. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  3. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  4. ^ Baskett 2008, pp. 77–79
  5. ^ Yamaguchi, Yoshiko (1987). Ri Kōran: My Half-Life. Shinchosha. ISBN 9784103667018.
  6. ^ 映画旬報」昭和18年6月1日号 20・21p 中国人の鑑識眼 野口久光
  7. ^ Baskett 2008, pp. 79–82
  8. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  9. ^ Baskett 2008, pp. 69–70
  10. ^ "Bai Guang". Baidu. Archived from the original on March 12, 2007. Retrieved April 28, 2007.
  11. ^ Baskett 2008, pp. 142–144
  12. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  13. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  14. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  15. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  16. ^ Stephenson, Shelley (January 1, 2002). "A Star By Any Other Name: The (After) Lives of Li Xianglan". Quarterly Review of Film and Video. 19: 1–13. doi:10.1080/10509200214821. S2CID 194086803.
  17. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  18. ^ Interview with Ri Kōran by Tanaka, et al. "Looking Back on My Days as Ri Kōran (Li Xianglan)" on ZNet (Zmag.org) January 26, 2005. Article appeared in Sekai, September 2003, pp.171–75.
  19. ^ Vitello, Paul (September 22, 2014), "Yoshiko Yamaguchi, 94, Actress in Propaganda Films", The New York Times
  20. ^ "Recording of Japanese actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi's 1950 US concert uncovered". Mainichi Shimbun. August 18, 2012. Archived from the original on February 18, 2013. Retrieved September 4, 2012.
  21. ^ 山口淑子さん死去=女優「李香蘭」、政治家として活躍-94歳 [Yoshiko Yamaguchi / Li Xianglan dies at 94] (in Japanese). Jiji Press. September 14, 2014. Archived from the original on September 14, 2014. Retrieved September 14, 2014.
  22. ^ Lentz, Robert J. (2008). Korean War Filmography: 91 English Language Features through 2000. Jefferson: McFarland. p. 184. ISBN 9781476621548.
  23. ^ Hadfield, James (July 29, 2009). "The China Lover". Archived from the original on January 26, 2013. Retrieved January 16, 2013.


External links[edit]