Yoshiko Yamaguchi

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Yoshiko Yamaguchi
Li Xianglan.jpg
Yoshiko Yamaguchi

(1920-02-12)12 February 1920
Died7 September 2014(2014-09-07) (aged 94)
Tokyo, Japan
OccupationSinger, actress, politician
Years active1938–1958
Isamu Noguchi
(m. 1951; div. 1956)

Hiroshi Otaka
(m. 1958; died 2001)
Parent(s)Ai Yamaguchi (mother)
Fumio Yamaguchi (father)
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese李香蘭
Simplified Chinese李香兰
Musical career
Also known asYoshiko Ōtaka (大鷹 淑子)
Pan Shuhua (潘淑華)
Shirley Yamaguchi

Yoshiko Yamaguchi (山口 淑子, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, 12 February 1920 – 7 September 2014) was a Chinese-born Japanese actress and singer who made a career 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 Xianglan, 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.

She was elected as a member of the Japanese parliament in the 1970s 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 in 12 February 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. She was born in a coal mine's 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 Xianglan (Li Hsiang-lan) 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 Xianglan & 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 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 Productions films 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 with 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 Xianglan, 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]

The 1940 film China Nights (支那の夜), 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 positive and negative lights. In this film, Li Xianglan 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.[5] But after the war, one of her classic songs, "Suzhou Serenade" (蘇州夜曲), was banned in China and continues to be. A few years later when confronted by angry Chinese reporters in Shanghai, Yoshiko apologized and cited as pretext her inexperienced youth at the time of film making, 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.[6]

When she landed in Japan in 1941 for a publicity tour, dressed in a cheongsam and while 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?"[7]

In 1943, Yoshiko appeared in the film Eternity. The film was shot in Shanghai commemorating the centennial of the Opium War. A few top Chinese stars in Shanghai also appeared in the film and consequently endured the repercussions of controversy. Though the film, anti-British in nature, was a collaboration between Chinese and Japanese film companies, its anti-colonization undertone might also be interpreted as a satire of the Japanese expansion in east Asia. Despite all this, the film was a hit and Yoshiko became a national sensation. Her film theme songs with jazz/pop-like arrangements such as "Candy-Peddling Song" (賣糖歌) and "Quitting (Opium) Song" (戒煙歌) elevated her status to among the top singers in all Chinese-speaking regions in Asia overnight. Many songs recorded by Yoshiko 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).[8] By the 1940s, she had become one of the Seven great singing stars.[9][unreliable source?]

United States, 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 she was arrested by the Chinese government for treason and collaboration with the Japanese. After her childhood Russian friend helped locate Yamaguchi's Japanese birth certificate, she was cleared of all charges and possibly the death penalty, since she was not a Chinese national after all. Before long 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.[10]

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 US. She married Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi in 1951.[11] Yamaguchi was Japanese, but as someone who had grown up in China, she felt torn between two identities and later wrote she felt attracted to Noguchi as someone else who was torn between two identities.[12] 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: Yoshiko Otaka (1958–2014)[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 dispute as well as the Vietnam War.[13] In the 1970s, Yamaguchi became very active in pro-Palestinian causes in Japan and personally favoring the Palestine Liberation Organization.[14] In 1974, she was elected to the House of Councillors (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.[15] 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 persecution nearly led to her execution as a Chinese traitor.[16] She had always expressed her guilt for taking part in Japanese propaganda films in the early days of her acting career. Because of this, she did not visit China for about 20 years after the war, since she felt that the Chinese had not forgiven her. During the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing particularly refused to acknowledge that Yamaguchi had been a big star in the Shanghai era in the 1930s and 1940s, and thus Yamaguchi's material was also denounced as capitalist and against Maoism.[17] Despite her controversial past, Li Xianglan influenced future singers who covered her evergreen hits (such as Teresa Teng, Fei Yu-Ching and Winnie Wei 韋秀嫻). Jacky Cheung recorded a cover of Kōji Tamaki's "行かないで" ("Ikanaide") and renamed it "Lei Hoeng Laan." (The original version does not have any references to Li Xianglan and nor does the remake. 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 history of Japanese brutality during the wartime occupation. She later campaigned for greater public awareness of that 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.[18]

A recording of a 1950 concert performance in Sacramento, California was uncovered 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."[19] 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.[20]


She was credited as Shirley Yamaguchi in the Hollywood movies Japanese War Bride (1952) and House of Bamboo (1955). She was once nicknamed The Judy Garland of Japan.[21]

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


Year Title Role
1938 Mí yùe kuài chē / Honeymoon Express (蜜月快車) Bride
1939 Byakuran no uta / Song of the White Orchid (白蘭の歌) Li Xue Xiang
富貴春夢 / Fùguì Chūnmèng
冤魂復仇 / Yuānhún Fùchóu
東遊記 / Dōngyóu Jì
1940 Vow in the Desert (熱砂の誓い) Li Fangmei
Monkey King (孙悟空) Oriental Woman
China Nights (支那の夜) Chinese orphan
Toyuki Liqin, typist
1941 Suzhou Night (蘇州の夜)
Kimi to boku (君と僕)
Tǐe xǔe hùi xīn (鐵血慧心)
1942 Yíng chūn hūa (迎春花)
Eternity (萬世流芳)
1943 Chikai no gassho (誓ひの合唱)
Sayon's Bell (サヨンの鐘) Sayon
Fighting Street (戦ひの街)
1944 Yasen gungakutai (野戦軍楽隊) Ai Ran
Watashi no uguisu (私の鶯)
Noroshi wa Shanghai ni agaru Yu Ying
1948 The Bright Day of My Life (わが生涯のかゞやける日)
Koun no isu
1949 Repatriation (帰国ダモイ)
Human Patterns (人間模样)
Shooting Star (流星)
1950 Scandal / Shubun (醜聞) Miyako Saijo 西条美也子
Escape at Dawn (暁の脱走) Harumi
Women's Fashion (女の流行)
1952 Fuun senryobune (風雲千両船)
Woman of Shanghai (上海の女) Li Lili (Singer)
Sword for Hire (戦国無賴) Oryo
Foghorn (霧笛)
Japanese War Bride Tae Shimizu
1953 The Last Embrace (擁抱) Yukiko Nogami
1954 The United States Steel Hour Presento
1955 House of Bamboo Mariko
Jīn Píng Méi (金瓶梅) Pan Jinlian
The Red Skelton Hour Guest vocalist
1956 The Legend of the White Serpent (白蛇傳) Madam White
Navy Wife Akashi
1957 Shénmì měirén / The Lady of Mystery (神秘美人)
Robert Montgomery Presents (The Enemy) Hana
1958 Yí yè fēng líu / The Unforgettable Night (一夜風流) Ge Qiuxia
A Holiday in Tokyo (東京の休日) May Kawaguchi
Ankoru watto monogatari utsukushiki aishu (美しき哀愁 アンコール・ワット物語)

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.[22]
  • A Japanese musical based on her life was produced by the Shiki Theatre 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. ^ 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
  6. ^ Baskett 2008, pp. 79–82
  7. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  8. ^ Baskett 2008, pp. 69–70
  9. ^ "Bai Guang". Baidu. Retrieved April 28, 2007.
  10. ^ Baskett 2008, pp. 142–144
  11. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  12. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  13. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  14. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  15. ^ Stephenson, Shelley (January 1, 2002). "A Star By Any Other Name: The (After) Lives of Li Xianglan". Quarterly Review of Film and Video. 19.
  16. ^ Hotta 2007, pp. 132
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Vitello, Paul (September 22, 2014), "Yoshiko Yamaguchi, 94, Actress in Propaganda Films", The New York Times
  19. ^ "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.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ Lentz, Robert J. (2008). Korean War Filmography: 91 English Language Features through 2000. Jefferson: McFarland. p. 184. ISBN 9781476621548.
  22. ^ Hadfield, James (July 29, 2009). "The China Lover". Archived from the original on January 26, 2013. Retrieved January 16, 2013.


External links[edit]