Isamu Noguchi and Yoshiko Yamaguchi

09.04.2013 § 3 Comments

Yoshiko YamaguchiOnly recently did I learn that at one time Isamu Noguchi was married to Li Xianglan, a woman with a fascinating life. This knowledge came as a shock to me, or almost like regret, because Li Xianglan was such a legend and such a prominent figure during my childhood. She was a very famous singer and movie star during my mother’s youth. My mother was her diehard fan and would sing her songs and talk about her all the time. There were no pictures of her in those years because of her mysterious status and I always wondered, how beautiful could she be? What happened to her after she left China? I did not know that she had a long career after she left China using two different names, Yoshiko Yamaguchi and Yoshiko Ōtaka.

Last year when I visited my father-in-law, I noticed a book on his shelf in Japanese with the title My Life Story, written by Yoshiko Yamaguchi. Had I not learned Japanese, I would never have thought to take the book down. In it, Yamaguchi (the name Li Xianglan adopted after leaving China) wrote about her marriage to Isamu Naguchi in 1951 and their divorce in 1955.

Yoshiko Yamaguchi Yoshiko Yamaguchi was born to Japanese parents in Manchuria in 1920. She used the Chinese name Li Xianglan (“Ri Koran” in Japanese) and made pro-Japanese films in Japanese-occupied areas in China. She also became a popular singer; some of her hits, including “Fragrance of the Night” (“Ye Lai Xiang”), remain popular today. She was among the top singers in all the Chinese-speaking regions of Asia during the 1930s and 40s. Many songs recorded during her Shanghai period became evergreen classics in Chinese popular music history.

At the end of World War II, she was arrested by the Chinese government for treason and collaboration with the Japanese. However, she was cleared of all charges—and possibly the death penalty—since she was not a Chinese national and could not be tried for treason. Before long, in 1946, she settled in Japan and launched a new acting career under the name Yoshiko Yamaguchi, working with directors such as Akira Kurosawa.

Yoshiko YamaguchiMany Chinese in the post-World War II period considered Yamaguchi to be a Japanese spy and, thus, a traitor to the Chinese people. This misconception was caused in part by Yamaguchi passing herself off as Chinese throughout the 1930s and 40s. Her Japanese identity was not officially revealed until her post-war persecution nearly led to her execution as a Chinese traitor. She has always expressed guilt for taking part in the Japanese propaganda films in the early days of her acting career. And as a result she did not visit China for nearly 20 years after the war since she felt the Chinese had not forgiven her; she still does not believe she has made enough amends.

During my youth living in anti-communist South Korea, no Chinese books or magazines of any sort were allowed in the country. Now with this biography and the ample information online, everything is clear. I wish I had found this book earlier so I could fulfill my mother’s desire to know about her whereabouts. My mother was such a movie star fan. I would have told her Yamaguchi married a great artist I respect.

Yoshiko YamaguchiAnother stunning fact is that she appeared in Akira Kurosawa’s movies, another great artist I revere. What a small world! I did not know when I was watching Kurosawa’s Scandal that the singer was Yamaguchi. It was a film she made after her return to Japan. If my mom could have seen all these, she would have had so much fun.

Yamaguchi later was elected to several terms in the House of Councilors, the upper body of Japan’s parliament, starting in 1974. Her life story has been made into a musical, appearing on Tokyo stages. She later married diplomat Hiroshi Ōtaka, and they stayed married until his death. If I am not mistaken, Yoshiko Ōtaka is still alive today. She must be over 90 years old.

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