NEW YORK — The New York Times’ recent reprinting of a cartoon showing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat gagged and bound to a chair while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon presses him to “say something! do something!” made me think of Rikoran, known today mainly as Yoshiko Yamaguchi.
A little before the cartoon appeared, my friend Inuhiko Yomota had written: “Yamaguchi tells me she can’t die until the Palestinians are liberated. She’s still so hale you can’t believe she’s 82!”
Moved by Beijing film director Chen Kaige’s (“The Emperor and the Assassin”) assertion that “Li Xianglan ( Chinese pronunciation of Rikoran) is the most important woman that 20th-century Asia has produced,” Yomota, semanticist and film historian, has dealt with the actress-singer turned politician in two books: Yomota wrote “Nihon no Joyu” (“Japanese Actresses,” Iwanami, 2000), in which he analyzes her career along with that of Setsuko Hara. And he edited “Rikoran to Higashi Ajia” (“Rikoran and East Asia,” Tokyo Daigaku, 2001).
Yamaguchi was born in 1920, near Mukden (now Shenyang), to an adviser to the Southern Manchurian Railroad. When Japan invaded northern China, she remembers her father saying, “There’s no way of winning a war against this unfathomable land of China.”
When she was 12, Japan established Manchukuo, and she witnessed executions of Chinese guerrillas. At 13, she was adopted by Gen. Li Jichun, a former leader of “horse bandits” and now chairman of the Bank of Shenyang, and was given the Chinese name Li Xianglan. At the suggestion of her close friend, a Jewish-Russian girl, she studied voice with an Italian opera singer who had gained fame in imperial Russia. She was a natural and soon debuted on the radio, recognized as a Chinese performer.
In 1934, the Yamaguchi family moved to Beijing, where she attended a Chinese missionary school for girls. As anti-Japanese sentiments mounted, her friends, not knowing she was Japanese, put her in a quandary by asking what she intended to do to fight the Japanese.
In 1938 she debuted in a movie made by the newly created Manchurian Film Studio, which, after Mao Zedong’s takeover, would teach film-making techniques to the Communist Party. She would make movies in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and, after the war, in Hollywood. Most of them dealt with contemporary issues of war and its consequences. Her increasing popularity even captured the imagination of American soldiers during the war.
My eminent friend Herbert Passin recalled in “Encounter With Japan” (Kodansha, 1983): “The all-time hit in Company A was ‘China Night’ (‘Shina no Yoru’), with Kazuo Hasegawa as the male lead and the popular actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi as the female lead. … When Hasegawa’s patient wooing of the bitter ‘Manchurian’ Rikoran finally succeeded and the two entered what to us was an ‘international’ (relationship) and in the movie was a ‘Greater East Asian’ relationship, we cheered as if he were one of us, instead of one of the enemy.”
“Shina no Yoru” (1940) was set in Shanghai after “peace” was restored following Japan’s assault on the city in 1937. The Chinese regarded Li Xianglan’s allowing a Japanese to slap her before she yielded to him on film as an insult to China. For that role she was tried as a traitor after Japan’s defeat. She was acquitted only when her Jewish-Russian friend rushed to the court with papers to prove she was Japanese.
She starred in two Hollywood movies, “Japanese War Bride” by King Vidor (1952) and “House of Bamboo” by Samuel Fuller (1955) under the name Shirley Yamaguchi. Japanese critics fumed that Fuller’s movie, in its disregard of Japanese habits, was a “national insult.” Yamaguchi, having played Chinese roles under Japanese directors, had to wonder, did Japanese critics fume at Japanese movies that disregarded Chinese manners?
Her 1951 marriage to Isamu Noguchi fell apart partly because of the sculptor’s rigid approach to Japanese culture. In 1958 she married a Japanese diplomat and retired from movie acting.
In 1969 she became a regular on, “You at Three O’clock,” a TV talk show for housewives. Participating celebrities were merely expected to gossip about the entertainment world. Yamaguchi, however, turned herself into a political journalist with a focus on refugee issues.
In 1970 she covered Cambodia. The 7,000 refugees she faced on the Laotian border reminded her of war dislocations she had experienced three decades earlier. In 1971 she made the first of three visits to the Middle East to take up the Palestinian question. One of her last reports on the region won a prize.
In 1974 she wrote her first book; it was about the Arabs. The same year she was elected to the House of Councilors, where she served until 1993, the last two years as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. When Micehl Khleifi’s “Wedding in Galilee,” the first movie drama made in Palestine, came out in 1987, she had it screened in Parliament.
As Yomota sees it, Yamaguchi’s stance on the Palestinian question is based on (1) her view that the Palestinians are being forced to compensate for the European persecution of Jews and (2) thoughts she conveyed to Yomota in an interview, reflecting her early life as a Japanese who rose to film stardom as a “Manchurian girl” in the midst of a war.
Although recognizing that Manchuria and the Middle East don’t bear ready comparison, she observed that, like Manchukuo, Israel may be “a state that came into being when it shouldn’t have.”
Politically, these views are likely to be at once naive and incendiary. But therein seems to lie one basic aspect of the intractability of the problem.
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