Yoshiko "Shirley" Yamaguchi and Robert Stack from a scene in "House of Bamboo." (Columbia Pictures)
By Megan McDonoughSeptember 15
Yoshiko “Shirley” Yamaguchi was a singer, actress and politician whose life was a series of incarnations.
Born to Japanese parents in Manchuria, Ms. Yamaguchi masqueraded as a Chinese actress under the name Li Xianglan in Japanese propaganda films during World War II. (She became a star in Japan, where her name was pronounced Ri Koran.)
After the war, she narrowly avoided treason charges and execution by firing squad in China. Then, as Shirley Yamaguchi — a name she chose because of Shirley Temple — she appeared in a handful of American films and on Broadway. Decades later, as Yoshiko Otaka, she reinvented herself as a TV presenter and served in the Japanese parliament.
She died Sept. 7 in Tokyo. She was 94. Her family announced the death, but did not cite a specific cause.
A rising star during the 1930s and 1940s, Ms. Yamaguchi acted in romantic melodramas produced by the Japanese-funded Manchuria Cinema Association.
She was typically cast as a beautiful Manchurian woman who falls in love with a handsome Japanese hero, usually a seaman, soldier or patriot. Her movie-star looks and fluency in Mandarin transformed her into the film company’s most popular star.
Although she revealed to the film company her true nationality, they promoted her to Japanese audiences as a Chinese national, using her characters to portray a false sense of pan-Asian unity and to advocate the Japanese cause.
“I was a Chinese manufactured by Japanese hands,” Ms. Yamaguchi wrote in her 1987 autobiography, “Half My Life as Ri Koran.” She said that she knew little of the Japanese propaganda efforts and was purposely kept in the dark about the atrocities committed by the Japanese military on Chinese civilians, including the 1937 Nanking massacre.
“I thought I was working for the good of the Manchurian people,” she told the Boston Globe in 1991. “I thought my films were simple romances.”
She garnered fan followings in China, Korea and Taiwan, but most notably in Japan; a 1941 Tokyo live performance in Tokyo reportedly produced a line of people that circled the venue 71 / 2 times.
The most controversial of her pictures was “China Nights” (1940). She portrayed a prideful Chinese war orphan whose ill will against the Japanese is changed when she is rescued by a Japanese military captain who later becomes her love interest.
In one memorable scene, she is brutally slapped across the face by her lover, the force of which knocks her into a wall. Instead of displaying anger, however, she interprets his actions as an expression of love.
“Forgive me!” cries the actress, “It didn’t hurt at all to be hit by you. I was happy, happy! I’ll be better, just watch. Please don’t give up on me. Forgive me. Forgive me!”
The disciplinary action was not well received in midland China and, after the war, the movie’s songs “The Suzhou Serenade” and “Fragrance of the Night” — sung by Ms. Yamaguchi — were banned.
At the end of World War II, Ms. Yamaguchi was charged with treason by the Chinese, arrested and interned in a Shanghai detention camp for nine months.
Her true citizenship was revealed when her parents, at the time under arrest in Beijing, were able to produce her birth certificate that proved she was a Japanese national and have a family friend smuggle it into Shanghai.
Yoshiko Yamaguchi was born on Feb. 12, 1920, in Fushun, Manchuria, which came under Japanese control.
Her father was educated in Beijing and taught Mandarin to employees of the South Manchuria Railway. His daughter, who was bilingual, was raised with the understanding that China was her “home country” and Japan was “her ancestral country,” she told The Washington Post in 1991.
“My father felt, we are the younger brother nation, China is the older brother,” Ms. Yamaguchi recalled.
At 13, she was taken in by a Chinese general, a family friend who she considered a “godfather” figure. He called her Li Xianglan, meaning “fragrant orchid.”
She would use that as her Chinese stage name. After starting in radio, she made her screen debut at 18 in the 1938 film “Honeymoon Express.”
After she was cleared of treason charges — the judge reportedly warned her to leave China or risk being lynched — she attempted to resurrect her film career in Japan. Under her birth name, she starred opposite Toshiro Mifune as a singer who becomes the subject of tabloid attention in “Scandal” (1950), directed by Akira Kurosawa.
A few years later, under the name Shirley Yamaguchi, she began acting in low-budget Hollywood films and was one of the first native Japanese actresses to have a leading role in American movies. Opposite Don Taylor, she played the Japanese wife of an American soldier in “Japanese War Bride” (1952), directed by King Vidor.
She was featured in the 1955 Samuel Fuller-directed film noir “House of Bamboo,” starring Robert Ryan and Robert Stack.
In 1956, she performed in a short-lived Broadway musical production of “Shangri-La,” based on a James Hilton novel. “Miss Yamaguchi has the flowing rhythms, the delicacy of manner and the artistic disciplines that bring ‘Shangri-La’ alive,” wrote the New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson.
That same year, her marriage to Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi ended in divorce. In 1958, she married Japanese diplomat Hiroshi Otaka, returned to Asia and retired from movies. Otaka died in 2001. A complete list of survivors could not be determined.
In 1969, Ms. Yamaguchi returned to show business as anchor of a popular Japanese afternoon television talk show, where she covered international conflicts in Vietnam and the Middle East.
She was elected to Japan’s upper parliament in 1974 and served as a member of the governing, conservative Liberal Democratic Party until 1992. As a politician, she worked to promote relations with China and other Asian countries.
“In every period of her life, she was the face of a very political arrangement,” said author Ian Buruma, who wrote a fictionalized account of Ms. Yamaguchi’s life, “The China Lover,” in 2008. “First, she was the face of the Japanese imperialism in China, then the face of Japanese reconciliation with the Americans, and lastly the face of Japanese reconciliation with China and the Third World. She lent her image to all these political changes.”
A musical “Ri Koran,” adapted from her autobiography, was produced in Tokyo in 1991, and a biopic, by Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, is reportedly in the works.
Earlier in life, Ms. Yamaguchi wished to have her story depicted on the big screen.
“There is a plan to make a film of my life,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1989, “but it seems the Chinese don’t want to cooperate.”