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An Asian Star Is Born

Ian Buruma’s life would itself make a nice subject for a novel. His father was Dutch; his mother was British, from a family that emigrated from Germany in the nineteenth century; as an undergraduate in the Netherlands he focused on Chinese literature, then moved to Tokyo, where he turned himself into an expert on Japanese cinema. He went on to work in Hong Kong, London, Budapest, and Berlin. He has written about everything from yakuza tattoos to V.S. Naipaul to the ideological pedigree of Islamism.

So it does not come entirely as a surprise that his second foray into fiction1 should draw its energy from a protagonist whose life also embraces migration and masquerade, the command of several languages, and, not least, an enduring fascination with the seductions of the movie screen. Just to make things even more interesting, the fictional character at the center of The China Lover draws her energy from the life of a real person, a Japanese actress, singer, journalist, and politician who today, at the age of eighty-eight, goes by the name of Yoshiko Otaka (née Yoshiko Yamaguchi, the name most often used for her in the novel).2 As Buruma’s wonderfully evocative imagining of her life explains, Yamaguchi/Otaka has borne a bewildering array of other aliases over the years. What she’s called depends entirely on whom you ask and when.

And that precisely is the conceit that motivates this brisk, shimmering tale of a life lived in the elusive overlap of feckless charm and ravenous opportunism. The heroine of The China Lover rarely gets the chance to tell her own story in the book—for reasons that are entirely appropriate to her biography. She spends much of her career in the power of others, a foil for the desires and delusions of government officials and movie moguls.

The book has three narrators, all of them men. The second section belongs to Sid Vanoven, a gay American and aesthete who comes to Japan in the years after World War II. The third, set in the 1960s and 1970s, is presented by Sato Kenkichi, a porn-movie auteur and TV journalist turned terrorist. The first, the literal and figurative centerpiece of the book, is recounted by Sato Daisuke, a propagandist and spy for Manchukuo, the Imperial Japanese puppet state in Manchuria before and during the war.

The first section seems to me the novel’s real center of gravity not only because it’s the richest and in some ways most evocative of the three, but also because it’s here that we learn about Yamaguchi’s origins. Her family, Daisuke explains, moved to Manchuria as Japanese colonists; her father is a compulsive gambler and general ne’er-do-well. As she grows up, her talent as a singer and actress soon becomes apparent. But there is something else that makes her almost irresistible to the scheming apparatchiks of the Japanese occupation regime—something captured by Sato Daisuke in his characteristic gushing idiom:

It was her eyes that left the deepest impression. They were unusually large for an Oriental woman. She didn’t look typically Japanese, nor typically Chinese. There was something of the Silk Road in her, of the caravans and spice markets of Samarkand. No one would have guessed that she was just an ordinary Japanese girl born in Manchuria.

Yoshiko is a Japanese national, but she’s spent most of her life in China, and she speaks the language fluently. Having studied European classical music under a Russian emigrée singing teacher to boot, she’s as multicultural as they come. Paradoxically, it is just this combination of attributes—along with her good looks and natural star power—that makes her the perfect embodiment of the Japanese colonial project in China.

It’s a project that can really use the help. Early-twentieth-century Japan was both a latecomer and an outsider to the game of imperialism, the first non-Western nation to compete with the European countries that had already been in the business for centuries. In 1932, after decades of commercial and military expansion into the northeastern corner of China, the Japanese consolidated their control over the region by transforming it into a pseudo-state dubbed “Manchukuo.” Manchukuo became the proving ground of Pan-Asianism, an ideology that (in the form propagated by the Japanese) revolved around the notion that Tokyo’s version of colonialism was actually enlightened and progressive, one in which Asians were their own “masters” rather than the subjects of cynically racist Westerners. Japanese-occupied Manchuria, in this reading, was a modernizing laboratory of interethnic harmony among the “native peoples” of the region (the Han Chinese, the Koreans, the Mongols, the Manchus, and the Japanese).

The reality, of course, was quite different. Even as Japanese settlers flowed into the territory to claim homesteads on its plains, local Chinese stepped up a desperate guerrilla war against the occupation that would continue right up until the end in 1945. The Kwantung Army,3 the Manchurian fiefdom of the Japanese military, was renowned for its brutality. Among its other dubious achievements, Manchukuo was home to Unit 731, a biological warfare research unit that pursued its mission with a zealousness that has often been compared to Josef Mengele’s work in Auschwitz. Meanwhile a vast Japanese bureaucracy was busily organizing the exploitation of the region’s ample coal and oil resources, a crucial part of Japan’s efforts to fight World War II; slave laborers were put to work wherever the occupiers deemed it appropriate. In one particularly devilish bit of political theater, the Japanese installed Pu Yi, who had been stripped of his throne as the last Chinese emperor a few years earlier, as Manchukuo’s putative “head of state”—though the real decisions were of course made by his Tokyo-appointed “advisers.”4

Though we occasionally catch glimpses of this unhappy history through the scrim of Sato Daisuke’s telling, that is not at all his intent. As he tells us, he wholeheartedly approves of Japan’s “civilizing mission” in Manchuria—even if, perceptive observer that he is, he can’t help but reveal its darker side in unguarded moments. Here he is, for example, on Pu Yi’s coronation:

Frankly, the ceremony was not entirely devoid of comedy. And yet there was an unmistakable sense of grandeur about the occasion. People need spectacles to nurture their dreams, give them something to believe in, foster a sense of belonging. The Chinese and Manchu people, demoralized by more than a hundred years of anarchy and Western domination, needed it more than most. And—although people tend to forget this now—we Japanese gave it to them; we gave them something larger than themselves, a great and noble goal to live and die for.

Daisuke, you see, is not only a true believer in Japan’s neocolonial mission; he’s also a romantic, an ambitious poseur who has fled the provincial parochialism of his small-town home in Japan for the broad vistas of Manchuria. For someone like him, Manchukuo promises liberation and opportunity, a frontier that offers upward mobility and much-needed relief from the cramped conformity of society back in the home islands:

Arriving at the port of Dairen, at the southern tip of Manchuria, to me felt like arriving in the great wide world. Even Tokyo felt narrow and provincial in comparison. Cosmopolitanism was in the very air. Apart from coal dust and cooking oil, you could pick up the pungent melange of pickled Korean cabbages, steaming Russian pierogis, barbecued Manchurian mutton, Japanese miso soup, and fried Peking dumplings.

He’s actually not exaggerating much. For all its nastiness, 1930s Manchuria also became home to an extraordinary assemblage of colorful characters. White Russian fascists, sworn enemies of Stalin, coexisted uneasily with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, while Japanese gangsters cultivated ties with Chinese warlords and opium dealers. Manchukuo, during its short life span, became a sort of Japanese version of the Raj, a place whose alluring exoticism and wide open spaces exerted a powerful pull on the national imagination.

If you were a soldier in the Kwantung Army, service in turbulent Manchuria offered near-limitless opportunities for career advancement. If you were an enterprising bureaucrat, you could pursue administrative experiments that would never get off the ground back in stuffy Tokyo—demonstrated most memorably by Nobusuke Kishi, the man who served as Manchukuo’s equivalent of Nazi industrial czar Albert Speer5 and who would go on to become an eminently pro-American prime minister in postwar Japan. (Kishi crops up at several points in the novel.) Countless farmers, entrepreneurs, and adventure-seekers were enticed to Manchukuo out of similar motives.

For Yoshiko Yamaguchi—and her patron Daisuke—it’s the movie business that offers the path of opportunity. Daisuke, whose duties include building up the nascent Manchukuo movie industry, discovers Yoshiko performing in a theater in Mukden (present-day Shenyang), and a partnership of far-reaching consequences is born. At the time of their meeting, Yoshiko and her family have been taken under the protection of a Chinese grandee, who has, along the way, officially adopted her, bestowing upon her the dual names of Pan Shuhua and Li Xianglan.

It’s under the Japanese version of the latter name, Ri Koran, that she will go on to stardom in a series of film roles featuring her as the flamboyant, tempestuous, and mysterious Chinese beauty—a tantalizing idealization at the very moment Japanese troops are doing their best to viciously suppress anything that might suggest a Chinese national identity. An extraordinary fad for things Chinese, soon known as “the China Boom,” seizes the homeland, and Daisuke is there, in 1940, when fans of Ri’s hit song, “China Nights,” go berserk in the Tokyo theater where she sings. Even as she becomes hugely popular, her handlers have their hands full concealing her real, Japanese nationality.

This talent for pretending to be something she’s not is one she shares with the man who’s telling her story. Daisuke’s fluent command of the language also allows him to submerge himself in the local culture. Like Yoshiko, he has his own Chinese alias and wears the best Chinese fashions. And yet, as demonstrated by their diverging fates, she has one big advantage over him. She’s a naïf, seemingly oblivious to the twists and turns of ideology. “Politics always confused her,” we are told at one point. This turns out, in its way, to be a source of strength. Unlike Daisuke and many other Manchukuo true believers, she is happy to shuck the old utopias as soon as she gets the chance. After the end of the war, when the Chinese authorities are preparing to execute her as a traitor, she saves her life by proving that she’s actually Japanese, a foreign national. (Only natives, you see, can commit treason.) Daisuke, by contrast, is paralyzed by the failure of Japan’s fairy-tale designs for a “New Asia,” and later commits suicide in postwar Tokyo.

We catch a glimpse of these diverging fates in the second section, when Sid Vanoven, the American narrator, is recounting Yoshiko’s efforts to re-brand herself as a Hollywood star in US-occupied Japan. When Daisuke turns up at one of her press events, she deftly gives him the brush-off; he’s part of a past she would rather not recall. (She will later tell one of her interlocutors that “Ri Koran is dead.”) Small wonder. Now rechristened “Shirley Yamaguchi,” she’s too busy cozying up to American occupation officials and film producers to be reminded of that nasty Manchukuo business.

  1. 1

    His first novel was Playing the Game (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991).

  2. 2

    Buruma specifically credits her autobiography, Ri Koran, Watashi no Hansei (Half My Life as Ri Koran), by Yoshiko Yamaguchi and Fujiwara Sakuya (Tokyo: Shincho Bunka, 1987).

  3. 3

    Buruma refers to it by its Japanese name, the Kanto Army.

  4. 4

    Movie buffs might recall the opulent retelling of this story in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Some time ago Buruma hosted a documentary on Chinese history called Beyond the Forbidden City, which is now part of the Criterion Collection DVD edition of Bertolucci’s film.

  5. 5

    The comparison between Kishi and Speer is drawn by Buruma in his book Inventing Japan, 1853–1964 (Modern Library, 2003).

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