Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.54.6: THE CHINA LOVER, by Ian Buruma (2008) BR

V054-06_chinalovercoverIt’s an odd title for a book that is mostly about Japan. But, then, the relationship between these two Asian states is an odd one. Japan can rightly credit its older and larger neighbor with providing aspects of its culture and written characters, but its behavior has not always been one that expressed much gratitude for the loan of them. In recent years, the continental giant has roared ahead economically at a growth rate approaching double digits, while the island empire has languished in protracted recession. China is no longer the backward behemoth that some seventy years ago was treated by its neighbor as a land of lesser beings.

The narrative thread that weaves The China Lover together is a Japanese woman, variously known as Ri Kohran, Li Xianglan, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, Otaka Yoshiko, and Shirley Yamaguchi. I confess that a first, this being a “novel,” I had considered her a fictional character. But I stole a look at the acknowledgments at the end of the book, it turns out that he author owes a considerable amount of his story to the memoir of the many-nomered Ms Yamaguchi and an interview with her co-writer. In consequence, it is difficult to discern at times where the novel begins and ends with what it the true story of this fascinating lady.

As to historical setting there is much that is already part of the record, although Japanese and Chinese accounts do differ on essential facts. Anyone who has seen Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor will recall emperor Pu Yi’s misadventure with the Japanese in the establishment of Manchukuo in Japanese-conquered Manchuria in 1932. The whole enterprise was a cynical canard to justify the conquest and settlement of Chinese continental territory, part of which was a “reverence” for the older culture. Some Japanese actually took this somewhat seriously. Yamaguchi herself, having been born in Harbin, was a cultural hybrid, speaking and singing in Chinese like a Chinese, but also being a Japanese she could speak ad sing in Japanese as well.

The Japanese had all sorts of grand plans for Manchukuo. At one point, during the war, they planned to build a new city for refugee Jews that they rescued from their ally, Nazi Germany (cf. Archives, 34. 3: DESPERATE VOYAGERS, by M. Tokayer and M. Swartz, 1979 [BR] 8.5.2006). American Jewish financier, Joseph Schiff, had helped finance their successful 1905 war against the Russians, and some of he Japanese high command thought they could use Jewish money and intelligence in their design to be the overlords of all Asia.

Things turned out differently, of course. The Japanese military built instead a heinous facility near Harbin at which they chemical and biological weapons on captive Chinese, Russian and even Western soldiers and civilians. Blandly called Unit 731, prisoners, who were referred to as “logs” were submitted to unspeakable tortures, given diseases and even vivisected. So much for being “China lovers.”

The career of Yamaguchi is the spine of the story, told by three narrators, in the periods preceding the war, during the war and in the reconstruction, each of whom is connected in some way with motion pictures. Mr. Saito Daisuke, who has connections with Japanese gangsters operating in Manshukuo, is the first to come under the thrall of Yamaguchi, then known as Ri Koran, and used in propagandistic films used to falsely portray an amicable relationship between the Chinese and Japanese. Manchukuo becomes in the image of these motion pictures a sort of Japan-ified China, a kookie world in which, apparently, the best of Chinese culture is taken to its proper level by way of Japanese culture.

A largely isolated, island nation, the Japanese probably bought all this baloney. But at the same time the Japanese army had a different definition of Sinophilia—they loved to slaughter Chinese. By 1938, the army had marched largely unobstructed into the then capitol, Nanking, and proceeded to kill some 300,000 (some Japanese right-wingers still claim the figure was 30,000, and that they were combatants), a great number of them having been raped first. (Cf. Archives 9. 7: THE RAPE OF NANKING, and the Death of Iris Chang [BR] 4.22.2005)

Japan paid in kind for their atrocities when that number was matched in the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the fire bombing of Tokyo. It is in the aftermath of that, during the reconstruction and “democratization” of Japan, that Ri Koran repatriates and takes up her career as Yoshiko Yamaguchi. This section is narrated by another movie buff, an American homosexual whose connection with the movies, in this case comes from a clerical position with the studio producing Frank Capra films (Capra was also involved in making propaganda films during the war, such as Why We Fight). We find Sidney in post war Japan, again in a clerical position as a censor of Japanese films, but spending much of his time becoming an aficionado of Japanese movie lore and of slim, smooth-skinned Japanese young men. Eventually he, too, forms a friendship with Yoshiko, who is a legend in Japanese films, but desires to travel to America and try her chances with Hollywood.

Presently, Shirley Yamaguchi, Yoshiko ends up making a film with Robert Stack and Robert Ryan, in which she is the female lead in a film that has little use for a female lead. House of Bamboo is set in postwar Japan in 1955, a B-move crime thriller that uses Tokyo as a prop for chases and shoot-outs. She made one more American produced film, Navy Wife (1958), this one set in Japan as well, and returned to making Asian films in Hong Kong (reverting to her Chinese name, Li Xianglan), and later a television show. Save for the escapades of Sidney in the gay bars and movie houses of Shinjuku, much of this section seems documentary. This writer elected to rent a copy of House of Bamboo, and found Ms Yamaguchi not quite as possessed of luminous eyes and riveting beauty as Burmuma describes her, but passable as an actress. (Two years later Myoshi Umecki won an academy award for her role on Sayonara, set in the same period in Japan.)

Part Three, is narrated by a Japanese revolutionary in a prison camp in Lebanon. Sato Kenkichi’s connection with the movies is through his mother, the operator of a cheap movie house in the bombed-out suburbs of Tokyo that shows “pink movies” about Americans raping innocent Japanese girls. Sato is part of the group who perpetrated the terrorist incident at Lod Airport in 1972 but, after being praised by the Arabs, ended up arrested and imprisoned. His connection with Yoshiko was as her cameraman during her “career” hosting a women’s television show. He is left with his memories of her, her letters, and movies.

The Japanese seem to be a people who are only able to get outside of the prison of their highly-structured, provincial society by escaping their islands. Even within, escape can only be achieved by, for example, becoming one of the reclusive hikikomori (cf. Archives 52. 15.SHUTTING OUT THE SUN, by Michael Zeilensiger 2006 [BR] 10.27.2008). Yoshiko and the narrators of this story are examples of that, save for Sidney Vanoven, the closeted gay American who escapes into Japan. Yoshiko is raised in Manchuria, where she is already a “hybrid,” Daisuke is also in Manchukuo, where he can indulge his passion for Chinese women. Manchukuo is an invention, a Potempkin’s Village masking a slaughterhouse. Eventually, Sato Kenkichi, the revolutionary, can express his anti-imperialist (read American imperialism here) political passions in a cause between Palestinians and Israelis. But anyone who has seen Japanese traveling knows that they can never really escape. The China Lover reminds us of that, and that, for Japanese unable to escape the confines of their islands, there are always the movies.
© 2008, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.31.2008)