1946 - 1952

Following her emotionally wrenching detention and trial in Shanghai, Yoshiko arrived back in Japan on the 1st of April of 1946, on a ship named the Unzen Maru
(she gave a performance of her hit songs to fellow passengers while on-board the night before). 
A month earlier she had tried to board a boat back to Japan, dressed sloppily so as not to look like Li Xianglan, but was immediately recognized by the harbor police and not allowed to board. Her family did not make it back to Japan until September 1948. 
Unzen maru video:

Kawakita, the famed director and Yoshiko's 'protector' during her detention, is on the left of the below photo: 

In the below video clip (which contains scenes of the execution of Yoshiko Kawashima, another accused 'traitor to China'), please watch the last minute of the film to see a portrayal of Li's having to leave her beloved country of China; we also see her late in life actually saying the words "Sayonara, Ri Koran, Sayonara" with all the reserved emotions visible in her face:

Upon returning to her Nogizaka 'mansion' apartment, she found it half destroyed from the bombing raids (in fact one of the bombs had pierced right through her bedroom on it's way to the basement). It seems as if everyone in Japan at this point was living wherever and however they could in order to just survive until times got better. Although her friend Akira Iwasaki had built a small shelter for her, Yamaguchi decided instead to stay in a room at the Kawakita compound in Kamakura. This was how the main house looked, decades later:
below, an American soldier, Yoshiko, and Mrs. and Mr. Kawakita, late 1940's:
Here's a link to the website which features this compound (now converted to the Kawakita Film Memorial Center):

Kawakita would accompany Yoshiko to the exclusive Esquire Club every two weeks or so:

She started using her given Japanese name and tried relaunching her singing career (giving a major concert in October 1946 at the Imperial Theatre), and when that wasn't successful enough, decided that maybe the live stage would be a better venue. 

Here is the April 1947 play she appeared in based on popular Steven Foster songs:

After this venture she was slated to be the lead in the light American play "You Can't Take It With You", but too much royalty money was demanded. So instead, she appeared in a serious Russian play by Tolstoy called "Resurrection" which cost nothing (and turned out to be a great propaganda coup for the soviet embassy, who brought flowers backstage to the whole cast). Military intelligence duly noted these visits, and it added to their paranoia that Yamaguchi was actively working for the soviet communists. 
in another play she had to pretend to be drunk; while practicing her lines at home, the neighbors believed she really was drunk and called the cops on her!

However, it became apparent that film was the best medium for her talents, and since the financial pressures on her at this time were great, this was fortuitous. She was the main bread-winner for her family composed of 2 parents, 2 brothers, 3 sisters, and herself, all having been repatriated from China. Obtaining a mortgage loan from Toho, Yamaguchi was able to purchase a house at 2-5 Suginami-ku ward, Asagaya-Kita district:

I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention the deterioration of her relationship with her father, Fumio. The war, with it's chaos and stress affected everyone, and the Yamaguchi family had seen it's fortune and life's work in a new land in China washed away by powerful historical forces. Reduced to penury and selling whatever small possessions they had in order to afford their daily food must have had a serious effect on the psyche of Mother and Father; there were many more than a million such people in China so affected by the war. Uncounted thousands of families and children never even made it back to Japan (there is a whole genre of these people who if they did not perish outright in the war's aftermath, became assimilated or through arduous means eventually made their way back to Japan. Michael Meyer's recent book "In Manchuria" has some particularly heart-breaking stories about such people. 

In the case of Fumio (in the words of Yoshiko) after the war he was "a broken man in both his life and character", having completely lost his youthful dreams (she compares him to Yamaga Toru who had a similar life-story, and there were many other such cases). Fumio "the man who so patiently taught me Mandarin as a child", eventually drifted away from Ai, his wife of "35 years of joys and sorrows", and also left the family house in Asagaya. A few of her siblings were partial to father Fumio (as one might expect in a large family), and moved away with him. 

The neighbors living behind the Yamaguchi household had some juicy negative gossip for the Japanese Police informants reporting to occupation Military Intelligence:

In 1948 Yoshiko appeared in "Someday My Life Will Shine" (or "The Bright Day of My Life"). 

Eiga (film) Magazines were as popular as ever: this was the Sep 1948 issue of Modern Woman:

a March 1952 magazine cover:

Another such film was "Repatriation", 1949, about various defeated Japanese soldiers returning to Japan. Another was "Woman of Shanghai", 1952, where Li's role is close to her real-life persona.

in 1949, a picture of strength despite the war having stolen some of her best years:


This is how one film-critic reviewed her career during this time period:

Yoshiko with the Director Yasujiro Ozu:

You can see how in many of these 'post Li Xianglan' movie roles, she was reprising and illuminating her past work as well as acting in a movie: a fascinating intellectual tour-de-force mixing real life and film fiction. Here was someone who had been thrown out of her beloved country of China (like a 25yr old being disowned by her own family), who then demonstrated an incredible drive to continue her work and not sink into depression, drugs, alcohol, self-pity, or even suicide. 

The great guilt she felt over making those few 'propaganda' films and the disruption to her film career could easily have destroyed her, had she not been intelligent and strong enough to push beyond the ashes of her China stardom.
The thought may occur to the reader about the contrast in career paths of the two 'most beautiful' actresses born in the same year: Setsuko Hara and Yoshiko Yamaguchi. Although I know nothing about the specifics of her motivations, I do know that Setsuko retired completely from public life after her film career ended in the 1960's. 

Her critics speak darkly about how Yamaguchi "re-invented herself", was a "shape-shifter", or worse, a "colonized woman" (ie, "an actress whose image was continuously appropriated for new propaganda purposes"). Excuse me, but the best actors are those who are capable of re-inventing themselves for each new character they play, and the very process of acting well includes being a skillful shape-shifter (one is trying to mislead the audience into believing you're really the Queen of the Nile while you're actually being rocked in a plastic boat in some warehouse in skid-row Los Angeles).  
I'd like to have a dollar for every time I've read about actors in Hollywood who 're-invent' themselves in order to keep working and stay relevant, or who demonstrate their 'acting genius' by playing diametrically different roles. There is a word for what her critics are indulging in: hypocrisy, plain and simple.

Yoshiko's reality was much more prosaic: she just kept going, kept on working, and moved on to new challenges using her superior skills. No other Asian star was able to work as successfully in Chinese, Japanese, and American venues ranging from Hong-Kong, Taiwan, Tokyo, all the way to Hollywood and New York's Broadway; whether on stage, screen, radio, records, and the nascent medium of live-television.

Her life's work is an inspiration to anyone facing crushing change (and damned if you do and damned if you don't type criticism for taking a new direction while not succumbing to closed-minded stasis and defeat). 

did Yoshiko have a love affair with a well-known Philippine actor in the mid-1940's?

Her best friend Lyuba with husband Yuri and new baby in the late 1940's:


in the space of five years time, Yoshiko had to make the jump from old-fashioned clean and simple tales which had brought her fame, to the 'new realism' of film which involved baring everything one had:

1948 films:  
Lucky Chair,     The Shining Day of My Life,    

The Passionate Mermaid:

Here is a singing dancing playful Yoshiko:

Yiman Wang reports on an interesting comment that Yamaguchi made in 1948 concerning the function of Japanese cinema in "educating the people about the ridiculousness of their past beliefs":

1949 films:  
The Shooting Star,     The Human Condition,     Homecoming. 

from a January 1950 fan magazine:

1950 films:  
Escape at Dawn, (an anti-war film)   

1950 cont'd:   First Love Hullabaloos,    Womanly Craze,     Scandal (see below). 

1951 film:  
Japanese War Bride

At this time she made the film Four Illusions in just a few days of hectic shooting. It was in this film that she sang "Beyond the Reef" as part of the Hawaiian illusion below:

1952 films:  
Foghorn      Sword for Hire       Woman from Shanghai       Ship of Tumultuous Fortune 

The 1952 film "Woman of Shanghai" has one of the most beautiful love songs ever sung on camera: listen to the second song in this YouTube clip:

other ideas from the pen of Yiman Wang:

She had many powerful friends in all spheres of society, excepting perhaps the right-wing Japan militarists (whom she disliked and unabashedly blames throughout her memoirs for their excesses in the war):
American 441st CIC (Counter Intelligence Corps) military intelligence: 
was keeping a file on Yamaguchi:

subject had already left New York City:
maybe subject went to the beach (or wore another disguise):

The above file labels her a "communist sympathizer" but intelligence was never able to come up with any solid evidence of such, other than indirect 'association with known communist sympathizers'. Which pretty much included most of the artist/intellectual community (who tended to be left-wing anyway). This was the time of the great  "Red Scare" in American politics, and even her first husband Isamu Noguchi was suspected and associated with known communist sympathizers, and signed political statements which included them also. One of these so-called 'major communists' was the great singer Paul Robeson: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Robeson

It seems that wherever Yoshiko went in life, she became part of larger controversies by virtue of her fame and internationalist frame of mind. Someone who was fluent and familiar with so many nationalities was a big target for 'spooks' who imagined any number of spying and counter-spying conspiracies, none of which proved true in the final analysis.

Yamaguchi was featured on a huge number of Japanese eiga (film) fan magazines during the 1947 - 1958 years:

Scandal, 1950: Director Akira Kurosawa:

these anonymous comments are accurate:
"Director Akira Kurosawa's statement on the Americanization of the Japanese press, this social commentary tells the tale of Ichiro (Toshirô Mifune), a famous artist who happens to be in the same vacation spot as Miyako (Yoshiko Yamaguchi), a well-known singer. When a fan magazine fabricates a liaison between the two celebrities and prints an article about their affair, Ichiro files slander charges against the tabloid. However, his lawyer, Hiruta (Takashi Shimura), has his own agenda." 

on the movie-set with Toshiro Mifune:

in this beautiful Christmas scene from "Scandal", Yoshiko sings "Silent Night" in Japanese:

you've got to be adventurous to get on a motorcycle like this:
the two Manchurian-born famous actors on a bike (how cool is that!): 

here's an interesting analysis of the plotline of Scandal:

Vincent Canby review of Scandal in NYTimes

Rob Nixon review in TCM.com

here she returns to liberate Hong Kong in 1949 after the Chinese civil war:

1950 Travels to Hawaii, Hollywood, USA         application for visa to USA from Japanese Foreign Ministry:

yes, that is Yoshiko in the middle !

leaving Japan for USA in April 1950:
Yamaguchi went to Hawaii first, and signed a contract with the promoter/theater owner Fred Matsuo, who had residences in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Hawaii. Here's where Yoshiko stayed at his residence on the south shore of Oahu, Honolulu at 201 Paiko Drive:

He provided her a basis of support for her travels on mainland USA. Here is the contract she signed with Matsuo (courtesy of US military intelligence):

while in Hawaii she gave a recital to the Japanese-American community there, and also learned some Hawaiian tunes (one of which is Sweet Leilani which you can hear on the 1950 Live Performance page).  
here is Yoshiko's version of the great Hawaiian standard, Beyond the Reef:

she probably also learned some hula dancing from Auntie X here (if any reader can identify her, please let us know):

arriving at Los Angeles (LAX) in July 1950:

the current joke was that Yamaguchi would "occupy" the United States (this, after Japan being occupied by the US military since 1945):
the above being the usual turgid style of an academic named Yiman Wang in one of her screeds about Yoshiko, this one is from a book named "Sino-Japanese Transculteration" by Richard King.

arriving at La Guardia, NYC in 1951:

and in snowy weather:

in Times Square, 'Crossroads of the World', New York City, circa 1951: Yoshiko is standing on the corner of Broadway and 45th Street (she is looking towards uptown, north):
the whole original photo:
and a shot of the same location:

and the same view as it pretty much looks today:

While studying at the New York Actor's Studio (Broadway and 53rd street), she met Elia Kazan. At this time she was also taking English and French lessons. The French teacher introduced her to Edith Piaf, who Yoshiko respected as a singer, a woman, and a human being (even though Edith had her addictions) "but she also loved and was loved and sang with incomparable feeling"). Yoshiko thought Piaf's songs were absolutely "superb". 
One particular song that she mentions 'broke her up' when she heard it: Piaf's mournful ode to her deceased lover, a boxer named Marcel Cerdan:

It's only fitting that two of the world's most beloved singers, one from the East and the other from the West, would meet one another in the great American crossroad City of New York.

here she is with France's "little sparrow" Edith Piaf and baseball great, Joe Dimaggio:

It was newsman Walter Winchell (of the famous radio sign-on "Good Evening Mr and Mrs. America and all ships at sea" http://old-time.com/mp3s/wwinch.mp3 who invited Yamaguchi and Dimaggio to appear on his NBC Walter Winchell Show (this was before Joe married Marilyn Monroe). Winchell also invited them to a big Broadway play named "The King and I" where she met the King himself: Yul Brynner. 

Yoshiko was probably not aware of this fascinating 'twist' of history: Brynner, who was born in Vladivostok, was the scion of one of the richest families in the Russian Far East. His grandfather, Julius was a Swiss citizen who moved there in the 19th century and had a business empire that stretched to the Korean peninsula.  Historical records indicate that the Romanov Dynasty’s quest to protect the Brynner family’s business interests was among the factors responsible for the 1905 Russo-Japanese War! Yul Brynner was the son of a Mongolian father and a Romanian gypsy mother, he grew up in Beijing, studied at the Sorbonne, volunteered to drive an ambulance during the Spanish civil war, and had his first acting success in "The King and I". 

How strange then, that these two people from the same region of the world, whose lives were so affected by the 1905 war, should meet together in the metropolis of New York! Yul and Yoshiko would sing Russian folk-songs in his apartment as he played guitar. He lived on west 44th street (see map above), and would take her to the top nightclubs in town (21, Latin Quarter, etc) just a short taxi ride away. 

Sometimes they'd "drop in on his good friend Marlene Dietrich at her apartment" and all go out for a late night feast in 'the city that never sleeps'. Marlene also had a great WW2 hit song "Lili Marlene" which was comparable in popularity to Yoshiko's great hits during the war years; their careers also had a similarity.

While in Hollywood and New York, Yoshiko appeared on popular TV shows of the time (such as the Ed Sullivan Show, Red Skelton Hour, and the US Steel Hour), and in live shows (like at the Paramount Theater with Bob Hope, Gene Tierney, and others). It doesn't seem that America of the time was able to fully appreciate the beauty of her songs (or perhaps the wrong songs were chosen for the 'American ear'). What a shame, since her voice was at 'the top of her game'. 

For the above US Steel Hour, Yoshiko appeared in the Dec 21, 1954 episode named "Presento" (meaning 'present' or 'gift'). Here is the first 15 minutes of this episode: Yoshiko in "Presento"

as the above still pictures indicate, she was gregarious, popular, and in 1951 something of the "It Girl" while in New York City. All the major magazines of the period (Newsweek, Time, Life, etc) had articles and photos while radio and TV featured interviews of the beautiful Japanese actress named Shirley Yamaguchi. 
here's the December 1951 article in LIFE Magazine:

this black and white photo conveys so much more than the above color shot:


In Hollywood, she even took a ride with James Dean in his new Porsche sports-car one night (he had just taken delivery of the car according to her memoir): 

She also met Pearl Buck, Helen Keller, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt, among many other personalities. As usual, she worked very hard to go everywhere and meet everyone that she could. 
Below, with Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Davis (soon to be Ms. Reagan).

Due to her superb singing, Yoshiko was seriously considered for lead roles in several Broadway musicals/plays in the 1951 period (the military intelligence files confirm this). One such show which involved a whole month of auditions was Marco Polo. Other postponed plays were The Merry Widow, and Madam Butterfly. 

Her life (meeting everyone of the moment) could be compared to the Tom Hanks character of Forest Gump, until one realizes that Yamaguchi was the first and probably the quintessential prototype for all such screen characters. 

with someone named Charles Chaplin (!):

at his estate in Hollywood:
there are more photos of Chaplin on the next page also:

probably a 'test shot' taken in Hollywood:

Regarding the whole phenomenon of Asian stars in Hollywood, blogger "duriandave" has posted the following thoughts:

"During the late 50s, Hollywood and the American public seem to have engaged in a kind of summer romance with Asia (that is, at least with "freedom-loving" Asia). I suppose it started in 1955 with a trio of postcard films that showcased in glorious color the exotic sights of Hong Kong and Tokyo: Soldier of Fortune (featuring a young Grace Chang in a walk-on role), House of Bamboo (starring Shirley Yamaguchi, aka Li Xianglan), and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. And since nothing complements an exotic postcard view better than a genuine exotic beauty, Hollywood was on the prowl for Asian actresses.

Then, as now, there were quite a few Hong Kong stars who were tempted by the promises of Hollywood. In 1956, Li Lihua was courted by Cecil B. De Mille and signed a contract to star in one of his films but ended up instead in Frank Borzage's China Doll. Pearl Au Kar-wai was brought to New York by Otto Preminger in 1958 to prepare for her role in his never started film, The Other Side of the Coin. Around the same time, Helen Li Mei was invited by Jantzen to represent the Far East in a swimwear fashion show. She made the papers in an unexpected way when she refused to pose in the "immodest" swimsuit that was waiting for her. Lin Dai also traveled to the States in 1958, to visit Hollywood studios and audit drama classes at Columbia University. But by 1960, the summer romance was coming to and end: The World of Suzie Wong was its last kiss.

you can read his full post here:

Yamaguchi as someone named Shirley: or is this the someone else who acted in Breakfast at Tiffanys? 

from the same sitting (this might be from Jong's photo collection :) (thanks Jong):

1952 Japanese War Bride:
One of the best films that Yoshiko ever made, a completely realistic story about the typical strains involved when an American soldier from small-town America brings home his new Japanese 'war bride' wife.

the movie was shot in Salinas California, as these files show who, what, where, and when:

here's an interesting Ohio University research article on the 'war bride' phenomena:
King Vidor's film Japanese War Bride undoubtedly had a major effect on American and Japanese society at a time of changing mores.
in Tokyo with Don Taylor, 1953:

compare the line of Yoshiko's face with her baby picture:

and that's a wrap: East is East was the Japan name of the movie Japanese War Bride:

another film that Yoshiko acted in:


The following is a translation (courtesy of a friend of this biography) of part of a 2014 article on Yamaguchi which appeared in the Japanese magazine Kinema Junpo. It deals with the above period of Yoshiko's life, as well as having some fascinating details of her later life also. Note that the author, Oono, is apparently a Japanese playwright who interviewed the elderly Yoshiko Yamaguchi:

<<<In 1950, Yoshiko Yamaguchi visited the US to promote her movie ' Shuubun (Scandal).'
It was only natural for a born cosmopolitan like Yamaguchi to go beyond the limits of Asia.
She changed her name from Li Xiang Lan to 'Shirley Yamaguchi' and appeared in
movies like 'East is East' as well as on stage in Broadway.

She met a nisei sculptor Isamu Noguchi during her stay in the US. They shared the
pain and hardship they experienced during the war, and also the solitude that
existed because they were cosmopolitans. They got engaged and just around then,
they were invited to Charlie Chaplin's home party.

Shirley brought along a small koi nobori ( a streamer in the shape of a carp. May 5
is a national holiday to celebrate the health of boys. From mid-April, families celebrating
the birth of sons hoist koi nobori in their gardens. Carps are known to 'climb' rapid
waters, and people have been regarding them as good signs in wishing the boys
good health.) Chaplin called together his children and began running around the room
so that the carp would 'swim' in the wind. The children clapped their hands and Yoshiko
was surprised to see how very well-informed Chaplin was in things Japanese.

Chaplin had recently completed composing the theme music for 'Limelight'('52).
He began playing the piano to introduce the music to his fellow artists. Noguchi
and other artists, who tend to be critical about everything, did not easily praise the
music. Chaplin countered it is supposed to be played by violin and began playing
the violin. Yoshiko was strongly impressed by his accomplishments and how far a worldwide
figure like Chaplin would go in trying to persuade his guests the excellence of his

Several weeks later, Chaplin's wife invited them to come and see the recording of the
theme music. When they rushed to the studio at 9am, Chaplin himself was at the
podium with his baton. The rehearsal continued but Chaplin was not convinced.
He began giving directions to each performer. When at last they were ready for
recording, it was 5pm. Nobody was looking at the score but the performance was
outstanding. Yoshiko never forgot the words that Chaplin kept repeating. ' There is a
sound where there isn't supposed to be one.'

(When Oono heard this from Yoshiko as she was approaching 90 years of age, she sang the
theme music to herself in lovely soprano.)

Some time later, Shirley cooked sukiyaki at a party at the Eames home in Santa Monica.
Guest of the party, Chaplin decided to thank Yoshiko by dancing Japanese style. He held a
fan and began to dance impromptu. Y was again startled to see him dance well
and also to witness him having trouble in playing the game 'charade' that evening.
She knew intuitively that this genius was a hard worker.

Shirley and Charlie's friendship continued for a long time. In 1961, when Charlie visited
Japan for the fourth time, he called Shirley from the airport. (He also phoned his stock
company. Oono thinks it is rather interesting that his destitute childhood must have
had a strong influence on his financial senses.) Shirley accompanied him to his favorite
tempura restaurant. When edamame was served as an appetizer, Charlie ate the entire
pod. She told him, 'You aren't supposed to eat the shell.' 'What ! I ate the suitcase
and all.' At age 72, his sense of humor was still there.

Their last meeting was in 1963. Yoshiko's husband Hiroshi Otaka was a diplomat in
Geneva. Chaplin was living in Switzerland after being ousted from the US. On their
first Sunday in Geneva, the Otakas decided to make a casual visit to Chaplin's
residence. Without an appointment, they were obliged to wait at the entrance. After a
while, Charlie cried out 'Shirrrrrrley !!!' holding a tennis racket in his hand, and he ran
across his enormous garden like a young man. That was Chaplin at 73.

Yoshiko told Oono, 'The influence I got from Chaplin was not a theory.' 'Chaplin loved the
heart of poor people. It connected with my love for the Palestinian people.' She
recalled the nobility of Palestinian children. No matter how destitute they were, no one
touched her purse. When Oono commented that such nobility is also evident in
Chaplin's films, she heartily answered 'Yes'.

Late in life, Yoshiko kept an AIBO (it's a dog-shaped robot created by Sony) and named it
'Charlie'. She laughed when she called out the name and said 'I do feel him close by'.
As the problems she tried to tackle as her lifelong pursuit, crises in the middle east and
the comfort women issue, are becoming intensified, how we wish we could feel Shirley
to be near us. We shall remember what Shirley inherited from Charlie, and the
cosmopolitan and unrestricted way she sang to us.

Gasshou ( it means pressing one's hands together as in prayer.)



  1. John, Just to note that I am purchasing another of her movies, Escape at Dawn, through the CD Japan Company. It should arrive within a few weeks. They have 6 of her Japanese movies for sale, aside from the 2 American movies that are easy to get, House of Bamboo and Japanese War Bride.

  2. John, with respect to the music, I'm working on constructing a list of all the song she recorded. My sources are the CDs I have as well as any others from her movies, e.g. Shina No Yoru was never recorded on disc, but is preserved in the movie of the same name. There are many duplicates and some with confusing titles, so it's not always easy to distinguish among them. Currently, I have about 130 different ones. If you or anyone else is interested, I can post the list.

  3. Peter, that's nice work you're doing and I'm sure it will be of value to our readers. If you post the list to a blog or someplace else on the 'cloud', please send us a link to the site.