b. 1920 - 1933

Yoshiko Yamaguchi passed away at the age of 94
on the morning of September 7, 2014. 

She was born on February 12, 1920 close to Mukden (now called Shenyang) in Manchuria (Northeastern China). To the right is Yoshiko Yamaguchi's birth certificate (or more accurately, a copy of the Yamaguchi family register).  
The family then moved to Fushun, the site of a huge open-pit coal mine, one of the largest in the world.

This birth certificate (and her fame throughout Asia) saved her life in late 1945 during a trial brought against her by the Chinese Nationalists, in which she was accused of treason against China and collaborating with the Japanese. The 'worn and rumpled' family register paper proved she was a daughter of the Yamaguchi family. The court then accepted she was not born a Chinese and therefore could not be accused of 'betraying her own people', thus sparing her life. 

Genetically, she may have been primarily Japanese. But emotionally, intellectually, and culturally, whether she was Japanese, Chinese, or even Manchurian (a combination of 5 different races) is a legitimate historical question open to examination, upon which this biography hopes to shed some further light. As she herself indicated at the age of 84, if it had been possible she might well have considered herself a citizen of Manchuria. (Ed. much like immigrants to America are considered American, some within a few years of arrival, and certainly if they are children of immigrants and born in America). 
In light of the above, to refer to her simply as 'being Japanese' is intellectually lazy and inaccurate, which then makes it easy to accuse her of 'masquerading as a Chinese'. It also can be considered an attempt to limit her life accomplishments, including becoming part of everything she admired throughout the human race. 
Manchuria was a true 'melting pot' of different races, and in Yoshiko's own words led to a wonderful mixing of western and eastern cultures and ethnicities:

Manchuria is in north-east China, although geographically this far-flung appendage of China appears to be more naturally a part of Russia. Shenyang (old Mukden) is close by North Korea:

Below are Yoshiko's parents, with father Fumio Yamaguchi (b. 1889) and mother Aiko, (maiden name Ishibashi, b. 1894) holding baby Yoshiko. You may notice that Fumio does not appear to have the most typical of Japanese facial characteristics, and he is quite tall compared with Aiko:

Fumio's father Hiroshi was a Sinologist, descended from samurai stock and greatly interested in China and studying Chinese, and he passed this quality down to his line. His son Fumio *had been attracted to China in his youth, had gone to Beijing to study, and put tremendous effort into learning Chinese*. He was from the Saga Prefecture area of Kyushu island in southern Japan (note how close this is to the Korean peninsula):
Yoshiko was raised with the understanding that China was her *home country and Japan was her ancestral country*, as she told the Washington Post in 1991. She would also say diplomatically that China was her motherland and Japan was her fatherland, and that she wanted no conflicts between them. More cryptically, Yoshiko stated *she was a Chinese built by Japanese hands* and this biography will try to show what she meant by this.  

*direct quotes from Yamaguchi

Hiroshi moved his whole family to China in 1906. This was in conjunction with the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Here's a video that has images of both the Russian and Japanese sides accompanied by the beautiful Russian hymn "On the Hills of Manchuria": 

In effect Russia lost the war (although both sides were exhausted) - and in the process gave up significant land rights and 'concessions' in South Manchuria. Interestingly, it was Theodore Roosevelt who brokered the peace (in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA - of all places!) between Japan and Russia, which secured him a Nobel Peace Prize.

During the Czarist years, Russians had built the railroads, stations and buildings, however, when Japan entered the picture, a hyper-development of South Manchuria occurred. 
Manchuria - Land of Opportunities
It was propelled by a highly advanced and coordinated effort between Japan's government and private capital raised on Tokyo's stock-exchange. From the 1905 period onward, the average Japanese citizen was fascinated by the promise of a new kind of life in Manchuria and invested heavily in the stock market. The Japanese built roads and bridges, laid tracks, and installed light poles where there had been none before:  
Immigration of Japanese to Manchuria was encouraged by the government, and Chinese also came because of the work to be had and the business opportunities. Life was very hard in other parts of China and hordes of laborers flocked to the developing Manchuria. Of course, there were also the indigenous Manchu, Han Chinese, Mongols, Koreans, Russians, Jews, and many other nationalities.

Airports and harbors, railroads and heavy industry were also built by the "imperialists":
The 20th century history of Manchuria is quite interesting and surprising from the point of view of anyone who has a curiosity about basic questions such as: the causes of hatred and war between nations, why did 40 years of Japanese efforts in Manchuria end in the madness of war, what were the real interests of the 'great powers' in Manchuria, and how can we apply the lessons and example of Manchuria to modern world problems, etc.
Here is an 1919 American commercial assessment of Manchuria:


Manchuria was (and is today) a storehouse of agriculture and mineral riches, so of course it attracted the attention of the great mercantile powers of Russia, Japan, a nascent China, and also the remote powers of France, Britain, United States, etc:


The first sentence in Yoshiko's autobiography is "My memories of the Chinese continent begin with Fushun". And of course, she remembers through the eyes of a child the streets and fields where she once ran. She describes the beauty of the coal mine itself, with it's 'spiral-staircase roads leading to the bottom of the pit, the glossy seams of coal and the green beauty of the hills surrounding Fushun. As a child, she could not have known the significance that tens of thousands of Russian and Japanese soldiers had perished in that same beautiful countryside. Here is mid-1920's Fushun and Yoshiko is probably somewhere in this photo:

Every day on her way to elementary school with her friends, she would pass by the Japanese Fushun Shrine:
You can see more postcards of Fushun on this site:
It's hard to describe in words and try to imagine the scale of industrial and development activity that was going on in Fushun (nay, all of Manchuria), so I'll post some pictures. 
road projects which were state of the art:

a beautiful concrete dam with a road on top:

bridges built in the 1920s and 1930s, that any engineer and constructor today would be proud of:

here is a video composed of postcards of Manchurian cities:

At the time, Fushun was one of the biggest mining and industrial cities in Manchuria, and Manchuria seems to have been the industrial heart-land of China itself. Fushun was an open-pit coal mining town run by the South Manchurian Railway Company. The coal was used to make steel, electricity, and in a whole host of other industrial uses, including shale-oil and gas.   
views of Fushun back then:

some early views of the massive coal-mining operation:

Today, the Fushun open-pit mine is still one of the largest in the world.

an old cross-section view of the mine showing how the pit was gradually excavated to it's present enormous size (about 4 miles long by 1 mile wide by 1300 ft deep):

notice the American Bucyrus Steam shovel below: the USA sold tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment to the South Manchurian Railway Company (Mantetsu): 

the skip-machine with all the boxcars filled with tons of coal:
caption reads: The Skip-Machine of the Open-air Coal Mine, Fushun
below: Fushun Collieries:
note the above "American steam shovel at work in the Fushun Colliery". 


below, a Chinese laborer loads a huge piece of coal by hand: this does not imply that all the coal was man-handled in this way; I include the photo as an example of how the Chinese are famous for their back-breaking labor - for example, on the American Transcontinental Railroad crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains, in the gold-fields of California, building roads in Africa, making all the consumer goods for America, etc: 

In this video at 2:00 min you can see the above man lifting that 50kg piece of coal:


[on a side-note: a recent article on a Chinese mine-worker details just how much 'easier' his life is today: Zhang Yong only has to work 10 hours a day. seven days a week, 365 days a year! but that's not all - he is still owed 2 months of salary!
One hopes that his story is not typical of the great majority of workers, otherwise why were all these 'wars of liberation' fought, only to find modern labor still slaving away as in days of old, and not getting paid?]

the hard life of the Chinese laborers: the man and boy are sitting on their 'kang', which was actually a hard platform bed heated from below by a fire using rice-stalks, etc:
One must ask the hard question: would the miner's lives been any easier working for Chinese than working for Japanese interests?

a famous American reporter, Agnes Smedley, gave this account of the "slave labor" in Fushun's mines and factories (it is in the language of  'Translish', ie, translated from the Chinese):

a Chinese village:

  there were also the steelworks:

another view of the colliery:

there were all the infrastructure projects (schools, hospitals, agriculture research, train stations, hotels, etc) that Mantetsu (the South Manchuria Railroad Company) built:

gas-works connected with the colliery:

 some beautiful (at least I think so!) machinery:

Education System

Manchukuo developed an efficient public education system, setting up or founding many schools and technical colleges, 12,000 primary schools, 200 middle schools, 140 normal schools (for preparing teachers), and 50 technical and professional schools. In total the system had 600,000 children and young pupils and 25,000 teachers. There were 1,600 private schools (with Japanese permits), 150 missionary schools and, in Harbin, 25 Russian schools.
Education focused on practical work training for boys and domestic work for girls, all based on Confucian adherence to the "Kingly Way" and stressing loyalty to the Emperor [Pu-Yi]. In rural areas, students were trained to practice modern agricultural techniques to improve production. Confucian teachings also played an important role in Manchukuo's public school education. Japanese became the official language in addition to the Chinese language taught in Manchukuo schools.

a government poster of the time:


The South Manchuria Railroad Company (Mantetsu) in Fushun is where Fumio worked, teaching Chinese language and culture to employees (and to his kindergarten aged Yoshiko). When she started elementary school, "he had me attend the Chinese night class he taught; I was the only (girl) child in a class of adults (all men). I went to Japanese girls school until 2nd grade, then transferred to a Chinese girl's school." Fumio also was a consultant (dealing with Chinese cultural matters) to the Fushun County government 

This is a Fushun historical website with many interesting articles (you'll need to translate the page into English - a simple way to do this is to use the Chrome browser and download the translate button so it's handy and quick to use):

here's a massive home development Mantetsu built for it's Japanese employees in Fushun: you can see some bamboo scaffolding on the left-hand side of picture:

the South Manchuria Railroad Hospital (which is said treated all peoples needing medical attention):

a typical world-class South-Manchurian train (note the "with all-American equipment"):

a 1930's train (Mantetsu continually upgraded it's equipment):

these were some of the fastest trains in the world:

The South Manchuria Railway built many schools along the railway and the trains would make unscheduled stops along the way for the kids going to school:


When you look at the sheer scale of this Japanese development of Manchuria (hundreds of buildings, factories, schools, roads, hospitals, etc), it must occur to any objective observer that this was a major effort in every way, and even superior to similar operations (say the East India Company) in other parts of the world. In addition, it's obvious that this was a long-term industrialization of a whole country, and not just a short-term 'grab the resources' type project. Because of the scale of the infra-structure projects and the millions of people involved, on balance one could even say it was admirable (from both an engineering and a human-progress point of view). One of the government mottos popular at the time was "Let us Build and Construct", and they sure did. 

In the case of the Yamaguchi family, three generations of people were involved in Manchuria, over a period of about 50 years. Grandfather was the first generation, Fumio and Aiko the second, and Yoshiko and siblings were the third generation. If your father from England came to the United States in 1906, married an English girl, and had you in 1920: imagine if the world said in 1990 "you may have been born and bred in the USA (and trying to act as if you are American) but you are really English". This is the conundrum that Yoshiko has had to deal with: "you may have been born and bred in China (and masquerading as a Chinese) but you are really Japanese". And furthermore, it is usually westerners with their blinders on who have latched on to this type of stereotyping.  

To give some perspective to this general situation of one country making substantial investments in another country, imagine if the United States had mounted a similar industrial operation in Mexico or Canada (or say, a vast fruit growing enterprise in Latin-America). Would the American military be justified in protecting these developments? (we have only to look at the historical actions in South and Latin America to answer such a question). 

Furthermore, suppose that one country 'acquired' another country through 'legal' means (such as the U.S. did with Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippines, Hawaii, Guam or England did with India, or the Dutch in Indonesia): did the conquering country make significant investments like Japan did in Manchuria? There is no necessity of even mentioning modern "*Sorrows of Empire" such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, and Libya in this litany of infamy. 
For lessons in how strong nations are able to expand power and influence successfully, maybe one has to look back in history to ancient China or the Roman Empire for practical advice on how they were able to do it and survive in the long-term. 
*this phrase is borrowed from the historian Chalmers Johnson, who I greatly admire, Ed.


Yoshiko Yamaguchi at her mother's knee at about age 2yrs, in front of their solidly built brick house (typical for Manchuria, but not however, for Japan):
Her childhood nickname was "peas" or perhaps the American equivalent "sweet pea". 
In the below photo Grandfather Hiroshi is on the left and Yoshiko is standing at back (she was the oldest of six children in this photo):

below is information abstracted from Military Intelligence files on the family: two pictures below show seven children instead of six (if another child was born in say 1926, the above picture showing 6 children could have been taken in late 1930:

the following file clearly says Seiko is the "fifth daughter"; even further confirmation of there being seven children in all:

in this next photo we see Yoshiko on the left, what appears to be a sister in back holding baby, father Fumio holding the youngest baby, and grandfather Hiroshi on the right. Since there may be seven children here, and the youngest (Seiko, on fathers lap) was born in December 1932, we can assume this photo was probably taken in mid-1933:

Already, one can see that this is not the face of an average 13 yr old child. Yoshiko's 'presence' in this photograph is uncanny. There is a deep, penetrating, serious, pure, and wistful look in her eye, the same look that we see throughout her long life. Her face is timeless - as though she could be the mother in front - but this is probably the camera and photographer's doing, and yet we still get the feeling that this is not an average child sitting there. 
I would go so far as to suggest that this 'look' (meaning the facial expression in all the subsequent photos, movies, etc) rivals the look of the famous 'Mona Lisa' painting in it's ability to suggest an ageless knowledge (along with an iron willpower). 
To me, her expression is that of a highly intelligent, formidable person.
(number eight in photo refers to the 8th year of Showa period, ie, 1925 + 8 = 1933)

Yoshiko is third from right, in the second row below:
a closeup of the above class picture:

with her best friend Toshiko Yanase on the left, Yoshiko is on the right, at time of graduation from elementary school (perhaps at age 11 or 12):

When I first saw the above photo, I thought: that can't be Yoshiko on the right (she hardly looks Japanese), but the girl on the left isn't Yoshiko either!   She clearly reveals some genetic influence other than purely traditional Japanese. She has a natural curl in her hair, her nose is western, and her eyes appear big and round . I think anyone would agree that there are probably Russian or some other Aryan influences there. 
another picture of Toshiko and Yoshiko:

[Ed: since writing the above, I have discovered an interview given by Yoshiko in 1991 where she states "it was said that my great-grandmother was French". You can jump to this interview here. ] 
In a 1944 interview, Yoshiko herself said "while filming in Harbin, the Russian people there said that of my father and mother, one must definitely be Russian and the other Chinese. It's really interesting: it's as if wherever I go, the people there just take me to be one of their own". This is one of the reasons why she became such an international star; she could portray a Russian girl, a Korean, Mongolian, Chinese, Japanese, and even an indigenous Taiwanese girl. Her face was one of the most extraordinary faces in Asian film history. 

Looking at the above photos and the many I intend to post will show the viewer that her physical features are multi-racial in an obvious way. In fact, if the family did have some Russian or other genes in it's ancestry, it would not be inconsistent with how this family emigrated to China, studied the language and culture, allowed Yoshiko to study western music, and how eventually she became a true 'citizen of the world' in spirit. 
An actress today who is able to play many ethnicities is lauded for her talent, whereas in Yamaguchi's case, it seems that some people have a negative opinion of the same talent (calling her a shape-shifter, a re-inventer, or "masquerading as a Chinese").

And this is how Ian Buruma's fiction novel "The China Lover" describes her eyes:
 “It was her eyes that left the deepest impression,” he observes. “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.”

Many people rather think she was an extraordinary girl born and raised in Manchuria, with genetic traces of faraway places in her DNA. Regarding her own eyes, Yoshiko candidly tells us her nickname as Li Xianglan: "the goldfish beauty", revealing a good sense of humor about herself. 

mother Yamaguchi Aiko 
was a graduate of Japan Women's University, and Yoshiko says "what you might call an intellectual type of person". Her family of business-people had first gone to Korea before coming to China. She was strict about her children's manners and education, but as we will see, open to them learning non-traditional subjects (such as western violin). She was very influential when it came time to decide whether Yoshiko would commence a singing career on the radio at the age of thirteen, and later to decide to continue as a fledgling actress with Man'ei (the film company). Neither of these 'professions' were too respectable at the time, and Mother should be credited with having an adventurous spirit in allowing Yoshiko this freedom. One would like to think she received some vicarious satisfaction watching her daughter's spectacular career progress from singing on the radio to acting in movies. 
Not to be ignored either is the huge amount of work it took her to bear and care for six? children (4 girls and 2 boys) in the space of 12 years:
1920 Yoshiko
1921 Hiro
1924 Kyoko
1926    ??
1928 Etsuko
1930 Sadao
1932 Seiko
[regarding the exact number of Yamaguchi children, the reader may notice that there are possibly seven children shown in at least two family photos - see picture above, and the family photo below taken circa 1937 clearly showing Ai with seven children. Of course, other explanations for the seventh including a neighbor's child or a helper are possible]

Facts such as the ones above concerning Yoshiko's education convey that the Yamaguchi family certainly did not act the part of a 'colonizer' or a 'settler' who considered themselves superior to the local culture. They were actively learning the culture of 'the other' at a time in history when most Chinese and Japanese tended to go in the opposite direction (as unfortunately they do today). It seems as if the family honestly believed in the new country of Manchukuo, and the government mantra of "harmony among the five races" in this new land, indeed, in hindsight it seems as though many people of many races throughout Manchurian society wanted to believe in this same ideal.

Everything we know about the Yamaguchi family's long-term project* concerning China and learning Chinese indicates a genuine affection for the culture (rather than say, using the language as a 'tool' to further Japanese interests).  
*Grandfather most likely began teaching his son in 1896 and the family lived in China until 1946, a 50 year period of time. 

Other interesting observations can be made concerning how such terms as "Greater East-Asian Co-prosperity Sphere" , "Japanese Imperialism" , and "Puppet Government" actually relate to the above pictures, and what they meant at the very human level of a family such as the Yamaguchi's (or the families of the above Chinese laborers). 
One often hears the term "Japanese occupation of China" and wonders about the "American occupation of the Philippines". This was much more than an 'occupation': there was an actual flux between China and Japan that was remarkable and ill-appreciated by the West (or if understood, was necessary to destroy in the interests of the Great Chess-Game which Great Powers play). The present Middle-east is a case in point: Arabs killing Arabs (instead of "black-hair, black-eyed people" killing one another, in the immortal words of Yamaguchi).

Maybe with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight vision, (and taking into consideration everything which has transpired in the world over the approximate 100yr period of 1915 - 2015), we can gain a greater understanding of the past which will lead to more peace in the world. Or maybe not.   
But enough of all that, this is after all, Yoshiko's biography:


Elementary School Education
On the 1st page of her memoir, Yoshiko says she attended the Yong An Elementary School (picture below courtesy of 1991 Mainichi Magazine Special Edition):
with her good friends, Toshiko and Midori, and lived on Center Street. According to Mainichi, her family lived in this building:
was on Minzhu 1st street (see below maps) and she mentions walking "due east" down east 7th street with her friends to school every day:

Mainichi magazine map showing 李香兰 house in center of map:

the mining area was south of the town:

A significant insight is revealed in Yamaguchi's autobiography in the very first chapter. She states "my parents ... were quite enthusiastic about my education, though I was not asked to learn things like the tea ceremony, flower arranging, cooking, and needlework like girls back in my homeland. Instead, I was made to take violin, piano, and koto lessons." 

In other words, the parents had already decided that Yoshiko would not receive a typical Japanese education - (she would not attend some special 'Japanese Academy' set up for children of the 'settlers' from Japan, rather, she would go to the local Chinese Yong An school instead). And so she was raised studying the same subjects as any other child in Manchuria did in addition to popular 'western' subjects such as music. 
In addition to this, she was learning Chinese from age 3 or 4 and the only child attending her father's evening classes with adults while maintaining a hectic schedule of music lessons every second day, along with normal grade school classes! - a remarkable workload which would set the stage for her eventually becoming a 'new woman' in the new country of Manchukuo.

The parents by their above decisions reveal idealistic as well as realistic beliefs: their eldest daughter Yoshiko was the embodiment of their belief in the peaceful melding of the oriental culture of both Japan and China in Manchuria. They thought her skills would serve her well in a future in which Japanese and Chinese had to understand one another, and language was the basis for this. As we shall see however, their idealism in raising Yoshiko would be co-opted and used by other more powerful forces, over which they had no control. This next 'incident' would have shaken their world when it happened:

1928 - Murder of the Chinese governor (warlord) of Manchuria:

:link to above picture: Yoshiko would have been eight years old at this time. 

to understand further the many historical events leading up to the above murder, see the below video:


Tuberculosis, Lyuba, and Singing 
From Yoshiko's memoirs:
"In elementary school I was usually chosen to be the class singer." 

And it is here, dear reader, that one of the great scenes in the famous life of Yamaguchi occurs. At the age of 11 while on a train trip, she meets by chance a Jewish-Russian girl named Lyuba Monosova Gurinets and they become instant friends. Their friendship will last a lifetime. It is Lyuba who introduces Yoshiko to Madame Podresov; in Yoshiko's words "making my whole singing career possible". 

"When I was about 12yrs old, I had a case of tuberculosis, and so I had to spend one month in hospital. The doctor recommended a recuperation period of six months, and for my health I should do exercises to strengthen my breathing. During this period, it was Lyuba who gave me consolation and encouragement, and introduced me to a prominent teacher and opera singer named Madame Podresov. [This voice teacher was a noted Italian soprano who had married a White-Russian noble].
That's how I began singing, and it was really the first thing that set me on the path to becoming a singer and actress." Well, perhaps it wasn't the very first thing, because Fumio, her father, had emphasized the study of Chinese, and her family admired music and provided her with lessons, which also greatly facilitated her career. 

(In late 1945, upon hearing that Yoshiko was being detained in Shanghai for treason, it was Lyuba who traveled to Yamaguchi's parent's home in Peking, got her birth certificate, and subsequently had it smuggled into detention, consequently saving Yoshiko's life!)

The influence which Lyuba had on Yoshiko's life is so enormous that in her memoirs Yoshiko credits divine intervention: she says "without Lyuba there would have been no Li Xianglan".

this is the young Lyuba Monosova Gurinets:
Lyuba's father owned a bakery shop in Fengtian (Mukden) and may have also worked for Pravda and Tass, the Soviet-Russian news agencies:

a typical Russian shop of the time:

Lyuba in the 1940's (when she and her father worked at the Soviet Consulate in Shanghai):

this alley was where Yoshiko visited later in life and pasted the below photo up in remembrance of her friend Lyuba (sometimes written in Chinese as Liu ba): 

On a side note, Beijing TV in the above video promotes a negative remembrance of Li Xianglan as a han'jian (a traitor and spy). The gangsterly gentleman on the right puts up all the famous pictures of Li's life, and then disparages her. Sometimes, he even dons a pair of white gloves and opens important cardboard boxes containing the photographs (or old newspapers), giving one the impression that they might have germs on them. 

Then, he will often 'take the gloves off', give an animated diatribe (which can be understood no matter what language you speak), and then leans on the same papers with his bare hands: 

But back to Lyuba's story,
Lyuba recommended Yoshiko to Madame Podresov, and that's how her wonderful singing voice received it's initial training. It was rough going at first, with Madame almost refusing to take Yoshiko as her student, but Lyuba talked the european diva-lady into continuing. At first, Yoshiko had problems caused by her weak lungs, so Madame devised physical exercises which slowly built up her muscles. One of these exercises involved Yoshiko singing with a stack of books on her stomach while lying down (ingeneous!) It took a lot of repetitious work to build up her sickly lungs and learn western music scales as the Italian- born Podresov persevered with her conscientious pupil. I've read Yoshiko revered Madame and enjoyed learning from her.

Another voice teacher named Miura Tamaki also worked with Yoshiko. 
a picture of Yoshiko, Miura, and Podresov:

Once Yoshiko showed her persistence and musical talent, Madame Podresov realized her potential and decided to feature her as the star performer in a student recital presented at the prominent Yamato Hotel in Fengtian. The name Yamato refers to an ancient period in Japan's history and there were a number of prominent hotels in the Yamato hotel chain.
You can read some really interesting history of this famous hotel structure here:  
the hotel as it appeared in 1932 during the visit of Lytton Commission of Enquiry into the "Manchuria Incident":  1932 Japanese silent film

 the interior of Yamato Hotel where Yoshiko performed her first recital:
how it would have looked the day of the recital:

and as it looks today, with a piano waiting for the next Li Xianglan:

more pictures of the hotel in 1933:
The audience consisted of Japanese, Chinese, and Russian local dignitaries. Yoshiko sang beautifully and was noticed by a representative from the local Fengtian radio-station. 
Here is the first song she sang at the recital; her later version of "Moon over the Castle" (Kojo no Tsuki):
(this melancholy song became one of her 'signature' works, always sung first at concerts)
The Fengtian radio station was not having any success finding someone who could sing well and communicate in different languages. Yoshiko was perfectly suited to become that singer the station was seeking. 
It should be noted that the station was using music to promote so-called "government propaganda" such as "Japanese-Manchurian Friendship" and "Cooperation and Harmony among the Five Ethnic Races" (ie, Japanese, Chinese, Manchu, Mongol, and Korean). I say so-called because at the time these concepts were positive and sorely needed messages. Contrast these with typical American government slogans such as "Our strength is in our diversity" or "Our military is the best in the world" and "God bless the USA!". 

Father had reservations about the offer from Fengtian Broadcasting Station (singing and acting were not exactly completely legitimate and respected occupations in those times), but mother saved the day by diplomatically pointing out "it would be beneficial for our nation". Little could she imagine that people all over the world would grow to love her daughter's singing.

Yoshiko's singing career (using her given Chinese name Li Xianglan) then commenced on the radio when she was only 13yrs old, on a program called  "New Melodies from Manchuria" (popular 'people's songs'). The show was well-liked because it combined old Chinese folk-songs, Japanese tunes, and 'new' music having a more western influence. In a short time, Li Xianglan became well-known all across Manchuria due to the growing popularity of radio. 

When it came time for her to move from Fengtian to Beijing in 1934 to attend school there, she would return and record music for the radio show - this continued until her film career began in 1938. 

what it was like singing live on the radio:

Her classical voice training gave her (among all of her contemporaries) the highest quality of sound, and an open attitude to the western influences which were finding their way into contemporary Chinese songs. One commentator later in 1943 called the other popular singers almost 'primitive' and 'casual' compared to the 'hard-working, years-of-training' coloratura soprano voice of Yoshiko. 

After it was decided in late 1933 that she would leave her family and go to Peking to study, Yoshiko went to Lyuba's house and found it empty and surrounded by Japanese military police. Everything was boarded-up, the insides were ransacked, and Yoshiko says they "drove her off like a dog". She would only see Lyuba next in 1945 during the Li Xianglan sold-out concert performance in Shanghai.


a photo of Yoshiko with two of her voice teachers, Miura Tamaki and Madame Podresov:
Yoshiko states in her memoir that in addition to Madame Podresov in Fengtian, she also took lessons from Madame Pedrova in Beijing, Vera Mazel in Shanghai, and Miura Tamaki in Tokyo. In fact, she had teachers in every major city (Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, etc) so she was continually improving her voice when traveling.

We can only wonder at what specific music influenced her (they had gramophones and 78 records), but after-all this was the time of the roaring 20's, flapper girls, all that jazz, blues, Fats Waller, Big Bands, etc.   She must have heard many American, French, Russian, etc, hit songs of the day, because Manchuria was a true 'melting-pot' of different races. 


Winds of War
Yamaguchi  was certainly born in turbulent times and place (Manchuria, northern China). The 1920's were called "The Warlord Years" because the country had yet to be unified under one government. In addition to murderous conflict between the Nationalists, Communists, and warlords who controlled various parts of China, there were also the 'imperialist' Concessions owned by major powers in big Chinese cities, and the growing Japanese presence in Manchuria. For more specific information on this period, you may want to read further:



The 'Mukden Incident of 1931' was major in it's historical effect, although the actual effect on the railroad was minor. Evidently, a few Japanese lower-ranking officers caused a small explosion on the tracks of the Manchurian railroad outside Mukden (Shenyang); Japan's militarists seized on the 'provocation' and launched a full-scale military operation which culminated in the 1932 founding of Manchukuo under Japanese control. To get a sense of the scale of Chinese and Japanese military activity in Manchuria, view this British Pathe newsreel. Here is a good short history of the Mukden Incident.

China protested to the League of Nations; they in turn sent the Earl of Lytton to Manchuria to investigate and report on the events. Here he is in person explaining the situation: Earl of Lytton speaking. 

Louise Young (author of "Japan's Total Empire - Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism") makes an interesting point regarding the significance of the September 18th, 1931 Mukden Incident: that it caused a profound shift of the political spectrum in Japan towards the right, with even former pacifists writing poems exhorting the militarist solution.  
[Ed: in our own time we have also seen an event which produced a similar shift of the political spectrum towards the right - the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Whether the 9/11 attacks were also 'manufactured' by an inside power is a question for the ages, and like the Mukden Incident may require a good 50 years to go by before a definitive answer becomes known. Both incidents had a similar effect in that it caused (1) society to assume the mantle of righteousness and (2) stampede in favor of militarism and unending war.] 

Here is an excellent one hour BBC produced video which accurately summarizes the history of Japan's involvement in Manchuria:  BBC video. And here is a silent film of the Lytton Commission visit to Manchuria in 1932: Lord Lytton in Manchuria

"The political and economic consequences of the collapse of produce prices in the Twen­ties and the on­set of the Great De­pres­sion in Japan were marked by an unem­ploy­ment rate of 25 per­cent in 1931, factory idle­ness at 50 percent, exports down by two-thirds, mal­nourish­ment in farming settle­ments, and high tariff barriers in Euro­pean colo­nial markets in East Asia. Using an argu­ment sim­i­lar to the Nazi’s man­tra for Lebens­raum in Eastern Europe, oppor­tu­nistic Jap­anese poli­ti­cians, mili­tary officers, and media out­lets, with popu­lar sup­port (uni­ver­sal male suf­frage was on the hori­zon), looked to main­land China for living space, new areas for agri­cul­tural exploi­ta­tion, new mar­kets, and a national eco­no­mic recovery powered by an ag­gres­sive China policy. 
By 1928 many in Japan felt that Man­churia, a richly endowed pro­vince larger than the state of Texas and lying op­po­site the Japa­nese colony of Korea (since 1910), was the solu­tion out of the eco­no­mic dis­tress felt by 80 mil­lion people living on the Japa­nese home islands. 
In September 1931 Japan seized Man­churia by force after con­tri­ving an inci­dent—the so-called Muk­den Inci­dent, when a 5-foot sec­tion of rail­road owned by Japan’s South Man­chu­ria Rail­way was damaged in an ex­plo­sion. Five months later, on Febru­ary 18, 1932, Japan estab­lished the pup­pet state of Man­chu­kuo (1932–1945), despite Chinese appeals to the League of Nations and to the United States under terms of the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) and the Nine-Power Treaty (1922). 
To create a sem­blance of legiti­macy, the last Em­peror of China, Pu-Yi, was in­vited to be the head of state for Man­chu­kuo. In actuality, Pu-Yi was nothing more than a figure­head; real author­ity rested in the hands of Japa­nese mili­tary offi­cials. Manchu minis­ters served as front men for their Japa­nese vice-minis­ters, who made all decisions. 
Most world powers refused to recog­nize Man­chu­kuo, choosing to ignore Japan’s fait ac­com­pli and un­willing to engage the Japa­nese out­side the halls of diplo­macy. Japa­nese machi­nations in northeast China led to one expansive move after another and ultimately to full-scale war with China in 1937 followed by war with the United States and its colony-holding Allies in the Asia-Pacific region. 

the official American point of view of Manchuria history is explained here: US view of Mukden-incident

The Chinese view of the September 18th, 1931 Incident:

In the Mukden operation alone, some five hundred Chinese lives and two hundred Japanese lives were lost. 
This is the Japanese Army entering Mukden (Shenyang) in 1931:
Due to Father's work with the South Manchuria Railway, the Yamaguchi family would have had firsthand knowledge regarding all these events, and felt pressured by them because father was so involved teaching Chinese and interacting with local Chinese. 
In September 1932 (on a moon-festival night) when Yoshiko was 12 yrs old, Chinese partisans retaliated for the September 1931 incident by setting fires in the great mine and killing about eight Japanese guards and employees. The Japanese garrison responded the next day and overreacted, committing the massacre and obliteration of a whole Chinese village. This became subsequently known as the Pingdingshan (Roundtop Hill) Incident. The League of Nations also became involved with this war-crime, and in 1933 Japan walked out of the League over it. 

At the time, the Chinese resistance forces were called 'bandits' by the Japanese. The Chinese engaged their enemy much like weaker forces always have, by striking quickly at weak points, causing as much damage as possible, and then slipping back into the vast countryside that they knew better than anyone. Today we would call such guerrilla forces "terrorists".

It was in conjunction with the above 1932 incident that Yoshiko witnessed the beating and subsequent death of a Chinese partisan by Japanese soldiers; needless to say, a traumatizing event. The soldiers tied the unfortunate man to a big pine tree in the square where she and her friends used to play every day. When they took his blindfold off, the man seemed to be looking directly at her. She witnessed the interrogation and then saw the rifle butt arc through the air and the blood gush from the man's forehead. She said she had to close her eyes but when she opened them, the scene was seared on her eyelids and in her memory. Before her mother could stop her, she ran over to the bloody spot under the pine tree and burst unto tears while mother consoled her. She recounts how the beautiful green of Fushun became the red color of blood, fire, and eventual war between Japan and China. In the story of Yoshiko's life, this was the symbolic end of her idyllic childhood.

It was also in 1932 that her father was detained by the police for suspected collusion with anti-Japanese (Chinese) elements. It appears he had to leave employment with the South Manchurian Railroad Company over this matter, a serious consequence for any father who is responsible for a large extended family as he was. If he started employment in about 1910, it would have meant leaving the SMR after 22 years of work, at the age of 43.  
This event is revealing of how dangerous a position it was for a family (or anyone) who had tried to follow an idealistic path: by becoming partly Chinese, they became an enemy of both sides in the ultimate chaos of war. 


In her autobiography, Yamaguchi makes an interesting point: that her destiny was fixed by being born in Fushun, the very center of the momentous events which commenced a 15yr period of war between the two countries she loved. 

It is quite clear from her memoir that growing up in Manchuria gave her Manchurian-Chinese sensibilities, and few of the attitudes of a Japan-based upbringing. She states quite candidly many times how difficult it was for her to get along in Japan once she goes there, and how she prefers to "return home" to China. More concerning this later.  


In 1933 the Japanese army entered Peking:

Summary thoughts on the 1920 - 1933 phase of Yamaguchi's life, by John M.
In her memoir, Yoshiko shows us she had a wonderful childhood "blessed with boundless love". How her father Fumio "was a kind man" and provided "such undivided attentiveness to my learning Chinese". It's clear that she was raised by a family possessing a strong egalitarian ethic, a strong work-ethic, and also an understandable patriotism to the country of the parent's birth, Japan. I use the word 'understandable' because it was not a flag-waving 'blind' patriotism that the family had, and it did not change the family's basic ethical foundation, ie, their empathy for the Chinese people.    

However, the idyllic Yamaguchi family setting would be intruded upon by the outside historical forces existing at the time. As the above page makes clear, Japan had been engaged in Manchuria in a big way since the 1905 war with Russia. The scale of this project was as massive as any similar project which the United States has ever been involved with (a good example being the Panama Canal). I suppose this was an early 1900's example of "nation-building", and 'thinking on a grand scale' such as England's India project, or French Indo-China. Speaking as an engineer myself, I don't think such projects deserve the automatic condemnation which they often receive. 

So the Yamaguchi family was part of the Japanese diaspora throughout Asia in the early 20th century, and as Yoshiko says in her memoir, the family was at the very epicenter of historic events leading up to war. The explosion on the tracks at red dot on map was only 25 miles from Fushun: 

Yoshiko also states: in 1931 the provocative Manchurian Incident took place, followed by the founding of the state of Manchukuo in 1932, followed by the 1933 debut of a singer named Li Xianglan on a radio show heard all over Manchuria. And she had already witnessed the bloody brutality of war at the tender age of 12. 

The fates had begun to blow wind and wave at the little boat holding a girl named Yoshiko Yamaguchi. How would she be able to steer clear of rocks and raging torrents?

to be cont'd:


  1. Note to all her fans: CD Japan has come out with 2 more CDs of her music. One is Horichintsairai, which is comprised of her earliest songs in the late 30s. many are unavailable on YouTube or elsewhere and are excellent. The second, Densetsu no Utahime Li Xianglan no Sekai, is a compilation of many of her classics.

  2. reader Wen Zhang has left a new comment on the "Introduction." page:

    "one thing I want to confirm, that in her biography she wrote she was born in 北烟台 [North Yantai, in the suburbs of present-day Shenyang],and then soon moved to FuShun.

    Thank you Wen Zhang!

  3. re: "in this next photo we see Yoshiko on the left, what appears to be a sister in back holding baby, father Fumio holding the youngest baby, and grandfather Hiroshi on the right. Since there may be seven children here, and the youngest (Seiko, on fathers lap) was born in December 1932, we can assume this photo was probably taken in mid-1933:"
    We'd think the photo was taken in 1931 or 1932 before the 5th daughter Seiko was born. Father was holding the baby boy Sadao(approx. 1 year old) and mother(not sister) was holding the 4th daughter.

  4. If mother is in back, there are 6 children "before...Seiko was born". Yoshiko's appearance in these 2 pictures is completely different. The earlier picture shows grandfather with 6 children: how to explain this anomaly?

    Please also see: https://yoshikoyamaguchi.blogspot.com/p/the-mystery-of.html

    If you send your private email address, I will keep it confidential.

  5. Grandfather was holding his grandson. So the 5th daughter(Seiko) was not born and/or not in that photo.