The China Lover
By Ian Buruma
(Penguin Press HC, The, Hardcover, 9781594201943, 400pp.)
Publication Date: September 18, 2008
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A transfixing portrait of a woman and a nation eagerly burying the past to transform the future.
In his enthralling new novel, Ian Buruma uses the life of the starlet Yamaguchi Yoshiko as a lens through which to understand the lure of erotic fantasies in the conquest of nations. The China Lover reveals the catastrophic results when theater and politics blend in a lethal manner.
In her earliest days Ri Koran--a Japanese girl, born in Manchuria, who sang and acted in Japanese and Chinese--was forced to keep her Japanese identity a secret, to become a Manchurian singer and movie star playing Chinese beauties who fell in love with brave Japanese empire builders. In U.S.-occupied Tokyo, she returned to the screen as Yamaguchi Yoshiko, starring in films approved by American censors and designed to promote American-style democracy.
Before long, she decided to reinvent herself yet again by moving to the United States. Three months after Japan and the United States signed a peace treaty in San Francisco, Yamaguchi rededicated herself to pursuing a career in American movies, this time as Shirley Yamaguchi, playing exotic Japanese beauties falling in love with American soldiers. But she was not just the subject of male fantasies on the cinema screen. She married the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who wanted her to be the perfect traditional Japanese woman. When her many roles, in life and in film, proved impossible to reconcile, Shirley left Noguchi, retired as an actress, and married a promising young Japanese diplomat.
At the outset of the 1970's, the life of Yamaguchi Yoshiko took another dramatic turn. As host of a Japanese television show for housewives, Yoshiko accepted an assignment in the Middle East, where she met Yassir Arafat and a prominent Palestinian terrorist. A member of her crew, affiliated with the Japanese Red Army, would return to commit a terrible crime while Yoshiko became a founding member of the Japanese- Palestinian Friendship Association, and ended her career as a politician in the right-wing ruling party of Japan.
In Buruma's reimagining of the life of Yamaguchi Yoshiko, a Japanese torn among patriotism for her parents' homeland, wordly ambition, and sympathy for the Chinese, she would reflect almost exactly the twists and turns in the history of modern Japan.
Ian Buruma is currently Luce Professor at Bard College. His previous books include God's Dust, Behind the Mask, The Missionary & The Libertine, Playing the Game, The Wages of Guilt, Anglomania, and Bad Elements. He writes frequently for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and the Financial Times.