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China's wartime history still haunts popular theme song.

TOKYO, Aug. 13 Kyodo

To karaoke crooners in Japan, the Chinese song "Yelaixiang" has been a favorite among elderly singers nostalgic for a bygone era.

More recently, another Japanese oldie composed and written against the backdrop of 1940s China is making a comeback in Japan's karaoke bars. This time, even young people are joining the act.

"Soshu Yakyoku" (Suzhou Nocturne), composed by Ryoichi Hattori with lyrics written by poet Yaso Saijo, was used as a soundtrack for a TV commercial this spring advertising Chinese oolong tea. Pop singer Ryo Asuka of the pop group "Chage and Asuka" even put the song on a solo album 10 years ago.

Both songs were originally made popular by Yoshiko Yamaguchi, the China-born Japanese actress who made her name in pre-World War II China under her Chinese stage name Li Xianglan.

Yet in today's China, the two songs receive very different treatment.

The Chinese authorities allow "Yelaixiang" to be performed in public. "Suzhou," however, is banned.

Suzhou is the theme song of a sequel of the popular 1940 movie "Xina no Yoru" (China's Night). The song's lyrics depict the separation of two lovers -- a Japanese sailor and a Chinese female guerrilla fighting against Japanese invaders.

Suzhou's lyrics, set against the scenic eastern Chinese city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, are anything but propaganda or militaristic. Nonetheless, Katsuhisa Hattori, 62, the eldest son of composer Ryoichi Hattori, says China's censors are unforgiving to this day.

"Suzhou was the only song banned by the Chinese authorities during our performance in Beijing" in 1993, recalls Katsuhisa Hattori. The song was also banned in a separate performance in Shanghai in 1997.

The uncompromising stand may reflect the image the Japanese military projected the young Yamaguchi "as a Chinese woman with a sweet voice" while she was a singer-actress in China.

The daughter of a senior Japanese executive at the Japanese-owned Southern Manchurian Railway, Yamaguchi was born in northeastern China city of Fushun in 1920 and grew up in China.

In 1937, she debuted as an actress in what was then Manchuria under her Chinese name. She took a leading role in the movie "Xina no Yoru," a joint production between Japan and the then Japan-occupied Manchuria, and sang the title song.

As Li Xianglan, Yamaguchi captivated a generation of young Japanese. One big fan was Sadao Ito, 75, a former intelligence officer of the Imperial Japanese Army who now lives in Tokyo.

Ito recalls being smitten by Yamaguchi when he was in his senior year of primary school. His infatuation made him volunteer to go to China as a soldier.

"It never occurred to me that Li Xianglan was Japanese, and I found it out only after I arrived in China," Ito says.

Japan and China were at war at the time. Yamaguchi was a fledging star under the wings of the Japanese-owned Manchuria Cinema Association. She starred in a series of other romance movies that portrayed the human side of the vast Japanese community in China.

That became a problem following Japan's surrender in 1945.

Yamaguchi was arrested and put on trial at a military tribunal in Shanghai. The charge was treason. Branded as a traitor, Yamaguchi faced the death sentence unless she could prove she was Japanese and not a Chinese citizen.

To her relief, a childhood friend, the daughter of a Russian Jew, who was close to the Yamaguchi family, brought Yamaguchi's family register from Yamaguchi's parents who were then living in Beijing. The favor saved Yamaguchi's life.

In February 1946, the court found her not guilty apparently because she was a Japanese national to whom the Chinese criminal law was not applied.

"I owed my life to this friend of mine. She really saved my life," recalls Yamaguchi, now 79, who lives in Tokyo.

After the war, Yamaguchi returned to Japan. After a movie and TV career, she went on to become a member of Japan's House of Councillors, serving three terms.

In her 1993 biography, "Senso to Heiwa to Uta" (War, Peace and Songs), Yamaguchi recalls her own travails in China, including her trial in Shanghai.

"After declaring that I was not guilty, the presiding judge, clad in military uniform, said: Even though you are not guilty, you must still bear a moral responsibility. This court regrets that you played a role in movies like 'Xina no Yoru' under the name of Li Xianglan."
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Publication:Asian Economic News
Date:Aug 16, 1999
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