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Three men and a singer

The China Lover, by Ian Buruma

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

The China Lover Ian Buruma

Atlantic Books, pp.392, 15.99

Ian Buruma’s latest book, The China Lover, is a fictionalised take on themes previously examined in his impressive body of non-fictional work. His views on Japan, its history, films and underworld as well as the role of the outsider, the relationship between East and West and much more are all unpacked here as we follow the life of the teenage singer and actress, Yoshiko Yamaguchi.

She takes us on a tour of Manchuria and Shanghai in the 1930s, Japan during the American Occupation and, finally, Lebanon in the 1970s. These are periods and places that Buruma knows intimately and writes about with confidence.


Yamaguchi’s story is told from the perspective of three men who encounter her at different periods of her life. None of these men is important either to history or even Yamaguchi. They are social misfits with a passion for film. Two work in propaganda units, one for the Japanese military, and the other for the American Army of Occupation. The third makes documentaries for Japanese housewives.

But for the second world war they would, no doubt, have remained in their small towns in Ohio and Japan enjoying sexual fantasies in the back row of their local cinema. History gives them an out. The war allows them to escape and find themselves — for the most part through film and sex.

Sato Kenkichi, intoxicated by the women of Beirut, after which ‘I was utterly disgusted with the country of my birth’, joins the Japanese Red Army. Sidney Vanoven remarks, ‘In Ohio I could be arrested for what I like to do. In Tokyo, I am free to do as I please.’

All are in awe of Yamaguchi and her talent. She is almost an emblematic figure whose ‘purity,’ ‘sincerity’ and ‘wish to do good’ they strive to protect while nonetheless exploiting. All three are equally fascinated by film’s power to re-invent history as exemplified by Yamaguchi herself in her endless incarnations.

As a character Yamaguchi fails to convince. As a commentator on the naivety of the Japanese she is very funny. A female Pangloss, she sees the best in everything and everybody. We last glimpse her lunching with Idi Amin. She describes the dictator in a letter to Sato Kenkichi, in a Lebanese jail for a terrorist atrocity, as ‘a sweet black bear’. When Amin proceeds to crunch his chicken whole she muses, ‘I guess that’s why he had such dazzling white teeth’. She then goes on to assert that despite the difference in table manners, ‘our hearts are one …We Japanese should really study African cultures more diligently’.

Buruma excels at mixing fact with fiction. The historical characters are a delight, whether Emperor Pu Yi’s solidly watching Charlie Chaplin movies without a smile, Japanese rent boys stroking Truman Capote’s light blond hair ‘as though he were a Siamese cat’ or Fellatio Yoko, formerly a soldier on the Burma front, now a drag queen picking up truck drivers in Tokyo’s ruins. Before performing her star turn, she always removed her dentures. ‘More better’ she assured Sidney Vanoven. It is these touches that steal the show. 


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