Born in Manchuria in 1920, Yoshiko Yamaguchi was a beautiful and talented soprano. Under her adopted name, Ri Koran, she became an actress for the Manchuria Motion Picture Association, a propaganda machine for the Japanese military government. Her most famous picture was China Nights, a love story which immortalised her in Japan. Her fortunes changed when, after Japan’s surrender and withdrawal from China, she faced trial and the possibility of execution as a traitor. She was forced to reveal her Japanese nationality and move to Japan. Though often ambivalent about her profession, she starred in many more films and went on to seek fame in Hollywood and on Broadway, using the name Shirley Yamaguchi (inspired by Shirley Temple). Later she pursued, briefly, a career as a television journalist and then as a politician.
In this novel by Ian Buruma, author of many non-fiction books on East Asia and Japanese society, Yamaguchi becomes a personification of Japan’s stormy journey through the mid-twentieth century. The novel spans roughly five decades, from the Japanese occupation of China and Japan’s surrender after the Second World War to