Asia Life

Review: Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy

A new book explores the fascinating tale of a cross-dressing Japanese spy in wartime China.

Review: Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy
Credit: Asahi Shinbun-Bungei Shunyū

Divisive figures often make the most compelling biographical subjects; and Kawashima Yoshiko is no exception. During her life and in death opinions have varied markedly. Loathed by the Chinese as a traitor, extolled by the Japanese for her talents as a spy, more recently she has even become a heroine to the LGBT community.

In Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own ArmyPhyllis Birnbaum provides a measured assessment of the fascinating rise and fall of this erratic, narcissistic, cross-dressing, bisexual princess.

Born in 1907 as Aisin Gioro Xianyu, Kawashima Yoshiko was the 14th daughter of Prince Su of the Qing imperial family. Soon after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, she was unwillingly sent to Japan to be adopted by family friend Kawashima Naniwa.

Her formative teenage years were spent in Matsumoto being educated in Japanese language and culture. It was not the happiest of upbringings. An attempted suicide and sexual assault by her new father are noted as potentially life-defining events but are hard to verify. Whatever the root cause of her discontent, in 1925 she shaved her head and started wearing men’s clothes.

In 1927 she married a Mongolian prince in a politically convenient union that quickly failed and Yoshiko soon travelled to China to pursue her dream of a honorable return to power for the Qing dynasty, beginning with Manchuria and Outer Mongolia.

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With Japan increasingly active in China she soon found herself a raison d’etre: a spy in the service of the Japanese. Several incidents define her status as a spy; all are shrouded in mystery.

First, in her role as a sexually voracious, manipulative, and well-connected socialite living it up in the cocktail bars of Shanghai, she charmed Chinese officials into revealing useful information for the Japanese. Second, her daring part in spiriting the reluctant, opium-addicted Empress Wanrong out of her benign imprisonment in Beijing to be with the Emperor Puyi (the “Last Emperor”) in Lushun in order to legitimise the new Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchukuo. Third, in 1932 she took part in a plot (originated by her new lover Tanaka, an officer in the Kwantung Army) to stir up a violent backlash against the Japanese in Shanghai, which paved the way for an aggressive Japanese intervention.

Later, her military adventures as Commander Jin Bihui also become the stuff of legend—tales of Yoshiko riding into battle as part of the Kwantung Army to defeat the Chinese rebels in Manchuria were splashed all over the papers and gossip magazines of the day.

Describing Yoshiko’s achievements in battle as “minor or nonexistent,” Birnbaum argues that she and other contemporaries most likely exaggerated the significance of her role and influence as a spy and a fighter. However, what is reasonably clear is that by various subterfuge means she passed on Chinese secrets to the Japanese, fomented anti-Japanese feeling in Shanghai, and fought in the battle against Chinese insurgents in Manchukuo—thereby enabling Japan to cement its pre-war foothold in the north of China.

Later on it clicks with Yoshiko and indeed with the deposed Emperor that the Japanese have ulterior motives: lebensraum for their geographically-stressed population and the use of Manchukuo as a buffer against Soviet Union aggression. When she starts to publicly criticize the terrible effects of the Japanese occupation and colonisation on the native Manchurian people (in a rare moment of wider awareness and solidarity), she becomes persona non grata and is lucky to escape an assassination plot.

Her star now descending, Yoshiko moves back to Tianjin (near Beijing) where she becomes a restaurant owner. But trouble finds her again, this time with near fatal results. At the end of the war she is captured by the victorious Chinese and put on trial for treason, with a capital verdict a foregone conclusion.

Until the end, Yoshiko liked to think of herself as a sacrificial lamb—a Joan of Arc to her noble cause. Instead, many will conclude that she was a self-deluded elitist hopelessly on the wrong side of history.

Despite being the subject of novels, films, plays and even video games, the story of Yoshiko beyond the salacious aspects of her life is less well known in the West. In a series of short chapters, Japanese expert Birnbaum brings both her life and myth to an English-speaking or Western audience. She skilfully weaves her way through the complex political situation in pre-war China and gives an evocative account of the chaos of multinational Shanghai. Sensibly, the author keeps her controversial subject at arms length, steers clear of concurring with sensationalist claims about her exploits, and expresses a balanced take on most aspects of Yoshiko’s life.

In some ways, this is an unconventional biography: one chapter compares her life to that of Sag Hiro, a Japanese woman brought up in China and married to the Emperor’s brother. Also, there is a brief outline of the life of Yoshiko’s real father, who rarely features elsewhere. Yoshiko herself is not mentioned in either chapter. Further, the chronological narrative is punctuated by the biographer’s interviews with surviving relatives and others prominent in Yoshiko’s life. While interesting, these chapters feel like separate academic essays or history magazine articles rather than elements of a cohesive biography.

Although it would be hard to argue that she had a major influence over the key events of her time, Kawashima Yoshiko is a superb subject for biography and should interest all lovers of Asian history. And despite living her life in the public and media glare her essential mysteriousness remains—even in death. Did the Chinese Nationalist government execute her (as Kim Bai Fai) in 1948 or, as some would have it, did she escape and live out her last days quiet obscurity? Birnbaum concludes that the latter outcome is questionable, to say the least. Assuming she was indeed executed, her memoirs reveal a wry acceptance of her ultimate fate, despite her life aims lying in tatters.

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The sheer wealth of material—autobiographies, Yoshiko’s letters, interviews, press reports, sensationalist magazine articles and official documents—with which to write a biography to some extent serves to cloud rather than illuminate the life of Yoshiko Kawashima. Much like her futile efforts to restore the Qing dynasty in China, any attempt to firmly pin down her real life story and true character seems destined to fail.

Stephen Joyce is a writer in Singapore. This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. It is republished with kind permission.