Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy

Title:                      Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy

Author:                  Phyllis Birnbaum

Birnbaum, Phyllis (2015). Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, The Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army: New York: Columbia University Press

LCCN:    2014021788

DS777.5195.K39 B57 2015

Scope and content

  • “Kawashima Yoshiko (1906-1948) was an enigmatic Manchu princess whose life mirrored in many ways Japanese-Chinese relations in the first half of the 20th century. She was born into the Qing dynasty in China–the fourteenth daughter Prince Su–but grew up in Japan, after being given up for adoption to promote her father’s political causes. Her fame was caught up with the fate of the puppet state set up by the Japanese in Manchuria during the 1930s (Manchukuo). She was a supporter of Manchukuo and served as a spy for the Japanese but also worked to restore the Manchu dynasty. She played a central role in the Shanghai Incident, which the Japanese Army used as an excuse to expand their war in and against China, culminating in the notorious Nanjing Massacre, but she also stuffed the empress into the trunk of her car and transported her in secret to a coronation in Manchuria. The Japanese set her up as the perfect symbol of amity between the two nations. She contested gender roles by wearing male military attire and a short, mannish haircut. In this book, Birnbaum tells Yoshiko’s life story, culminating with her execution in 1948 by Chiang Kai-shek. She highlights the way in which Yoshiko’s Chinese birth and Japanese upbringing created a unique personality, and how she was viewed differently in the two countries”–Provided by publisher.


  • Main characters — Chronology — A note on the text — Born to chaos — Little sister — Royalty in exile — Continental adventurer — A new life in Japan — Manchu prince, Japanese wife — School days — The beauty in men’s clothing — Extreme measures — Repercussions — On her own — Poisonous devil’s brew — Advance into Manchuria — An emperor in flux — The reluctant empress — Powerful connections — Woman of influence — A growing awareness — Commander Jin — Starting over in Manchukuo — In the bright light — Wild child — A daughter looks back — China nights — Emergency help — An old love — Adrift in Fukuoka — Hopeful to the end — Narrow escapes — Postwar justice — Go with a smile.


Date Posted:      December 9, 2016

Reviewed by Jamie Fisher[1]

Yoshiko Kawashima was, at first glance, a winning figure. Described by The New York Times in 1933 as “a picturesque film-drama figure, half tomboy, half heroine,”[2] she was often called the “Joan of Arc of the Manchus.” It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. Riding to school on horseback, Kawashima imagined herself as a new Joan, restoring her people to their rightful glory.

She was born in China in 1907, the daughter of a Manchu prince with 38 children and frustrated dreams of reviving the Qing dynasty. As a reward to one of his Japanese allies, Naniwa Kawashima, Prince Su sent him a child—Aisin Gioro Xianyu, now renamed Yoshiko—Kawashima, who was likely just 8 years old when she left for Japan.

Yoshiko’s adoptive father encouraged her warrior bravado and her tendency toward exaggeration. During the Boxer Rebellion, he claimed to have single-handedly rescued the imperial family. But Naniwa was also short-tempered, known for running after his daughter with a shovel. And she was subjected to a hellish series of suitors, drawn from the ultranationalists who surrounded him. At last Yoshiko rebelled, cutting off her hair. “I decided to cease being a woman forever,” she announced. As Phyllis Birnbaum reports in Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy, it was the first of many attempts to shape her own image, and her fate.

In 1931, Yoshiko was hired by the Japanese Kwantung Army, which was intent on creating a Manchurian “paradise of benevolent government,” the puppet state of Manchukuo. “The job description,” Birnbaum writes, “was hazy.” Yoshiko may have driven cross-country with Empress Wanrong stowed in the trunk of her car. She may have incited the Shanghai Incident of 1932, led troops at the disastrous Battle of Rehe and flown into Manchukuo to confront a rebellious warlord and free his captives.

She may have, but probably didn’t. Yoshiko’s wartime experiences were filtered through the work of the Japanese novelist Shofu Muramatsu, who “improved” his best-selling 1933 portrait of her, The Beauty in Men’s Clothing, with a few undercover assignments. Muramatsu called the result a collaboration. Later, the Nationalist government would accuse Yoshiko of the same crime.

“My whole life has been formed by false gossip about me,” her prison confession begins, “and I will die because of false gossip against me.” But Yoshiko herself seized every opportunity for aggrandizement. In a typical encounter, she described herself as the last emperor’s daughter, dressed in drag to outsmart assassins. Her parents were killed, her brothers gruesomely dispatched. She was a pilot, an expert shot, a painter, a poet. Her listener believed, and transcribed, every word.

“This star-struck remembrance,” Birnbaum writes, “must bring despair to the heart of any biographer.” Birnbaum’s previous work has featured flamboyant, self-made characters—one of her ­subjects, the painter Foujita, wrestled movingly with his Eastern and Western identities—but never someone whose life was so strongly a product of her own imagination. Still, reality eventually made inroads. By the late 1930s, disillusioned with Manchukuo and diminished by opium addiction, Yoshiko began to seem less the Eastern Joan of Arc than the Manchurian Lindsay Lohan. In the end, her closest confidants were four pet monkeys.

Birnbaum’s book closes with the sad poetic justice of Yoshiko’s trial, when the Nationalist government, relying on films, novels and Yoshiko’s own hyperbolic memoirs, sentenced her to execution. Yoshiko was, Birnbaum notes, “astonished that fiction would pass for evidence.”

So Yoshiko Kawashima died, at last taken seriously. Or she didn’t. In Birnbaum’s biography, which grasps at but never quite captures Yoshiko’s spirit, her subject emerges as a woman supremely in command of her own fiction, even to the last. On March 25, 1948, Yoshiko was either executed or replaced by a body double and smuggled off to a life in hiding. She’ll always be the one who got away.

[1] Jamie Fisher, in The New York Times, Sunday Book Review (May 1, 2015), downloaded December 9, 2016. Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer and Chinese-English translator. Her work has appeared in Cleaver magazine. A version of this review appears in print on May 3, 2015, on page BR18 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Drag Princess”

[2] “’Manchukuo Joan of Arc’ Now Acclaimed In Japan; Young Woman, Half Chinese, Praised for Aiding the Army Through Her Daring Exploits as a Spy,” The New York Times (September 17, 1933)

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