Meet the cross-dressing Chinese princess who became a Japanese spy

Author Phyllis Birnbaum on the remarkable life of China’s ‘Joan of Arc,’ Kawashima Yoshiko

Kawashima Yoshiko (left) and her adoptive father, Kawashima Naniwa (Courtesy Phyllis Birnbaum)

In December of 1925, the Manchurian princess Kawashima Yoshiko appeared in public in Japan wearing a boy’s university uniform, her hair completely shorn. “I was born with what the doctors call a tendency towards the third sex,” she said in a statement to the Japanese press. “And so I cannot pursue an ordinary woman’s goals in life.”

A few years later, this cross-dressing princess would become a pivotal figurehead of the Japanese military as it laid its bloody claim to China. Yoshiko was the fourteenth daughter of a Manchurian prince, who held dogged but ultimately futile hopes of reviving the Qing Dynasty. When she was a young girl, Yoshiko’s father sent her to live with a childless Japanese ally. Their relationship was a fraught one — Yoshiko accused her adoptive father of sexually abusing her — but under his tutelage, Yoshiko came to see herself as the savior of the Manchus, who had been persecuted after the fall of the Qing. And so Yoshiko aligned herself with the Japanese government, which she perceived as allies of her family and her people.

In Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy, novelist and biographer Phyllis Birnbaum presents a riveting account of Yoshiko’s life and controversial legacy. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, stories — some of them quite dubious — proliferated about Yoshiko’s crusading exploits as a spy and a commander for the Japanese army. She became an international sensation, and was often referred to as “Joan of Arc of the Manchus.” It was a designation that Yoshiko wholeheartedly embraced, but her self-serving bravado proved perilous: after the war, Yoshiko was executed as a traitor to China because of her involvement with the Japanese.

Women in the World spoke to Birnbaum about Yoshiko’s gender identity, her role in the conflict between Japan and China, and the tragedy of her short, sensational life.

Women in the World: In early adulthood, Kawashima Yoshiko started dressing like a man and vocalized her desire to live as one. Do you think that she aimed to transcend limitations placed on women, or was she making a genuine expression of gender identity?

PB: She claimed both. She said she was trying to dress as a man to do things women couldn’t do. She says that quite clearly at one point. At the same time, her gender identity was something that was a problem to her, I think. From a very early age, she identified as a man. She used male [style of] Japanese and behaved in a way that proper young ladies of her era did not do. While she sometimes flaunted her love affairs with men, there are times when she appeared in public dressed in formal men’s clothing and said, “This is my wife,” pointing to her [female] assistant. So I think that in another age, she would have been able to express what she really felt. I think she had tremendous confusion about her sexual identity.

WITW: In what ways do the events of Yoshiko’s life reflect the WWII-era conflict between China and Japan?

PB: She’s really a perfect way of understanding it, because she was a Manchu princess. That means that she was a member of the last royal family of China. And when they got deposed, her family — her father in particular — wanted to revive the monarchy. He sent Yoshiko to Japan, to a man who was also plotting on behalf of Japan to occupy or set up some sphere of influence in Manchuria. The Japanese had long wanted to take over Manchuria and use it as a focus to take over the rest of China. So Yoshiko is a very good way of seeing how Japan and China were in conflict in that period over territorial rights in China. She went on to play a prominent role in the Japanese takeover of Manchuria. They used her as a public relations figure, and she did perhaps do some kind of spying for them. So she was really in the thick of it, though she wasn’t influential or a policy maker.

WITW: Broadly speaking, how should we understand the role that Yoshiko played in the war?

PB: There were certain things I believe she did take part in. For example, in 1932, there was the Shanghai Incident. Japan had interest not only in being influential in North East China, they also wanted to spread out to other parts of China, and Shanghai was one of their big goals. And there were Japanese already living in China, working there. The Japanese tried to foment rebellion in Shanghai, and give themselves an excuse to invade Shanghai and take it over. So one day, there were some Japanese monks walking down the street in Shanghai and some thugs—supposedly these people were paid by Yoshiko—attacked them. This gave the Japanese an excuse to invade Shanghai because, after all, some of their citizens had been hurt. So Yoshiko did play that kind of role, of a provocateur.

There are other incidents which are perhaps not as easy to pin down. For example, when the Japanese were trying to establish a state in Manchuria, they sent the last emperor to North China and set him up as a puppet ruler. They want his wife to join him, and she resisted. So it is said that Yoshiko convinced her to go, and stuffed her and her dog in a car trunk. Together, they went up to Manchuria, where this poor woman became the empress of the new Japanese state in Manchuria. Now whether Yoshiko did that, I think, is less clear.

WITW: Depending on who you’re talking to, Yoshiko was either a victim of political machinations, or an opportunistic participant in Japanese war crimes. In your opinion, which characterization is closer to the truth?

PB: I think she’s both. There were people whose best interest was served by making her into a person who did all kinds of things to spy for Japan, [such as] the Japanese military and the Japanese government. Remember, she was a Manchu princess and she was notorious for many reasons, and so the Japanese could say, “Look, this Japanese princess is on our side.” They made up all kinds of stories about her. They wanted people to believe that they were not just going into China to rape, and to kill millions of people. No, they were trying to bring light and goodness to the region, and she was a good person for them to use as a figurehead. At the same time, she herself liked publicity. She took up all these people’s opinions of her, and fantasies about her, and promoted them herself.

Author Phyllis Birnbaum

Author Phyllis Birnbaum

WITW: Yoshiko has attained a somewhat mythical status, and many of the stories surrounding her exploits may be untrue. While you were researching this book, how did you go about sorting fact from fiction?

PB: I understood right away that there were some things that were factual and some things that were made up by her, or made up by the Japanese military, who wanted to promote her success. But what I was really aiming for was a kind of dreamlike situation. In a dream, certain things are factual, then there are certain things that are fantasy. But I think you can get the general idea of what she was like from reading my book.

WITW: There are some pretty great anecdotes in the book about Yoshiko. If you had to pick one that is most illustrative of her larger-than-life personality, which would it be?

PB: I suppose the one where I describe how she was leading a rag-tag band of men, who were kind of at the edges of society, into battle. There’s a description by a Japanese journalist of the night when they pledged their fealty to her. You have all these fighters who have lost fingers, they’ve got scars, they are dressed in rags, and they’re all bowing and anointing her their leader. I think that captures her larger-than-life quality. Here’s a terrible war going on, and close to a battle zone, this woman is being anointed a commander-in-chief. I think at the end of it, if I remember correctly, she goes off with the journalist to a dance hall.

WITW: I found it telling that Yoshiko once claimed she would kill herself rather than marry a certain suitor, and then shot herself in the chest to prove it.

PB: [Laughs] But her situation is so sad. She was taken from her family at an age when she knew what was happening to her — she was seven or eight. And the family she grew up in was horrible. The adoptive father was not a great father figure, and here she was, left as a kind of pawn there, without any thought to what effect it would have on her. So yes, she was getting herself into all kinds of strange episodes. But I always felt sorry for her.

WITW: In spite of her bravado, you get the sense that she was in over her head.

PB: She wasn’t a great policy maker. She had this idea that she alone was going to restore the Manchu dynasty. That kind of indoctrination she had received from her adoptive father. But she was kind of a lost soul by the end because the Japanese had no more use of her.

WITW: And there’s a sad sort of irony to the end of Yoshiko’s life. Many of the stories she encouraged about herself were used as evidence in the trial that led to her execution.

PB: Oh, yes. There was a novel written about her life, [in which] she was just everything: she was courageous, and beautiful, and glamorous, and she was also a savior of her people. So much of it was false, and then the court used that as evidence. She couldn’t believe that they would do so, but after all, she herself had gone on publicity tours, saying that fictional heroine was herself.

WITW: As you were researching this book, what did you learn about Yoshiko that surprised you the most?

PB: I met her grand niece who lives now in Japan, and her grand niece suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution. As I read more after meeting her niece, I found out that many members of Yoshiko’s family were killed or spent many, many years in prison simply because they were her relatives. I think meeting that grand-niece in person in Japan made me realize how the conflict continues. She was a person who showed that it continued for two generations, all the trouble Yoshiko had caused.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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