Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army (Asia Perspectives: History, Society, and Culture) - Phyllis Birnbaum


Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a fair review.


When I requested this book from Netgalley, I thought that I hadn’t heard of Kawashima Yoshiko before. In this, I was wrong, as the book reminded me. I had seen her as a character in the movie The Last Emperor. She is the pilot.


This biography is far more detailed than that brief character.


Kaswashima Yoshiko was a Manchu princess who was given by her father to a Japanese man who had aided the royal family. She returned to China during and after World War II, and, this is isn’t really a spoiler, was shot by the Chinese government.


            Birnbaum’s book starts with Kawashima’s death and then the chapters alternate between remembrances and myth, and Kawashima’s life as shown by proven facts. It makes for an engrossing read, even if at the end of the book Kawashima Yoshiko still feels as elusive as the character in the movie.


It seems as if this is not Birnbaum’s fault, for Kawashima had a tendency to embellish (if not outright lie) about some of her experiences. Additionally, Birnbaum is sorting though what appears to be self serving history on both the Japanese and Chinese sides. It is to Birnbaum’s credit that while she does deal with the trauma and pain of Kawashima’s life, she doesn’t let her sympathy for her subject overwhelm the narrative or her judgment. Sympathetic the book is, but Birnbaum does not paint Kaswashima as a victim or at least as solely as a victim. At times, it seems as Birnbaum finds her subject as annoying as those who actually knew the woman.


It is difficult if not impossible to psycho analyze a dead person, and Birnbaum does stay away from the temptation to do so. Therefore when she discusses the possible sexual abuse of Kawashima at the hands of her adopted father/guardian, Birnbaum cannot and does not provide a definition answer. Birnbaum is on surer ground when discussing and examining how being a product of two cultures, distrustful if not always downright antagonistic too each other, affected Kawashima, resulting in her dissatisfaction of both and an admitted feeling of not quite belonging (another possible reason for the cross dressing, one does have to wonder).


The inclusion of Hiro Saga, a Japanese woman who married the brother of the Chinese Emperor, is both a positive and a negative to the book. It provides balance by showing a woman whose circumstances is alike but slightly different from Kawashima’s. It allows the reader to place Kawashima’s experiences in a boarder and more cultural light. It also, however, at times, feels a bit like padding. Interesting padding, though one wonders why Hiro Saga simply doesn’t get her own book. (Don’t worry, she does. She at least wrote and published her autobiography).


The other flaw, if flaw is the right word, is at times a more than passing knowledge of the battles fought as Japan attacked China would have been helpful. My understanding and knowledge of the Pacific Theatre, in particular the battles on mainland China, are rather limited, a bit more detail about certain battles and maneuvers would have been appreciated. That said, it doesn’t limit the understanding of the text and sparks curiosity about the subject matter. Not a bad thing.


Hopefully Birnbaum’s book will make the story of Kawashima more widely known in the West as well as the East.