SOME AMONG HER CONTEMPORARIES called her an Eastern Mata Hari, thereby identifying her as a seductive and exotic spy. Others used the appellation “Joan of Arc of the Orient,” gesturing toward her role as a patriotic heroine. Her admirers termed her a princess, based on her family connection to China’s last emperors. She was born Aisin Gioro Xianyu, the 14th daughter of an aristocratic Manchu family several years before the fall of the Qing, China’s last dynasty, in 1912. Given to a Japanese adventurer taken with the cause of Manchu restoration and raised by him in Japan from early childhood, she became Kawashima Yoshiko, the darling of Japan’s early wartime media. Her antics in male attire, her association with powerful and wealthy lovers, her dramatic public statements, her rumored involvement in military operations in Manchuria (under the nom de guerre Commander Jin), and her aristocratic heritage all contributed to her celebrity and notoriety in 1930s Shanghai, Tokyo, Harbin (Manchuria), and beyond. The subject of a novel and numerous articles in her own lifetime, she has subsequently featured in film, fiction, and biography in multiple languages. Executed by the government of the Republic of China for treason in 1948, she remains an object of fascination, nostalgia, scorn, pity, or condemnation, depending, it seems, on the nationality of the beholder.

Relatively unknown in the West — other than for Maggie Han’s portrayal of her in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 epic The Last Emperor as Eastern Jewel, the tough talking, toe-sucking imperial relation — she remains a notorious traitor in China, and a relatively sympathetic site of war memory for some in Japan. Indeed, her fractured image reflects tensions over historical memory within and between the two countries, revealing much about conflicted regional politics at present, as the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches. Sexually loose and politically compromised, Yoshiko embodies the antithesis of the virtuous female victim of Japanese atrocities familiar from Chinese resistance fiction of the 1930s and 1940s and from patriotic programs broadcast incessantly in more recent years. She is in this regard perfectly suited to the role of Hanjian or traitor to the Han (Chinese) people — the historical villain against which nationalist virtue might today be measured. By contrast, Japanese readers of wartime novels and propaganda through recent consumers of postwar films and fiction and commemorative sites register her as the (almost Japanese) victim of sexual violence, evoking the pathos of those who (innocently and collectively) suffered tumultuous times. She thus offers a fascinating case study of the intersections of gender, sexuality, celebrity, and national identity from World War II through the present.

Phyllis Birnbaum’s resolutely earnest new biography promises to reveal the true story of Yoshiko Kawashima, the “cross-dressing spy who commanded her own army.” Birnbaum asks who (and, perhaps more significantly, what) Yoshiko was — doggedly pursuing the uncooperative facts of an elusive life. Categories and labels occupy center stage: was Yoshiko Chinese or Japanese? Transgender or just fond of male attire? Lesbian or straight? Agent or victim? Glamorous spy or abject addict? Unfortunately, the figure at the heart of the story does not lend herself to easy categorization. Questions about her national identity and sexuality, of urgent concern in today’s world, defy ready answers based on the available evidence. In her own time, Yoshiko was a sensation, a figure, a figment. Her own words and deeds evade, exaggerate, mislead. Her biographer seeks to pull truth and facts and linear narrative from a fog of celebrity, propaganda, and blatantly self-interested informants, including Yoshiko herself, the journalists who exoticized or domesticated her, her ambivalent and unforgiving relatives, and her ex-lovers. The result is an uneven account padded with stretched comparisons and inconclusive digressions, which manages to be both frustratingly tentative and exceedingly speculative. In the end, the reader is left with the author’s unresolved questions — and a nagging sense that this potentially compelling story might be better served by another approach or a different set of questions.

Birnbaum begins with the princess spy’s execution in 1948, weighing whether the woman shot on that day was the infamous Yoshiko or an unlucky substitute. She considers a range of evidence, including rumors that her elusive biographical subject had “set up a secret life in a remote region” or been spotted “not so long ago climbing trees” in Changchun, China. Here and elsewhere, Birnbaum gives the impression of leaving no stone unturned, no surviving acquaintance unencountered, no unsubstantiated claim uninvestigated. She is, throughout, admirably honest about the shortcomings of her sources, openly weighing their limitations and acknowledging their biases. At the same time, her narrative is built on the unstable foundations of these admittedly flawed sources. Phrases like “probably more or less accurate,” “probably might have,” “some evidence suggests,” and “if in fact,” cast doubt upon a narrative grounded in fiction, film, the reminiscences of jilted lovers, frustrated partners, irritated relatives, and a biographical subject prone to flights of narcissistic exaggeration. Indeed, they cast doubt on the viability of any conventional biography of so elusive a personality.

Birnbaum traces Yoshiko’s life story from birth in an aristocratic Manchu household in Beijing to her early childhood in the Japanese concession of Lushun, and then to her adolescence in the household of the Japanese adventurer Kawashima Naniwa in Matsumoto, Japan. For an account of Yoshiko’s early life, she relies heavily on Muramatsu Shōfū’s novel The Beauty in Men’s Clothing, written in the 1930s at the suggestion of Yoshiko’s then lover, the Japanese militarist Tanaka Ryūkichi. Muramatsu’s novel intimates that the protagonist, a close double of Yoshiko, was raped as a teenager by her adoptive father. The novel is, according to Birnbaum, the main source for this information, which has been taken as fact, and which appears as a formative episode in most subsequent accounts of Yoshiko’s life. Birnbaum offers various competing views: partisans of Naniwa who say that he could not possibly have raped his adoptive daughter; Yoshiko’s relatives who speculate that Naniwa almost certainly did; the irreverent grandson of Muramatsu Shōfū, who thinks his grandfather got the story right — and right from Yoshiko herself.

In 1925, Yoshiko had most of her hair cut off and adopted men’s clothing and a male mode of speaking. This was covered in the national media in Japan as a fascinating and newsworthy event. Birnbaum does not ask why, even as she quotes extensively from the articles and from Yoshiko’s published statement about her decision. Instead she posits that Yoshiko might have been transgender, or might have chosen the “biological and legal changes that are now possible,” if she lived in the 21st century. She then seeks commentary on Yoshiko’s cross-dressing by various relatives and associates now living in Japan. She resumes the narrative with Yoshiko’s return to China, her marriage to a Mongol military leader under the patronage of Japanese military officers, her divorce and dissipation in the dancehalls of Shanghai, her dependence upon opium and painkillers, her romantic involvement with a series of unsavory and powerful men — mainly officers in the Japanese military — and her rumored participation in Japanese military operations in Manchuria and North China.

The biography is punctuated with forced comparisons to alternative exemplars, all of whom were personally acquainted with Yoshiko and who the author sees as offering (anachronistic) lessons for her. These include: Sada Hiro — the Good Japanese Wife made to marry a Manchu prince; Yamaguchi Yoshiko (also known as Li Xianglan) the Japanese actress who pretended to be a Chinese songstress; Sasakawa Ryōichi — Yoshiko’s lover and patron — a war criminal who managed to salvage his own reputation after the war. In a rather anachronistic turn, Birnbaum presents these characters as offering alternative life choices and perhaps happier endings for Yoshiko. These are individuals who like Yoshiko experienced tumultuous times and conflicted identities, and yet, unlike Yoshiko, did not meet a dismal end. The set pieces about them seem rather unfortunately like padding.

Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy is at its most captivating where the author is most silent. Photographs reveal Yoshiko in her many personas: from child in Manchu dress to Japanese lady to Chinese gentleman to military officer in uniform, hands crossed on the head of a cane. And excerpts from the Asahi Shimbun and The New York Times, dating from the 1920s and 1930s, record contemporary obsessions with the reality star of this particular time and place. She was an oddity, a provocative spectacle. She lived the fantasy of Takarazuka, a kind of cross-dressing performance art in which women played both men’s and women’s roles, even as she was, according to one reporter writing in 1931, the “very incarnation of eroticism and the grotesque,” two key buzzwords of interwar mass culture. Another quote terms her a “modern girl” of Shanghai, a woman of mystery, a style icon, a person of “strange behavior” and a “deluxe lifestyle.” She reflected interwar gender obsessions, and at the same time embodied a particular Japanese military fantasy of Manchu self-determination and transracial brotherhood — even if in her life, as on the Asian continent, those dreams entailed sexual violence, destruction, and dehumanizing atrocities. The book does not do justice to the illusions, the passions, or the nastiness of this historical moment, as it was lived — or as it is now being remembered.

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Tobie Meyer-Fong is professor and director of graduate studies in the department of history at the Johns Hopkins University.