by Madeline Bocaro
She was one of the coolest chicks of all time. Beautiful and cunning, seductive yet evil, hero and heroine. Yoshiko Kawashima had it all, and died with nothing. Her effortless manipulation of gender, seductive charm, and clever spy tactics elevated her to power, riches and fame in Japan and China. A life of espionage, debauchery and political intrigue ensued – and Yoshiko wore all of her uniforms proudly.
Princess Aisin Gioro Xianyu, a.k.a. Jin Bihui 金壁辉 (1907 – 1948) was the 14th daughter born to Manchu Prince Su of the Quing Dynasty in Beijing. As her family name Aisin Gioro suggests, she is a relative of the last Chinese emperor Pu Yi, a member of the Ch’ing Imperial House. Although she was born Chinese, she was raised in Japan, and became a spy for the Japanese.
At the age of six, (two years after the fall of the Ch’ing dynasty and the Forbidden City in 1912), Jin Bihui was adopted by her father’s Japanese friend Naniwa Kawashima, an espionage agent for a Japanese spy network in Manchuria. She was raised as a Japanese in Nagano, and took the Japanese name Kawashima Yoshiko 川島芳子 (Eastern Jewel). As a pawn of her father and his friend, she had an elite yet corrupt education – part of a political plan to enable her to take part in the restoration of the Ch’ing Empire and revival of her family’s Manchu dynasty.
Kawashima gave her a male name, Yoshio (‘good boy’) and educated her as a boy. She had horseback riding, judo and fencing lessons. Her masculine role-playing probably developed in this childhood environment. Her name was later changed to a female moniker, Yoshiko (‘good girl’).
In 1921 back in China, her father Prince Su died. He was an impoverished royal descendant, who briefly ruled Inner Mongolia as a puppet of the Japanese. Her mother (a concubine, who had no official identity) committed traditional suicide upon Prince Su’s demise, when Yoshiko was just fourteen.
At the age of 17, after a failed suicide attempt (after becoming a virtual sex slave to her foster father and his colleagues and previously to her adoptive grandfather as well), Yoshiko cropped her hair short, and began wearing men’s clothing. Although she had a young first love named Yamaga, a forced political marriage was arranged for twenty year old Yoshiko in 1927 with a Mongolian prince. Yoshiko considered this marriage a complete waste of time. She deserted the prince and Mongolia after only two years ‘to conquer the world’… but actually, it was to take vengeance on China, the land of her birth.
First she returned to Tokyo’s Chinese student quarter where she called herself Yang Kuei Fei, the name of a Chinese imperial concubine of Emperor Xuan Zong of Tang China whom, like Helen of Troy, brought about the ruination of an empire. Here she seduced and abandoned several lovers as a high priced call girl. Upon realizing that she would only be a pawn of her Japanese step-father, she sold her life story (already quite interesting at this early stage) to a publisher as Venus in a Suit, for a boat ticket to Shanghai.
There, she found a fellow boot-fetishist in Ryukichi Tanaka, head of Japanese Intelligence in China. He utilized her contacts with Manchu nobility and employed her as a spy. They became sexual partners, and Tanaka put her on the Intelligence payroll. She slowly became a cunning and heartless super woman, willingly exploited by men in the guise of freedom. Yoshiko achieved great things, but she was also regrettably evil.
Yoshiko had a special affinity for the daring glamour of men’s clothing. She loved stylish, immaculately fitting military uniforms and pilot gear, and wore them proudly. She had a flair for tilting her cap perfectly, or positioning her sword just right, as a stunning lethal accessory. She was decorated with various rank insignia, fur trimmed collars, shiny polished leather boots, jodphurs, riding caps, military caps, trench coats, capes and tuxedoes. Yoshiko posed for numerous photographs in these outfits, which she autographed like a pop star.
As a woman, she wavered between Japanese kimono and Chinese ceremonial dress, depending on whom she needed to sexually manipulate. Yoshiko appeared rebellious and regal at once, always dressed to kill – whether sporting a tiara or a cigar, but she was not just a fashion icon. She used her courageous image and her weapons fearlessly, living the life of a rebel to the fullest – in promiscuity, intrigue and scandal. Although Yoshiko frequently dressed as a man, her greatest weapons were those she possessed as a woman – charm and beauty.
Yoshiko served as a spy for Japanese Major-General Kenji Doihara who was instrumental in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Although she was a beautiful woman, she enjoyed missions of espionage in Manchuria when she could wear military uniforms, dramatically ride past the regiments on horseback with her cape flowing behind her in the wind, and confuse everyone as to whether she was a hero or a heroine. She camouflaged herself seamlessly into the guerilla groups this way.
Before the start of Sino Japanese War in 1937, China and Japan fought an unofficial war (with neither side officially declaring war). As a Japanese agent, Kawashima collected information for the Japanese and engineered a series of incidents and sabotage that created excuses for the Japanese army to attack China, and to set up several puppet states.
Her association with China’s last emperor Pu Yi (her distant cousin) helped persuade him – through clever deception and staged assassination attempts – to become the puppet emperor of the Japanese state of Manchukuo in 1932, after his forced abdication and banishment from Beijing’s Forbidden City in 1924. The Japanese gave the emperor false hope that he could return to the Ch’ing throne.
Yoshiko also became the mistress of Pu Yi’s chief military advisor (Doihara). In Emperor Pu Yi’s biography it says that although Yoshiko was a Manchu Princess, she felt Japanese because she spent her childhood in Japan, educated by the Kawashima family. She herself adopted the name Yoshiko, but of course, her real name was Jin Bihui.
In the 1987 film The Last Emperor, Yoshiko is briefly portrayed as a lesbian lover of Pu Yi’s empress, the beautiful Wan Jung (a.k.a. Xiao Ke Min / a.k.a. Elizabeth). The emperor, unlike his depiction in the film, is said to have never slept with his Empress nor his concubines, and he may have been bisexual. The Empress was now a delusional opium addict, so Pu Yi left her behind in her home town of Tientsin where they had been looked after (actually, held prisoners) by the Japanese. Yoshiko befriended the empress, who regarded her as the liberated woman she longed to be. Yoshiko concocted an elaborate plan of deception, creating a subterfuge, kidnapping and tricking the empress into rejoining Pu Yi for his appointment ceremony as head of Manchukuo as a puppet of the Japanese.
Yoshiko was kept by a succession of rich and powerful ‘protectors’. For her success in the Pu Yi operation, her spymasters appointed her commander of her own Japanese army to fight against the Chinese in Manchukuo. She adored in this role, and wore the full dress uniform of a Japanese officer. Her soldiers addressed her as General Chin. Yoshiko lived in mansions, partying every night with the elite and powerful in Chinese high society, and she was one of them.
In 1932 Yoshiko formed a cavalry of 5,000 bandits to hunt down anti-Japanese guerillas during the pacification of Manchukuo. She and her soldiers committed many unspeakable war crimes in a ruthless betrayal of her Chinese heritage. She was hailed as the Joan of Arc of Manchukuo, and also as the Eastern Mata Hari. Yoshiko was a popular figure, somewhat of a political pop star, making public appearances and even a musical recording (“Night of Jugoya” in October 1933). She was not as good a singer as she was a spy! Numerous true and untrue stories of her exploits were published in newspapers.
In 1933, while addressing her army, Yoshiko was shot by one of her own soldiers. She had her entire army tortured and interrogated until she found the traitor, and finished him off herself. The severe gunshot wound she received led to her physical breakdown, and addictions to morphine and opium.
To divert her political antics, one of her powerful ‘protectors’ set her up as owner of a Chinese restaurant in occupied Tianjin, which became a watering hole for the elite.
By 1940 Yoshiko Kawashima was considered out of control and dangerous. Her notoriety and critical tone created political tension, and she was now a liability amongst the same people of power who had valued her intelligence and used her as a spy, and as a lover. Several of her ex-lovers were on assignment to kill her, but none of them could follow through.
Yoshiko was exiled to Japan where she lived with a corrupt financier, then moved to a local hotel in Kyshhu where she languished in boredom. She was under Japanese secret police surveillance and was assigned a 17-year old female companion, Kotone Sonomoto, who later learned of Yoshiko’s true identity and wrote the book Solitary Queen in 2004.
In 1941 Yoshiko returned to duty on her own accord, with her new ‘office’ in the finest hotel in Peking. She gathered intelligence on anti-Japanese activity. She also started her own dastardly side-business of blackmail and extortion, informing wealthy businessmen that they were under suspicion, and offering them her protection for money.
In a film about her life, Yoshiko is brilliantly portrayed by the late Anita Mui (the Madonna of Asia). Yoshiko, was tormented since childhood, and is now remembered as one of the worst traitors in Chinese history. She is ruthless – cold steel personified, showing no more mercy toward people than life showed to her. Yoshiko’s main character trait is her essential detachment in order not to lapse into madness. Mui’s portrayal elicits compassion, because without excusing her, you realize that it is Yoshiko’s terrible destiny that causes her selfishness. She would kill on a whim because she knew that anyone would do the same to her. She slapped men’s faces, and scorned those who would abuse or condemn her. At the end, frail and tired, facing a death sentence Yoshiko remained defiant although she was only a haunting ghostlike waif.
In 1945, Yoshiko was on the run. China was in chaos under Soviet attack. The Japanese were fleeing China, and Manchuko collapsed. At war’s end, Eastern Jewel was no longer a sensual, alluring enchantress. She was in ruins, haggard and bloated, suffering from venereal diseases. She drove a broken down army truck that was abandoned by retreating Japanese troops. Yoshiko again changed her name, went into hiding and lived in a hovel. She went broke by paying for protection, but she was finally betrayed by one of her many scorned lovers who led police to her broken-down shack.
After the end of the war, just after Japan’s surrender on 11 November 1945, a news agency reported that ‘a long sought-for beauty in male costume was arrested in Peking by the Chinese counter-intelligence officers.’ In March 1948, Yoshiko Kawashima, now very ill and frail, was tried and executed as a traitor by the Nationalist Government under her Chinese name (Jin Bihui). She insisted that she was Japanese, but could not prove by papers that she was adopted, so she was condemned as Chinese traitor and not a Japanese war criminal. (Both countries had forsaken her). The chief prosecutor stated, “This woman deserves death as a traitor but most of all because she rode in Japanese airplanes over bombed-out Chinese villages and laughed.”
Yoshiko, age 41 – of royal blood and insolent as ever on her final day – was executed under orders of Chiang-Kai-Shek as a traitor in Beijing. Eastern Jewel claimed she was a Japanese soldier and demanded that she be given the military honor of a firing squad. She wanted to die as a Japanese, asking to change into a white kimono (always thinking of fashion until the very end). Both requests were denied. Her beautiful face was totally destroyed by one bullet to the back of her head. Nobody came to identify the body, which was collected by a Japanese monk for cremation. Her remains were sent to her Japanese adoptive family.
Yoshiko was asked her dying wish, but did not say anything. This poem, found in her pocket was her swan song…
Though there is a home, I can’t return
I am full of tears I cannot cry
Though there is a law, it is not righteous
Though there is a false accusation, to whom can I appeal?
It is said that Yoshiko fell in love with a Chinese actor/acrobat in the Hong Kong opera, who played the Monkey King role. He defied her, hated her, loved her and greatly influenced her life. She later kept a pet monkey, which became the only living thing that she trusted in the end.
In prison, Yoshiko wrote a letter to her secretary Ogata Hachirô.
If I am killed, please pick up your bones, my dad’s (Prince Su) and my bones, dig out Fuku’s (name of her pet monkey) bones, and bury them all together. I don’t want to be buried with human. It is enough to be with a monkey. Monkeys are honest and truthful. Dogs too. Where is Pochi? (a dog’s name) It is chilly in this season. Don’t you think that a country which confiscates even monkeys and dogs is quite rare and strange? It is quite harsh.
Once infamous, now forgotten Kawashima Yoshiko, Eastern Jewel rests in peace at Shorin Temple, Matsumoto City, Nagano Japan.
Despite the existence of several horrific execution photos, rumours persisted that Yoshiko had escaped. In 2006, a Chinese woman offered evidence that Yoshiko had skillfully avoided her execution and lived in Changchun under the alias Aunt Fang, until her death in 1978.