Princess or spy, Chinese traitor or Japanese freedom fighter, Yoshiko Kawashima had quite a life. She took her first breaths as a highborn Manchu Princess and her last with a scandalous reputation for being the “Mata Hari of the East.” Let’s turn the pages of the past and discover what led her away from royal life—and see if her wits were enough to save her from a dark fate.
Yoshiko Kawashima Facts
1. She Had Many Names
Our heroine was born Aisin Gioro Xianyu, and also had a clan name, a Chinese name, and was known as “Eastern Jewel” when she reached adulthood. Over the years, she was also called “The Joan of Arc of Manchuria,” the “number one woman spy in China,” and even an “evil genius.” This girl had a lot of names and nicknames, but her most famous moniker: Yoshiko Kawashima.
2. She Wasn’t In Line For The Throne
From the start, Kawashima was a scandalous lady. For starters, she wasn’t born in the emperor’s household but in his, shall we say, extended family. Her father was a price, but Kawashima was his fourteenth daughter. Plus, her mother wasn’t a princess but a concubine. Because of this, there was no chance of little Princess Yoshiko getting the throne.
3. She Belonged To A Dying Dynasty
Born in Beijing in 1907, Yoshiko belonged to the long-lived Qing dynasty. They had been in power for the last three centuries. Unfortunately, their time in the sun was about to end. In 1911, a series of small uprisings all over China finally ended the Qing’s rule over the country. After this, things started going south for poor Yoshiko—in brutal fashion.
4. She Lived Through A Revolution
In 1912, China officially became a republic after the child emperor’s mother announced that he would give up the throne. This was a huge loss for Yoshiko’s dad—and it led him into some shady acts. He turned tail on China and started supporting Japan in an attempt to restore his lost power. But what about little Yoshiko? Oh, her dad just casually gave her away to one of his Japanese friends. This proved to be a catastrophic error.
5. Her Father Gave Her Away
When she was just eight years old, Yoshiko’s entire life unravelled. She had lost her power and status, and her father had just abandoned her with his friend, Naniwa Kawashima. He was a Japanese spy and adventurer who adopted Yoshiko and gave her his last name. At first, things seemed okay. The duo moved to Tokyo and started their new family life.
Unfortunately, Yoshiko’s new home would turn into a waking nightmare.
6. She Suffered A Huge Personal Loss
Yoshiko’s biological father suffered intense heartbreak when he realized the Japanese couldn’t help change the tide in China. Accepting that he’d truly lost his power led the prince to a mental crisis and soon, the grave. Yoshiko’s father took his own life, with sources claiming that he did so either because he couldn’t face reality or because he simply had a broken heart.
No matter which reason, it didn’t change the facts: Yoshiko’s father was gone—and somehow, even after this, more tragedy lay ahead.
7. The Tragedy Didn’t Stop
The Prince breathed his last in 1921, six years after he gave Yoshiko to his friend. As if that wasn’t bad enough for a little girl, Yoshiko soon suffered another devastating loss. Her mother took her own life. Why, you ask? Because it was the Manchu custom for concubines to follow their royal partners to heaven. Boy, am I glad I wasn’t born a Manchu in the last century.
8. She Had A Fiery Spirit
Supposedly, Yoshiko’s new dad had a tough time trying to get her to listen to him and bow to his authority. He was proud of her spirit, and encouraged her boldness. However, when he wasn’t in the mood for Yoshiko’s defiance, he had a short fuse. He would run after her and threaten to beat her with a shovel when she challenged him too often. But this was nothing compared to his other chilling actions.
9. Her New Dad Was A Creep
As Yoshiko grew older, her adoptive dad’s feelings for her changed from fatherly to amorous. In a thoroughly repellant twist, he started hinting to his friends that he would marry his own daughter one day. He even got jealous if he thought that Yoshiko was flirting with other men, and as though all that wasn’t enough for Yoshiko to deal with, his anger and jealousy would then lead to violent outbursts. In other words, Yoshiko’s home life was a ticking time bomb.
10. She Received A Japanese Education
Naturally, Yoshiko “dad’s” attitude creeped her out completely. Wanting to avoid her messed up home, she started to seek refuge in school and in her martial arts training. Yoshiko became highly skilled at the martial arts of Judo and Kendo, and studied the humanities and social sciences. Perfect ingredients for a super spy in training…
11. She Made Some Daring Decisions
Sources differ on why she did it, but at around this point Yoshiko shaved her head and started dressing like a boy. Was it because she supposedly went to a boys’ high school? Was it to deter the suitors that had noticed her beauty and started showing up at her door? Was she just experimenting with some youthful cross dressing? Or, worst for last, was it to throw a wrench in her adoptive father’s lecherous advances?
If it was for the final reason, then sadly, Yoshiko’s plan did not work.
12. Something Terrible Happened To Her
What happened next was heartbreaking. After trying to stave off her adoptive father’s advances for months, the worst possible option unfolded. Her own adoptive father attacked and violated her. According to Yoshiko, he raped her when she was just 17 years old. But somehow, even this wasn’t the end of poor Yoshiko’s nightmarish ordeal.
13. She Took Some Extreme Measures
Yoshiko was at her lowest point after her stepfather viciously attacked her. This vile man continued to assault his own adoptive daughter, leading Yoshiko to feel completely helpless and desperate. In the end, she tried to reclaim control in the most devastating way: She attempted to take her own life not once, not twice, but three times.
Thankfully, after her third attempt failed, Yoshiko changed gears—and started her career as a kick-butt super spy.
14. She Disappeared For A While
Since she wasn’t able to end her life, Yoshiko decided to at least take a break from it for a while. She vanished from the Kawashima family home and abandoned her life as she knew it. Although there aren’t a lot of details about where she went, the consensus is that she hid herself amongst Tokyo’s “bohemian underground.” But there were other whispers about her too.
15. She Inspired Some Shocking Rumors
So what was Yoshiko doing with Tokyo’s unconventional crowd? Being supremely unconventional, if you believe the rumors. As is customary in Yoshiko’s tale, this question has no confirmed answers. However, the commonly-known story is that she was hanging out with all sorts of rich men and (gasp!) glamorous women, effectively being their sugar baby so that she could live comfortably without depending on her evil dad.
Well, she was nothing if not resourceful, that Yoshiko.
16. She Got Married
Remember the unsuitable suitors that kept hassling Yoshiko? The ones she disliked so much that she chopped off her hair, and declared she would “cease being a woman forever”? Well, they wouldn’t take no for an answer. Despite the fact that she literally ran away from her old life, at a certain point, she had to come out of hiding and marry a man who had been chosen for her.
If you think this marriage has a bad start, just wait for its end.
17. It Didn’t Last Long
Yoshiko’s new husband was the son of a high-powered general and honestly, that’s about all we know about him. He and Yoshiko wed in 1927, only for Yoshiko to quickly tire of her new hubby. She separated from him only a few months after the wedding and then divorced him when she was only 22. The marriage was a fiasco—but it was nothing compared to the scandals that Yoshiko would get into in her near future.
18. She Moved To Shanghai
Once the marriage dissolved, Yoshiko went back to doing just as she pleased. She traveled around the coast, went to Tokyo, and then decided to move to Shanghai. It was here that her life took a shocking turn. A secret Japanese society, the Black Dragon Society, discovered Yoshiko and decided they could use her guile and cunning, as well as her royal connections, to gain control over Manchuria and Mongolia.
At this time, Yoshiko also made a special acquaintance of her own.
19. She Impressed A High Official
Yoshiko met a Japanese intelligence officer named Ryukichi Tanaka, and the two seemed to hit it off. Tanaka was a shrewd man and he immediately knew that Yoshiko was a powerful ally. He used her contacts and royal background to get acquainted with important contacts. It was all part of Japan’s plot to take over the state of Manchuria easily.
In other words, Yoshiko’s time as the “Mata Hari of the East” had officially begun.
20. She Became Quite Close To Him
In a development that would surprise absolutely no one, Yoshiko’s relationship with Tanaka progressed from professional to personal very quickly. To make sure his mistress was on top of her style game, Tanaka put her on the Japanese intelligence payroll and convinced her to take English lessons. But her next mission was much more dangerous than learning a new language.
21. Did She Create A Conflict?
Tanaka used Yoshiko to create mayhem in Shanghai. Why did he want to do that? Simply to distract attention from Manchuria, which Japan wanted to take over with a puppet regime. Yoshiko helped her man accomplish his goal by creating chaos with hired thugs and hoodlums who attacked Shanghai’s businesses and residents.
Soon, however, the night of mayhem turned far darker than anyone anticipated.
22. Her Attitude Wasn’t Very Sympathetic
Eventually, Tanaka’s plan led to the infamous and bloody Shanghai Incident of 1932. This dark event saw the Japanese army clash with Chinese civilians, resulting in heavy fighting and many Chinese casualties. Yoshiko’s attitude to this bloodshed was bone-chilling. She celebrated Shanghai’s bombing, and stepped over bodies on the streets carelessly and without any concern. Apparently, she’d never forgiven China for booting her family out of power.
23. She Had Her Own Style
Yoshiko definitely had a dark side, but for the most part she was known for being a charming style icon. Whether she was dressing up as a man or woman, her style game was always on point. When she chose to be a man, she liked wearing tuxedos and riding habits. As a woman she preferred exquisite Japanese kimonos. In short, she was a gender-bending smoke show—and soon her handlers asked her to do every femme fatale’s duty: Seduce a patsy.
24. She Knew Her Own Mind
When the Black Dragon Society chose to work with Yoshiko, they asked her to become a concubine for a Mongolian prince. Though Yoshiko agreed initially, she got so bored by the role that one night she dressed in red, saddled a white horse and fled to Japan. The Society was so impressed by her daring that instead of firing her, they gave her a freaking promotion.
Oh, but these fun times wouldn’t last long.
25. She Was In Touch With Her Old Family
Remember the boy emperor, Puyi, who gave up the throne when China was turning into a republic? Well, Yoshiko still remembered him and what’s more, he remembered her too. He even invited her over, probably believing deposed family members should stick together. Boy, did he not realize what he was getting into.
26. She Became A King-Maker
On her boss’s suggestion, Yoshiko managed to convince Puyi to become the puppet emperor Manchuria. He had no real power and was more of a figurehead for the Japanese, who’d now taken over the state. Puyi agreed, though later Yoshiko would privately deride him for being too weak to stand up for himself. Harsh, Yoshiko—you’re the one who told him to do it!
27. She Found Another Lover
I mean, clearly Yoshiko believed in variety being the spice of life. She apparently hit it off with Puyi’s army advisor and took him for her lover for a while. Was this a conflict of interest, seeing as how she was actively spying on these guys? Yes. Did her boss dare to step in and stop her? No. And that’s how you know that Yoshiko was absolutely indispensable.
28. She Was A Great Spy
Yoshiko often went on undercover missions to Manchuria for the Japanese. She always dressed as a man to blend in with guerrilla groups and to more easily get the other men to obey her orders. While wearing male dress, Yoshiko went by the name “General Chin” and worked hard to bring Machuria around to the Japanese. In less PR-friendly terms, she basically obliterated anyone who didn’t play nice with their new Japanese overlords.
29. She Was A Gender Bender
Oh, but Yoshiko’s cross dressing wasn’t just for professional reasons. Throughout her life, she loved dressing in men’s clothes and playing around with ideas about gender. One day, she was a high femme in an ornate kimono. The next day, she rocked the soft butch lifestyle in an aviator-style outfit. Related, many historians believe that Yoshiko was bisexual.
30. She Was A Player
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Yoshiko’s rollercoaster of a life was full of romantic drama. Heck, she once romanced a Manchurian actress whose name, in a freak coincidence, was also Yoshiko! No self esteem problems here, folks. But even though Yoshiko’s personal life seems like a fun time, sadly her professional life was about to hit a major obstacle.
31. She Faced Tough Times
Yoshiko dressed as a man and tried her best to keep her militia on her side. However, not everyone was a fan of our girl. One day, one of Yoshiko’s own men shot at her while she was speaking to the group. The bullet grazed past her shoulder, thankfully, and Yoshiko survived the attack. However, the man who dared to mess with her wouldn’t be so lucky.
32. She Wanted Revenge
Yoshiko was not one to tolerate dissent. She made sure that she found the person responsible for her wound and well, let’s just say she made sure they were sorry they’d ever thought of hurting her. She had her entire militia tortured, until someone finally revealed who the shooter was. Then, Yoshiko allegedly ended her attacker’s life. However, all this still didn’t keep Yoshiko safe.
You see, the injury in her shoulder never fully healed. Over the years, it would trouble her greatly and eventually contribute to her downfall.
33. She Became A Celebrity
Interestingly, Yoshiko’s other interests were vastly different from fighting and posing as a man. She loved to sing, and even released a record of her songs. She also made several appearances on radio broadcasts and slowly became extremely well-known in Manchuria. If you think being a celebrity would throw a wrench in her day job as a secret agent, you’d be right…
34. She Fell Out Of Favor
Unfortunately, Yoshiko seemed to have outlived her utility for the Japanese before World War 2 had even begun. She was too well-known now for them to use her for spying and intelligence purposes. They weren’t sure what to do with her, especially because of another, sorrowful reason.
35. Her Pain Management Methods Weren’t Great
Remember the bullet wound Yoshiko received? Well, the pain never went away and eventually, it had horrific consequences. Yoshiko had to take morphine to subdue her discomfort. She also started using opium, and eventually started depending on it more and more. Naturally this meant the Japanese couldn’t rely on her to spread propaganda either, as the drugs made her erratic and unpredictable.
However, there is another equally dark theory about why her behavior changed so much.
36. Was She Sick?
Another theory about Yoshiko’s changed behavior towards the end of her life is that she had contracted syphilis. Because the disease remained untreated, over time it affected Yoshiko’s mental health. In spite of her ill health, though, it seems that Yoshiko had also developed a bit of a conscience as the years went by.
37. She Criticized Her Bosses
Yoshiko never made any secret about her dislike for the Chinese and her loyalty to the Japanese. However, she started finding faults with the way the latter suppressed dissent in Manchuria. In fact, Yoshiko was so disturbed that she started protesting against their brutal tactics against the Chinese. Why did she experience a change of heart?
Perhaps it was the fact that some of the locals in Manchuria saw her as one of their own since, at the end of the day, Yoshiko was a Manchu princess stripped from glory.
38. Karma Caught Up With Her
Eventually, the Japanese had to give up Manchuria’s control after the end of WWII. This was great for Manchurians who wanted their country’s freedom, but it spelled doom for Yoshiko. Do you remember the anti-Japanese guerrilla groups that Yoshiko had so brutally fought? Well, their offshoots got back together and vowed to get revenge on their tormentor. Yoshiko hoped she could get to Japan before they caught up with her, but sadly for her, fate had darker plans in store.
39. She Couldn’t Escape The Law
Yoshiko knew that if the Chinese caught her, she’d be in hot water so she laid low, going on the run for two months and eventually settling in Beijing. However, staying in one place turned out to be a huge mistake. The Chinese found her and captured her. They threw her in jail for two and a half long years, while Yoshiko waited for the courts to declare her ultimate sentence.
40. Her Identity Became Her Cross
Although Yoshiko identified as a Japanese and wanted the court to try her as a Japanese woman, it refused to do so. The reason: She had failed to give up her Chinese nationality. The court tried her as a Chinese traitor and much to her despair, they found her guilty. She accepted her fate, hoping the court would show some leniency in her punishment.
Unfortunately, she was wrong.
41. She Hoped For A Different End
After this, Yoshiko’s life went from bad to worse. Once the court declared her a traitor, they also passed down her sentence: execution. The decision devastated Yoshiko, but she still tried to hold her head high. She made one final plea, begging the Chinese to give her a private execution instead of making her take her last breaths in front of a crowd. Sadly, they refused.
42. She Breathed Her Last
On March 25, 1948, a group of Chinese officers took Yoshiko Kawashima from her cell and brought her outside. With a small crowd assembled, they ordered Yoshiko to turn around so that the firing squad could put a bullet into the back of her head. The brutal wound left Yoshiko’s face utterly unrecognizable. But somehow, even after this, more humiliation lay ahead.
43. She Suffered An Ignominious End
Even though Yoshiko’s last request was to keep her execution private, the Chinese firing squad made sure her end was as public an affair as possible. They actually displayed her body to the public as a warning. Surely, no one would dream of treason if they saw what kind of fate awaited them. However, their decision to display her body also had less predictable consequences…
44. Her Last Words Were Tragic
Yoshiko did not say anything before her execution, however, the executioners found a paper in her pocket afterwards. Some sources say it was a letter to her father and others claim it was a poem where she lamented that she didn’t have a home she could return to. In this poem, Yoshiko also lamented that her eyes were full of tears because the law punished her unfairly.
It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if she’d given up her Chinese nationality and been tried as a Japanese?
45. She Did Love Deeply
Many sources talk about Yoshiko’s pet monkey[s] that she was very fond of. One story is that she fell in love with an actor in the opera who played the role of Monkey King. Though the man reciprocated her feelings somewhat, the affair didn’t progress, so she remembered him with a…weird gesture. She kept a pet monkey in his memory. And then things got even stranger.
46. She Had A Strange Last Wish
Apparently, Yoshiko managed to write a letter to her secretary while she was behind bars. In the note, she directed her employee to her to dig up her bones, her biological father’s bones and the monkey’s bones. Why? Oh, so they could all hang out together for all eternity. Yup, Yoshiko wanted her secretary to bury them all together after her passing.
47. Her Last Resting Place Is In Japan
A Japanese monk collected Yoshiko’s body after the public display was over. He cremated it and sent the ashes to her adoptive family who buried them at Shorinji Temple, in Matsumoto, Japan.
And while you can’t help feel sorry for what she went through in the beginning and end of her life, it is also hard to sympathize with the Yoshiko who cold-bloodedly put an end to some people’s lives just because of the country they belonged to. A living contradiction herself, her story also invokes contradictory feelings.
48. Her Relatives Suffered Because Of Her
Yoshiko’s dark end wasn’t just suffered by her. Even though her sister hadn’t even seen Yoshiko since they were infants, the authorities thought just being related to their number one enemy was enough of a reason to make this lady’s life miserable. They apprehended Yoshiko’s sibling in the 1950s and confined her for 15 years, just for the offense of being Yoshiko’s sister.
49. The Rumors About Her Didn’t Stop
Was it really Yoshiko whom the Chinese courts publicly executed? No one can say for sure because the wound made her face unrecognizable. Soon enough, a popular rumor started to circulate. It claimed that Yoshiko had not passed and instead, that a body double had replaced her at the last moment, leaving the real Yoshiko free to escape.
A woman even came forward in 2006, claiming she had evidence that Yoshiko had avoided execution and lived until 1978 under the alias of “Aunt Fang!”
50. She Lives On
Yoshiko’s story has inspired several films and novels, and not just after her passing. She became a character of several pulp fiction novels even while she was alive. In fact, this added to her celebrity status. Her persona inspired androgynous Japanese spy characters in Hong Kong films and her life is the basis of the movie The Last Princess Of Manchuria. 22