Invoking Manchuria’s cross-dressing spy

by Paul Mccarthy

Special To The Japan Times

She was born the daughter of a Manchu prince in Beijing in 1907. Later, as she grew up in Japan, she earned notoriety for her flamboyant challenges to gender roles and her military exploits as a princess-spy. Even today Yoshiko Kawashima still stokes controversy, and Phyllis Birnbaum’s new biography — “Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army” — explains why.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times Birnbaum reflected on her time researching the infamous princess-spy.

How did your interest in writing about Japan begin?

I started off determined to write novels, and did write one set in India. Next, I moved on to Japan and translated some fictional works by Japanese women, with Uno Chiyo’s “Confessions of Love” being my favorite. I eventually turned to writing biographies, which I feel suits me best. I am a sociable sort and love to interrogate people about their lives. My friends complain! There’s a novelistic side to writing biographies that also appeals to me: Every biography reflects the author’s personal view of her subject, with a more imaginative interpretation of the facts than you would expect.

I started writing biographies with my profiles of Uno Chiyo and the actress Takamine Hideko for The New Yorker. These and other biographical essays later became the book “Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: Five Japanese Women.”

I next tried my hand at writing about a man, with my biography of the artist Tsuguharu Foujita, “Glory in a Line: A Life of Foujita — the Artist Caught Between East and West.”

How did you choose Yoshiko Kawashima as a subject?

I’d have to say, with some embarrassment, that I am drawn to writing about people who have led flamboyant lives. I like subjects with a talent for tumult, in both their personal and professional lives. Uno Chiyo, a perfect example, went from one disastrous love affair to another and wrote with gusto about these passions; the prolific, complex Foujita liked to make a spectacle of himself, all the while churning out art works.

I don’t consider myself flamboyant and, in fact, as writers go, I’m on the staid side. But biographical subjects with a gift for chaos inspire me, and I am able to use their antics as a way to introduce more serious matters: the status of women in Japan, for example, or the moral conflicts facing artists during wartime.

I decided to write about Kawashima because my friend, the novelist Yoichi Funado, was in the process of writing a long novel about Manchuria. He felt that Yoshiko was suitably bizarre for me. He was right, because she has taken me far — to problems of gender, the Japanese takeover of Manchuria and the whole Second Sino-Japanese War.

How did you research this book?

In Japan, there’s a lot of information about Yoshiko and, to my amazement, the books about her keep coming. Aside from using the libraries, I met Yoshiko’s Japanese biographers — a splendid, generous group — and visited wonderful Matsumoto, where Yoshiko grew up. I also went to China and took a trip around the Northeast. I’m one of those biographers who like to set foot on the spots where their subjects walked and brooded — I get a lot out of that. So in Beijing, I went to find the remnants of her father Prince Su’s mansion and inspected the red hilltop house in Lushun where her family lived in exile.

One surprising source was Ryotaro Shiba’s novel about the Russo-Japanese War, “Clouds Above the Hill.” I edited the English translation while I was writing about Yoshiko, and this gave me a great education about Japanese ambitions in Manchuria, which would eventually shape Yoshiko’s life.

Were some of your interviews with subjects particularly memorable?

There’s no question that my biggest thrill was meeting Yoshiko’s Chinese relatives, who now live in Matsumoto. You must read my book to find out why they landed up there, so far from their birthplace in China, but trust me when I say that their incredible lives tell much about the whole history of China and Japan in the 20th century. Next on my list of memorable encounters was my meeting with some vehement Chinese researchers who insist that Yoshiko wasn’t really executed in 1948 but instead lived on until 1978 in Changchun, where she studied Buddhism and climbed trees.

Did you become fond of Yoshiko as you wrote, or were you repelled by her? It would be hard for me to write about someone I disliked, and while Yoshiko got involved in unsavory activities, I did feel great sympathy for her plight. She was, after all, a woman abandoned by her birth-father at an age when she knew what was happening to her, and sent off to live with a less-than-ideal Japanese family. The damage to her came early.

I do find myself giving advice to my subjects sometimes — I think it is an occupational hazard of a biographer — and I wished she’d listened to me when I urged her to kick the habit of dreadful men.

Do you have plans for future projects along the same lines?

At the moment I am translating the poet Toriko Takarabe’s fictionalized memoir, “Tenpu, Meifu.” Takarabe grew up in Manchuria and so you might say that this is a continuation of my research. Also I am in the process of searching for a new biographical subject — I welcome suggestions!