By Heather Howard / Japan News Staff WriterManchu Princess, Japanese Spy
By Phyllis Birnbaum
Columbia University Press, 252pp
“Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.”
This is not a quote from “Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy,” the new book by Phyllis Birnbaum about Yoshiko Kawashima, the “cross-dressing spy who commanded her own army,” as the subtitle tells us. A fictional medieval queen said this on the U.S. TV show “Game of Thrones,” but it’s a sadly neat summation of the trials faced by Kawashima and many other women in her real world many centuries later.
Kawashima was a genuine princess, born in Beijing as the 14th daughter of Prince Su.
After the Qing dynasty fell in 1912, Kawashima and her family fled to Manchuria, where her father worked tirelessly to restore the monarchy. As part of those efforts, he sent Yoshiko — Birnbaum puts her age at likely about 8 — to be the adopted daughter of Naniwa Kawashima, a Japanese man who supported Su’s cause.
“I was taken away without knowing what was happening to me,” Kawashima recalled years later. Much of her following life seems dedicated to battling that helplessness, but her success was never more than limited or temporary as she fought against abuse, prejudice and her own personal demons.
Birnbaum’s approach is even-handed and fair, laying out conflicting versions when the truth of certain incidents is unclear and largely refraining from the speculation that can plague biographies. If Kawashima remains mysterious, that’s appropriate — she seems to have been a mystery to herself, constantly searching for an identity that would bring her happiness and safety.
We see this confusion in her interaction with author Shofu Muramatsu as he researched a novel based on her life. “It’s perfectly all right if you portray me as the bad woman that the world says I am,” Kawashima tells him. “The important thing is to figure out what this bad woman is thinking.”
A clear plea from someone who has grown up with hardly anyone caring about her thoughts, yet she goes on to withhold important information and tell Muramatsu she can’t help him because “I’m schizophrenic.”
Her photographs are further evidence — even the pictures of Kawashima in male garb vary widely.
In some she is a sharp but clearly feminine beauty, in others not a shred of the woman can be seen. She is quite simply a man, and surely that is a change that comes from within.
Birnbaum intertwines Kawashima’s story with that of other women caught up in the turmoil of the time, including Hiro Saga, the Japanese wife of a younger brother of China’s last emperor, and actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi, also known as Ri Koran. Yet none will strike deeper than poet Toriko Takarabe, whose work “The Death I Always See” will sear the reader’s soul.
Where to read
A quiet place where sighs of sadness won’t disturb anyone
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