Yoshiko Kawashima – Qing Dynasty Princess, Japanese spy, and female commander (Part one)

Yoshiko Kawashima
(public domain)

Princess Yoshiko Kawashima was one of China’s most controversial and legendary figures. She has often been called the “Joan of Arc of the Orient” [1] or the “Mata Hari of East Asia.” [2] She has often been depicted as a femme fatale who leads men to their deaths.[3] She was a princess of the Qing dynasty, a Japanese spy, and a female commander of the Japanese army. She has inspired the imaginations of many by cross-dressing as a man and wearing a military uniform. It is no wonder why she became an international sensation. In an era when women had very few rights, Princess Yoshiko Kawashima made a tremendous impact on Chinese history. Because Yoshiko Kawashima had a very dramatic life, I have decided to write two articles about this illustrious princess. This article will detail the princess’s role in restoring Emperor Puyi’s throne.

On 24 May 1906, Princess Yoshiko Kawashima was born in Beijing. Her original name was Aisin-Gioro Xianwangyu.[4] She was the fourteenth daughter of Prince Su and his fourth concubine, Lady Janggiya. She was also a cousin of Emperor Puyi, the Last Emperor of China. When the Qing dynasty fell in 1912, Prince Su was so distraught that his dynasty was overthrown.[5] He began to plan for the restoration of the Qing dynasty.[6] He turned to a Japanese man named Naniwa Kawashima, who had a vested interest in restoring the dynasty.[7] The two planned for a new nation in Manchuria where the Qing dynasty would be restored.[8] The person who could make this plan come to fruition was Prince Su’s daughter, Princess Aisin-Gioro Xianwangyu.[9]

In 1912, the seven-year-old Princess Aisin-Gioro Xianwangyu was adopted by Naniwa Kawashima and was given the name of Yoshiko Kawashima. He took her to Japan, where he raised her as his own daughter.[10] He instilled in her a love for Manchuria and fostered her dreams of restoring the Qing dynasty.[11] Princess Yoshiko Kawashima went to Matsumoto Girl’s High School. However, she was an unruly student.[12] When her classmate was struggling financially, Princess Yoshiko Kawashima took a naked photo of herself and told her to sell it so that she could get some money.[13] In 1922, Prince Su died, and a month later, Lady Janggiya died. With the death of her parents, Princess Yoshiko Kawashima quit school and was tutored at home.[14]

After her father’s death, Princess Yoshiko Kawashima expected that Naniwa Kawashima would take her father’s place.[15] However, on 6 October 1924, Naniwa Kawashima raped her. [16] This incident left her traumatized. That night, she decided that she would no longer be a woman but a man.[17] The next day, she cut off her long hair and styled it like a man.[18] She hoped that by dressing like a man, Naniwa Kawashima would no longer be sexually attracted to her.[19] 

Kawashima Yoshiko's wedding to Ganjuurjab in Dalian
Wedding photo (public domain)

During that time, Princess Yoshiko Kawashima had fallen madly in love with Toru Yamaga, a second lieutenant in the Japanese Kwantung Army.[20] While he liked her, he was never serious about her and did not propose to her.[21] In October 1927, she married the Mongolian prince, Ganjurjab. This was a political marriage arranged by Naniwa Kawashima. The goal of the marriage was to use Mongolia’s military force to take over Manchuria.[22] The marriage lasted three years. It ended with Princess Yoshiko Kawashima leaving him in Mongolia.[23] She moved to Shanghai, where she would become a Japanese spy.

In 1930, Princess Yoshiko Kawashima met Major Ryukichi Tanaka, head of the Japanese Intelligence Service in Shanghai. The two of them became lovers.[24] He trained Princess Yoshiko Kawashima to be a spy for the Japanese Kwantung Army.[25] Her first mission was to transfer Empress Wanrong from Tientsin to Changchun.[26] Princess Yoshiko Kawashima disguised herself as a man and drove Empress Wanrong and her dog to Changchun.[27]

Shortly after Empress Wanrong was reunited with her husband, Emperor Puyi became the head of the state of Manchukuo. In 1934, he would be crowned Emperor of Manchukuo. Throughout the Emperor’s coronation ceremony, Princess Yoshiko Kawashima wore an expression of excitement, for she had finally accomplished her father’s mission of restoring the Qing dynasty.[28] She wore a military uniform, riding boots, and a cap.[29] She would later recall that day as the happiest moment of her life because her dreams had finally been fulfilled.[30]

Princess Yoshiko Kawashima relentlessly pursued her dream of restoring the Qing Dynasty. She finally accomplished her father’s dream and restored Emperor Puyi to the throne. In my next article, I will detail Princess Yoshiko Kawashima’s role as a spy and a female commander. I will also discuss her tragic fate. Princess Yoshiko Kawashima was a controversial figure who defied the expectations of women in her era. It is no wonder she has become a popular icon that has continued fostering many people’s imaginations.

Read part two here.


Birnbaum, P. (2015). Manchu Princess: Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy who Commanded Her Own Army (Asia Perspectives: History, Society, Culture). NY: Columbia University Press.

Kawashima, Yoshiko (1906–1947) (Vol. 1). (2007). Gale. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=edsgvr&AN=edsgcl.2588812501&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Saeki, C. (2006). Yoshiko Kawashima: Politics and gender in sino-japanese relations. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies12(3), 75-98,125-126. https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/yoshiko-kawashima-politics-gender-sino-japanese/docview/197731187/se-2.

[1] Saeki, 2006, para. 1

[2] Saeki, 2006

[3] Birnbaum, 2015

[4] Kawashima, Yoshiko (1906–1947), 2007

[5] Birnbaum, 2015

[6] Birnbaum, 2015

[7] Birnbaum, 2015

[8] Saeki, 2006

[9] Saeki, 2006

[10] Kawashima, Yoshiko (1906–1947), 2007

[11] Saeki, 2006

[12] Saeki, 2006

[13] Saeki, 2006

[14] Saeki, 2006

[15] Saeki, 2006

[16] Saeki, 2006

[17] Saeki, 2006

[18] Saeki, 2006

[19] Saeki, 2006

[20] Birnbaum, 2015

[21] Saeki, 2006

[22] Saeki, 2006

[23] Birnbaum, 2015

[24] Kawashima, Yoshiko (1906–1947), 2007

[25] Saeki, 2006

[26] Saeki, 2006

[27] Saeki, 2006

[28] Saeki, 2006

[29] Saeki, 2006

[30] Saeki, 2006

About Lauralee Jacks 183 Articles
I am a former elementary teacher in Tennessee. I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from fiction in dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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