Astounding Asians: Yoshiko Kawashima

*I will be using the gender-neutral pronoun “they” since Kawashima’s gender identity is unknown.  

Yoshiko Kawashima, a war memory in Japan. A traitor to China. But globally, Yoshiko Kawashima is known as a stunning bisexual spy who defied gender norms whilst commanding an army.

Although born a princess, their origins are rather humble. Originally named Xianyu, they were born in Beijing in 1907 as the 14th daughter of a Manchu prince of the Aisin Gioro clan who dominated the Qing Dynasty. Their royal life ended soon after however when the Xinhai revolution toppled the Qing dynasty in 1911 thus forcing the 8-year-old to be up for adoption. they were adopted by a Japanese Mercenary and given the name they are most known by, Yoshiko Kawashima. Kawashima was flamboyant and energetic and was even known to ride a horse to school.


Their foster father, although providing them with shelter and education, openly harassed them and often bragged about marrying Kawashima. He would act abusively if he saw them so much as smile at another man. Kawashima put all their effort into their studies, practicing both judo and kendo and developing a passion for the social sciences.

When Kawashima was a teenager, they cut their hair and starting wearing boy’s clothing, sparking plenty of attention from the press. “People criticize me and say that I am perverted, and maybe they’re right,” Kawashima said in a Japanese newspaper, in 1925. At the time, cutting your hair when born a woman was unheard of and considered wrong. Kawashima said they “decided to cease being a woman forever” and that they had “a tendency toward the third sex.” However, Kawashima also claimed to wear men’s clothing to do things women couldn’t do, possibly because of the intolerant environment they lived in. After being raped by their stepfather at seventeen and their failed suicide attempt, they had no choice but to leave home.

Kawashima dived into the city, taking rich lovers of both genders. Their life full of carelessness and energy. They would sometimes brag about their affairs with men, but would also point to their female lovers and say “that’s my wife.” Not a lot is known about Kawashima’s life during this time, and the details are hazy. But two years later, they were forced into an arranged marriage with a Mongolian prince. A politically convenient union created by their stepfather. However, Kawashima’s royal connections didn’t last long; Kawashima divorced the prince and promptly moved to China.


They soon found themselves involved as a spy in one of the most monumental Asian wars of all time, the attempted Japanese invasion of China, aka the second Sino-Japanese war. As a spy, they would seduce Chinese officials in shady Shanghainese bars, manipulating them to provide useful information to the Japanese. They also managed to exploit their cousin Puyi, a child emperor, to become emperor of the new state Manchukuo (previously known as Manchuria). Kawashima organized their own militia of over a thousand men for the Japanese state. Kawashima’s new role as Commander Jin caused them to be a sort of celebrity; many called them the Joan of Arc of Manchukuo. They even released a record of their music and starred in pulp novels. However, their popularity was their downfall.

Kawashima’s loyalties didn’t lie with only the Japanese. Once they saw how the Japanese state’s cruel treatment of the native Chinese people, they immediately began to protest. Ultimately, these actions caused them to be cast aside by both China and Japan. They fled back to China, narrowly escaping an assassination attempt. They were able to open a quiet restaurant near Shanghai but were later arrested by the victorious Chinese (who had help from foreign allies) for treason. They claimed that Kawashima was Chinese and worked for the Japanese, and therefore was a traitor. Although Kawashima argued that they were technically Japanese, this did little to change the Chinese government’s opinion. They were publicly executed in 1948. In their pocket was a poem they had allegedly read to themselves since childhood.

Though there is a home, I can’t return

Though I am in tears, I don’t know how to express in words

Though there is a low, it is not righteous

Though there is a false accusation, to whom I can appeal?

This poem eloquently describes the hardships of Kawashima’s life of feeling divided between countries, between genders, and between morals. But even after their death, they remained as powerful as they were when they were alive. For decades, there were rumors that Kawashima was still alive, and that the execution was fake. Kawashima’s legacy continued in books, movies, soap operas, and even video games. The excitement and mystery of Kawashima’s life captivate people to this day.

This is part of a (roughly) monthly column highlighting Astounding Asians that we don’t learn in history class! If you have any questions or suggestions,  please contact Michaela Seah at