The Legend of Tokyo Rose

Some time back, Friendly Atheist issued a challenge, “All you have to do is name another historical figure who may not have existed… along with your evidence!” I started on something and realized pretty quick that it would never fit into a comment. History is fractal; there’s always a deeper level, and it’s always more complicated than you think. This is what I ended up with.

During the WWII, GIs in the Pacific theater sent letters back home carrying stories of a woman they called “Tokyo Rose.” She was the siren of the Pacific, calling out to the lonely American servicemen in a sultry voice, carried by Japanese radio waves. She taunted them, insulted them and foretold their eventual demise.

Despite that, most GI’s seemed to find her more amusing than anything else. While she was part of the Japanese propaganda machine, her broadcasts carried news and music from back in the States. But some of her threats hit home:

Each by was quiet now, lost in his private thoughts. Their confidence must have been shaken when, that night, Tokyo Rose named many of their ships and a number of the marine units. She assured the Americans that while huge ships were needed to transport them to Iwo Jima, the survivors could later fit in a phone booth. (Flags of Our Fathers p.227)

A Rose by Any Other Name…

Pullquote: In fact, there doesn’t seem to have been any one person who went by the name “Tokyo Rose.”

Stories of Tokyo Rose are common in the war correspondence. Yet the attempts to find the woman have gone nowhere. One woman, named Iva Toguri d’Aquino, was eventually convicted. However, this seems to have been a media driven witch hunt rather than a careful investigation.

Toguri was a second generation Japanese-American who got caught visiting an aunt when the war started. She did serve as a “radio girl,” but under the name “Orphan Ann.” Her voice did not match the descriptions of Tokyo Rose. Unfortunately for her, she was the only radio girl to remain an American citizen after the war, making her the only possible guest of honor for an American show trial.

In fact, there doesn’t seem to have been any one person who went by the name “Tokyo Rose.” There were twenty-seven different female broadcasters at some point in the war, but none consistently used the handle of “Tokyo Rose.”

For some reason, the name caught on with the media. The New York Times wrote that “Tokyo Rose” could be picked up in Alaska, which seems unlikely. The US Navy, tongue in check, offered Tokyo Rose a citation for entertaining the troops.

Everything is more confused because most GI’s could not distinguish one accented voice from another, nor tell a Japanese accent from Filipino. Somehow “Tokyo Rose” became the catch-all name for the various female broadcasters, and somehow these various women were blended into one imaginary figure.

Impossible Intelligence

Pullquote: One of the first rules of intelligence gathering is that you don’t reveal the knowledge you’ve gained.

More problematic are the things she supposedly said. Consider the selection from Flags of Our Fathers, in which Tokyo Rose taunts the GI’s by revealing that she knows which ships they’re on. There are a large number of very similar stories in which Tokyo Rose threatens American troops by showing the depth of Japanese intelligence.

These stories are very hard to credit. One of the first rules of intelligence gathering is that you don’t reveal the knowledge you’ve gained. The idea that the Japanese intelligence service would hand information over to the propaganda service to be read out over the airwaves goes against everything we understand about how intelligence work was conducted.

The stories of Tokyo Rose were examined by the Office of Warfare Information (OWI), looking for the how she got her supposed intelligence. In the end, the OWI categorically rejected the stories as urban legends:

There is no Tokyo Rose; the name is strictly a GI invention … Government monitors listening in twenty-four hours a day have never heard the words Tokyo Rose over a Japanese-controlled Far Eastern Radio. (quoted in The Hunt for Tokyo Rose, p, xvii)

History and Memory

Pullquote: Somehow, in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the war, rumors had become reported facts.

Most of the literature focus on Iva Toguri d’Aquino, the poor woman who was jailed for eight years because people believed that she was someone that didn’t exist. As well it should, since the story of someone railroaded into a conviction because people wanted someone to blame has all sorts of contemporary significance.

But what interests me is the way in which memory was constructed. Somehow, in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the war, rumors had become reported facts. The stories told by the GIs were picked up by the media, and Tokyo Rose became a real character to the American public.

Resources: Dafydd Neal Dyar has compiled a tremendous amount of material on this. EarthStation1 has a collection of audio clips by and about Iva Toguri AKA “Orphan Ann”. The “Orphan Ann” Home Page has the biography.

Public Historian Ann Elizabeth Pfau has a chapter in her work Miss Yourlovin: GIs, Gender and Domesticity during World War II analyzing the Tokyo Rose legend, now available online (now that’s taking public history seriously!)

A few years back, George Takei was working on a movie on Tokyo Rose. He mentioned it in an interview back in 2006. Anybody know where that stands?

  • Mark the Pilgrim

    Pretty interesting stuff.

    I love the historical posts here. =D

  • Revyloution

    Well done. That was informative and fun to read. I woke up this morning feeling smarter.

  • Wafik

    I had an entire lecture about Tokyo Rose in my 2nd year World War 2 class. Truly an interesting subject. It amazes me that you could ever get any kind of reliable report during a war with the tremendous stress people are under. I suppose that is why I have such high respect for the men and woman able to serve in the military.

    As for the George Takei movie, IMDB just has it listed as still in production. I was not able to dig up any current reports on the project.

  • Ty

    Another fine history lesson from Vorjack.

    Keep it up.

  • Robert Jase

    There aren’t many of ‘Orphan Ann’s” shows left but they’re worth listening to – she was pretty funny & far from the supposed seductress that Tokyo Rose was supposed to be.

    There really is no resemblance.

  • LRA

    But the historical Tokyo Rose was real!!! She is real because soldiers who were dying for our country SAID she was real! They died fighting against people like her. WHY WOULD THEY DIE IF SHE DIDN’T EXIST? WHY WOULD THEY SAY THAT SHE KNEW SPECIFIC DETAILS OF AMERICAN ACTIVITY IF SHE DIDN’T EXIST??? MY GRANDFATHER SERVED IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC AND HE WAS THERE AND YOU WEREN’T… ARE YOU CALLING HIM A LIAR???

    You all are just DOGMATIC in your anti-Tokyo Rose position. You are historical REVISIONISTS. You have blinders on your eyes about the evils of Tokyo Rose. But that is why she is so powerful… because people like you won’t admit to her real existence so she could be defeated. I believe my grandfather over you elitist snob atheist commie pinko joo liberalz.

    (Yup. Sounds about like David Barton and his ilk.)

  • Ann Elizabeth Pfau

    Thanks for the plug. I am currently working with Stephen G. Michaud on a biography of Mildred Gillars (aka Axis Sally).

    Ann Elizabeth Pfau

    • vorjack

      Thanks for the plug.

      You’re welcome. It was a side comment from Dr. Hochfelder that put me on to this, so it all comes around somehow.

  • Bill

    What an excellent post.

  • Botar

    Very interesting read. Thank you for your effort.

  • atimetorend

    Great subject and post. It is interesting how stories become distorted that way. In Toguri’s case, it is tragic the way those distortions can be used, as well as created, to further the goals of racism and injustice. Just read her wikipedia entry, the story is even more sad than I realized reading your post. I think she must have been quite heroic to suffer the consequences she did, through no wrong doing of her own, and still carry on with life.

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  • Rob

    Do you think the Tokyo Rose being a myth has anything to do with “Axis Sally”? I don’t know much about her except that Samuel Fuller has a pretty detailed account on what she did and say in his autobiography “A Third Face.” He even mentions that a lady named Mildred Gillards was born in Portland, Maine and was arraigned for treason. He has about two pages of what she says and claims to have heard her first hand. Not to say that this makes the Tokyo Rose story any truer, but do you think the fact that one existed on the Western front then it would be an easy sell for her to exist on the Eastern front.


    For a Brit, as soon as you mention “Historical character who may not have existed”, there are two who spring instantly to mind. The first is King Arthur – oh yes, there may (or may not) have been an English King named Arthur (he only real evidence comes from dark-age scholars reporting rumours of a general defeating Saxons for a time) but pretty much every detail of his life is so interleaved with myth s to render him, if not entirely fiction, as near as dammit someone who never existed. The other is Robin Hood, of whom there were stories, rhymes etc. but never any solid description – serious scholars know him to be a compound of various rebels and brigands who existed in England around that time, but most people think of him as a genuine character.

    • Jabster

      King Arthur doesn’t exist – so who’s been on television for the past many weeks then?