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?

"That's very old news. Atheists and those who insist they are the center of the ..."

The Wall o' Socialist Bible Quotes
"You TELL so many things that are wrong, you NEED to demonstrate that what you ..."

Atomism is Just a Theory
"Adam ca NOT stop the transmission of thoughts in his head no matter how hard ..."

Atomism is Just a Theory
"Nope not stuck in 'fake Atheist Flatland', silly.Remember, my thoughts are my own, while yours ..."

Atomism is Just a Theory

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment