The Myth of Tokyo Rose

tags: pardons, treason

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN and author of several books on myths, including, "I Loved Paul Revere Whether He Rode or Not," in which he debunked the myth of Tokyo Rose.

UPDATED 9-28-06 On Tuesday Iva Toguri died at age 90. NBC News, repeating a mistake made five years ago, claimed on Wednesday's Nightly News that she had been Tokyo Rose, "the voice of propaganda and the voice of the enemy ... [who] went on the air for Radio Tokyo, notoriously telling US servicemen that their cause was lost and that their sweethearts back home were betraying them." As this story published on HNN in December 2001 noted, Toguri was innocent of the charge.  –  HNN Editor

Of myths E.M. Forster once wrote,"Nonsense of this type is more difficult to combat than a solid lie. It hides in rubbish heaps and moves when no one is looking." This quotation came to mind this week when we came across several references in the media to the World War II traitor Tokyo Rose. Old traitors like Tokyo Rose have been in the news since the capture last week of Suleyman al-Faris (aka: John Walker), the wan 18 year old from posh Marin County who turned to Islam and then volunteered to fight with the Taliban.

The New York Times was the first to make the association of Walker with Tokyo Rose in an article published December 4 titled,"Could Seized American Face Treason Count?" Toward the end of the piece reporter Neil A. Lewis noted that only about 30 Americans have ever been charged with treason, among them,"Iza Ikuko d'Aquino, known as Tokyo Rose, who served seven years in prison for her role in broadcasting appeals to American soldiers to desert during World War II." Playing catch-up, NBC News finally got around to Tokyo Rose on December 10, reporting that she had been charged with treason and then pardoned three decades later by President Gerald Ford.

Alert viewers might have wondered why President Ford gave a known traitor a pardon, but NBC didn't bother explaining. Too bad. The story, though little known, is an appalling study in media hysteria, prosecutorial misconduct, and judicial incompetence. To jump to the end of the story: there was no Tokyo Rose. The Japanese-American woman convicted of broadcasting propaganda to soldiers during World War II -- her actual name was Iva Toguri -- was innocent of the charge of treason.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The story begins with World War II, when a myth began circulating in the Pacific about an American of Japanese descent who was said to be using her sultry voice on Japanese radio to undermine the morale of American soldiers. Walter Winchell got hold of the story, setting in motion the frenzy that was to lead to one of the great travesties in the history of American justice. At war's end reporters visiting Japan went on the hunt for Tokyo Rose. Only Tojo was a bigger"get" to interview. Unfortunately, as the reporters soon discovered, several women broadcast over Radio Tokyo and none used the name Tokyo Rose. Unwilling to puncture a balloon that now had grown to a gigantic size, the reporters promised $2,000 to Iva Toguri to say that she was Tokyo Rose. Toguri, who'd been stranded in Japan by the war and provided for herself by getting a job as a DJ, signed a statement claiming to be Tokyo Rose, though she had no idea that this figure had been implicated in treason.

The army conducted an investigation and cleared her, as the New York Times reported in August 1945."There is no Tokyo Rose," the U.S. Office of War Information revealed,"the name is strictly a G.I. invention.... Government monitors listening in twenty-four hours a day have never heard the word 'Tokyo Rose' over a Japanese-controlled Far Eastern radio." Three years later Assistant Attorney General Theron L. Caudle confirmed that Toguri was innocent."Her activity," he wrote," consisted of nothing more than the announcing of music selections."

No matter. The media, led by Walter Winchell, went on a witch hunt. In 1948 the government of Harry Truman, then in the political race of his life, pressed charges against Toguri, indicting her for treason and trying her in federal court in San Francisco. It was a frame-up from the start. The key witnesses who testified against her during the trial, claiming she had broadcast propaganda over the radio, subsequently admitted they had lied."We had no choice," said one of the witnesses, a Japanese businessman."U.S. Occupation police came and told me I had no choice but to testify against Iva, or else." He and others flown in from Japan for the trial"were told what to say and what not to say for two hours every morning for a month before the trial started."

The judge in the trial was convinced that Toguri was guilty and privately confessed that he was shocked that his son -- a veteran who had been stationed in the Pacific -- felt no animosity to her."I can't understand it," the judge confessed. In his instructions to the jury he excluded virtually all of the arguments Toguri's lawyers had raised in her defense. The jury foreman afterward said,"If it had been possible under the judge's instructions" to acquit her, the jury would have.

In 1956, after spending seven years in prison, Iva Toguri was finally released. Reporters hid in bushes all night so they could catch a glimpse of the notorious traitor.

In the 1970s the truth came out and Ford, on his last full day in office, pardoned her, finally vindicating her quiet claims of innocence. But what is the truth compared to the myth? And so the New York Times and NBC repeated as truth one of the most sordid lies of postwar justice.

SOURCE: Masayo Duus, Tokyo Rose: Orphan of the Pacific (1979).

Related Links

  • NPR: Melissa Block talks with Ronald Yates, whose stories in The Chicago Tribune helped D'Aquino win her pardon.

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    More Comments:

    Stephan Xavier Reich - 11/24/2006

    Very interesting--is there, I wonder, any professional historian who defends the guilty charge? Has anyone at all made a case challenging her innocence?

    HNN - 9/30/2006

    Axis Sally was the real deal. No myth, she.

    HNN - 9/30/2006

    Morale booster--that's right! Every account I've read says that the impact of the broadcasts by the Japanese increased American soldiers' resolve.

    Mark Grimsley - 9/29/2006

    It's fascinating to learn the truth about Tokyo Rose. I'd always assumed she was a real person, like Germany's Lord Haw Haw, a British ex-patriate whom the British hanged after the war.

    What about Axis Sally? Was she by any chance a myth as well? The web page to which I've linked portrays her as an American, Mildred Gillars, and because she lived in my home town of Columbus, Ohio, I used to hear tell of her from time to time.

    Jonathan Dresner - 9/29/2006

    I'll second that: Toguri's conviction is universally recognized by actual historians of the period to be a travesty, and the presidential pardon to have been entirely justified.

    Alonzo Hamby - 9/29/2006

    My stepfather, a Missouri farm boy who served in the South Pacific during World War as a cook, remembered fondly listening to "Tokyo Rose" at the end of each day. Whatever the truth about this one person, the composite was probably a morale booster!

    HNN - 9/29/2006

    No professional historian that I know of defends the charge against her.

    Maybe Michelle Malkin will now come out with a book that does.

    James Stanley Kabala - 9/28/2006

    Dear Mr. Shenkman,
    Your book was where I first learned of Iva Toguri's innocence (and also of Horatio Alger's pedophilia, also in the news lately, as his hometown of Marlborough, Mass. is considering re-naming a street named in his honor). Kudos for keeping the fight alive.

    carmen trotta - 5/24/2002

    Mr. Yates,
    According to the original article, tokyo rose was in Japan because she was trapped there by the war. Where is she originally from, and why, and at what point did she travel to Japan and find herself trapped there?

    Carmen Trotta

    John Boylan - 12/12/2001

    Is this account another example of journalism-gone-wild? I am reminded of the "creation" of the Spanish-American War by the Hearst minions.
    Are there other distortions of news events which we have swallowed whole? It is a given that our press must be free so that we may too enjoy freedom. But sometimes that freedom, when discipline and responsibility vanish, borders upon absolute power and nothing corrupts as absolutely as absolute power. (Witness the rise of John Ashcroft!)

    Ronald E. Yates - 12/12/2001

    Nice job on this story. The news media are still getting it wrong--even the venerable NYT.

    You might be interested in knowing that it was in a series of stories I wrote in 1976 for the Chicago Tribune that George Mitsushio and Ken Oki confessed that they had perjured themselves at the trial of Iva Toguri, AKA "Tokyo Rose." I was the Tribune's Far Eastern Correspondent, based in Tokyo at the time. I had tracked down Mitsushio and Oki and after several meetings with them, they told me they had lied at Iva's trial. After my stories appeared(they were picked up all over the country) the Ford White House contacted me in Tokyo wanting more information. 60 Minutes did a piece on Iva and on January 17, 1977 Ford pardoned her.

    Iva and I are writing a book about her WW II experiences and the aftermath that will be told, for the first time, from her perspective.

    I am now a professor of journalism and head of the department of journalism at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

    Best regards,

    Ronald E. Yates

    Billc - 12/12/2001

    If there was ever a reason why I love the study of history, this article sums it up. Finding out the truth, or as near as may be determined, is what I find most fascinating about our collective past. Debunking is a delightful side course in the main menu of study. Thanks for the article