Japan History Lab

Tokyo Rose: Narratives of Race, Nationality and Gender for Nisei during the Second World War

Tokyo Rose

Narratives of race, nationality, and gender for Nisei during World War II


By Josie Junck


“Newsmen and a handful of G.I.s at last, after three long years, got a look at the Jap radio's famed, honey-voiced Tokyo Rose. Their opinion: with television, she wouldn't have lasted." 1 This was the bolded, first line of a Time magazine article, published in September of 1945. The article, less than 400 words in length went on to specify that Iva Toguri, the woman branded as the Tokyo Rose, was “California-born” but “Jap-blooded,” and that the money she earned while working on the radio show, The Zero Hour, were in fact “wages of sin." 1 Directly after the publication of this and many other brief articles like it, Iva Toguri would be arrested and sent to the Sugamo prison in Yokohama in October 1945. She would remain there for a year, until the next October, without any charges and without access to a lawyer. From there she would go on to be sentenced to ten years in prison, getting out in January 1956 for good behaviour, only to have the United States Government open a case to deport her (pg. 4). 2


Unfortunately, the Time article was just one of multiple, all conveying a similar message. While the biased, sexist and racially- charged language seems to signify she did something horribly wrong and that she was a traitor to her country, phrases like “Jap-blooded” paradoxically suggest that she was not a full and deserving citizen of the United States. The irony of being chastised for betraying ones’ country, while also not being accepted by that country as a full citizen, is difficult to ignore. This paper will inspect the experience and myth of Iva Toguri, labeled the ‘Tokyo Rose,’ in order to understand the everyday lives of Nisei, both in Japan and America, during World War II. Through this analysis, it will also argue that the myth of the ‘Tokyo Rose’ gives insight into the way in which perceptions of race, nationality and gender governed the treatment of Nisei during and immediately after World War II. It will do so by first providing background on Iva Toguri, before focusing specifically on how notions of race, nationality and gender informed her treatment and public opinion. The purpose of this paper is to suggest that while all Nisei were not on trial for treason per se, these same narratives informed their lived experiences just as they did for Toguri, and that her life provides a terrific case study through which to inspect such issues.


As the 1945 Time article states, Iva Toguri was indeed California-born, on the most American day of the year, the Fourth of July, 1916. In her own words she was raised in a “typical American community,” in which she attended both public school and the Christian community church (pg.42).3 She continued her average Christian, American life in California by enrolling at UCLA, eventually graduating in 1940 with a Bachelor of Arts. The only reason Toguri was in Japan in the fall of 1941 was to visit a sick aunt. It was her first trip ever to the country. After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, returning to the United States became too costly for Toguri’s upper class family to afford due to their relocation to internment settlements. Thus, she was forced to remain in Japan, along with some other “40,000 Japanese Americans” for the remainder of the war (pg. 132). 4


The disenfranchisement of Toguri’s family in the United States reflects the lived reality of all Issei and Nissei (first and second generation Japanese Americans, respectively). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, “110,000… [Japanese-Americans] were removed from their homes on the West Coast and confined in camps"(pg.21). 5 Their race, it now became clear was far more important to their identity than their nationality, at least to their government. When considering if the Nisei men were appropriate to draft into the U.S. military, the board of officers within the office of the Army Chief of Staff decided that the “lone fact that these individuals [were] of Japanese ancestry… tend[ed] to place them in a most questionable light as to their loyalty to the United States" (pg. 26).5 In this way, it can be seen that racism indeed trumped the American government’s perception of their citizens. That is not to say that there were not advocates from within the government who condemned these acts. For example, Lieutenant Commander Cecil H. Coggins declared that a “Nisei thinks like any other American boy who has lived in the same environment"(pg. 24). 5 That being said, the overwhelming message received by Japanese Americans was that they were at best suspicious and their loyalty was not to be trusted.


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Map of forced internment camps used to house Japanese Americans during WWII6.

Due to her family’s disenfranchisement at home in the United States, Toguri had no choice but to get a job in Japan, where she, along with other Nisei trapped in Japan at this time experienced “considerable pressure to assume Japanese citizenship" (pg. 172). 4 She worked at Radio Tokyo as a typist and began doing some broadcasts as “Orphan Ann,” on the show The Zero Hour. The show was a form of propaganda in which “seductive” women would entertain the Allied troops, while playing music, telling stories, and reading letters supposedly written by Allied prisoners of war, which were all meant to make troops homesick. In one interview, Toguri claimed she did not want to broadcast, but was convinced “by the commanding prisoner of war officer, Charles Cousins,” an Allied soldier at the station who confirmed her story (pg. 172).4 She said Cousins told her it would bring the soldiers comfort, as they were away from home. It did indeed appear to, as is confirmed by the fact that “hundreds of veterans who served in the Pacific… testified in the 1960’s that broadcasts by the female announcers from Radio Tokyo did not hurt their morale" (pg. 175). 4 Many even claimed to “look forward to her broadcasts" (pg. 175). 4 Toguri’s life changed in 1945, when she was labeled as the official ‘Tokyo Rose,’ by two American journalists who promised her pay for signing a document, which stated she was the one and only, but then neglected to pay her.


Immediately after agreeing to be the ‘Tokyo Rose,’ it was clear that the focus of her story would be her race and how that intersected with her nationality and gender. Indicative of the kind of pressure Nisei living in Japan during World War II experienced, an officer from the Foreign Section of the Special Security Police (Tokko Keiatsu), showed up to interrogate, question and pressure Toguri to give up her American citizenship. When she refused, he told her that if she kept her “American citizenship there [would] be all kinds of trouble” for her (pg. 55).3 Arguably, the officer would not have considered this had Toguri been a Caucasian American citizen. She would have immediately been interned. Instead, the officer told Toguri “since you are of Japanese extraction and a woman, I do not think you will be very dangerous so we will not intern you," (pg. 55) 3 despite the fact that Toguri told him that she wanted “to be interned as a foreigner" (pg. 55).3 Ironically, at this time her family members in California were interned and stripped of all rights due to their race. While it was clear that Toguri was American, not able to even “understand enough Japanese to listen to the radio” in Japan, her race helped her escape internment, yet it forced her family into it (pg.54).3


One historian, Naoko Shibusawa suggests it is primarily the media’s fault for playing into “familiar stories, motifs and morals” in order to sell papers, thereby framing the story on preconceived notions of race and gender (pg. 171).4 While the media certainly did perpetuate the stereotype of a conniving, mysterious “oriental” woman, the handling of the myth of the Tokyo Rose cannot be to blame entirely, as the narratives of race, gender and nationality already existed. In fact, many American newspapers actually appeared to be critical of the United States’ charges of treason against Toguri. For example, in 1949, the Washington Post, claimed that while her actions deserved some sort of punishment, her case was most likely the result of “some sort of amnesty or oblivion,” noting that the evidence against her was slim.7 Another article wrote in 1957, one year after Toguri’s release from prison in the United States, that “if the government, through this case, wins the right to deport and native born citizen, an ominous precedent will have been established" (pg. E4).8 This article directly critiques the impact Toguri’s race had on the United State’s government’s refusal to recognize her as a citizen.


Perhaps what most impacted the myth of the Tokyo Rose however, was her gender. Shibusawa suggests that Tokyo Rose “symbolized the alluring feminized side of japan,” a dangerous one, “veiled in oriental mystery" (pg. 169).4 This appears to be true, as the reports surrounding her had to do with either her treachery, or her looks. Reports on her trial mainly focused on the fact that she was plainly dressed, and as the first line of the Time article suggests, people did not feel she was attractive enough to have made it on television. It has been pointed out as well that the “United States press and government paid very little attention to the male Nisei broadcasters” (pg. 178). 4 This could be because the male Nisei had, in a sense, proven their worth as soldiers for the United States. It could also be because “misogynist and racist notions made it easier for American journalists to see a Japanese American woman as a treacherous, Asian seductress” rather than a patriot (pg. 289).4 Indeed much of the fascination with the legend of ‘Tokyo Rose’ was her mystery. G.I.’s were often focused on her femininity; a couple interviewed were reported to have said “I’d sure like a date with her," at the same time that others asked about their thoughts on the ‘Tokyo Rose’ declared she must be “punished” (pg. 170).4


In consideration of the handling of her race, nationality and gender, Iva Toguri’s tragic circumstances can be recognized as one case, which demonstrates the ugliness of the treatment of Nisei at home in the United States, as well as in Japan, during WWII. A large portion of her life was stolen, as was the case for tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans, due simply to their race. As the Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL) declared, Iva Toguri was “a victim of wartime hysteria and a scapegoat… for those who… sought vengeance and national retribution" (pg. 29).9 She was painted as an “Oriental villain” despite living her entire life in the United States with the exception of the years (1941-1947) in which she was forced to stay in Japan. Although the media played a role in crafting her myth, the fictitious legend of the ‘Tokyo Rose’ was supported by a long established notion of the race and gender of Japanese Americans, and how that prevented them from being viewed as fully American.