Who Was “Tokyo Rose” of the WWII Radio Program for American Soldiers?

  • In the dark days of the Pacific War during the epic struggle of civilizations that was WWII, many American sailors and Marines would turn on their radios to listen to the dulcet tones of a program they were not allowed to listen to called “Zero Hour (ゼロ・アワー)”. This blacklisted station would play all of the popular American music the boys were missing from back home. This program was propaganda created by the Japanese army and NHK, it was intended to make the soldiers feel homesick, and decrease their motivation. But it actually did quite the opposite. While this whole project was a massive failure on Imperial Japan’s part, it left an enduring mystery: who was the sultry-voiced announcer that came to be known among the G.I.s as “Tokyo Rose (東京ローズ)”? She was never referred to in the show as Tokyo Rose, but it was a nickname given to her by the soldiers.

    In the years since the ending of WWII, we have learned more about this Tokyo Rose. She was not one woman, but many. So the correct question is, who were these Tokyo Roses? Today we will look at this mystery. We will look at the inception of the Zero Hour program. Who is the Japanese American woman most closely associated with Tokyo Rose, and finally we will look at one of the most astonishing questions: was the lost Amelia Earhart a Tokyo Rose?

    Countdown to Zero Hour


    Psychological warfare has always been a key component in mankind’s history. For example, in one famous incident in ancient China, a warlord used hundreds of prisoners to strike fear in the hearts of those who stood across him at the battlefield. He had these prisoners go out in front of his main troops, and just before they came into contact with their enemies they pulled out their swords and slit their own throats. The message this sent was, “We are willing to kill ourselves to defend our lord.” This is said to have terrified the army so much they gave up that moment and swore fealty to the warlord. Every army in every nation tries to make the best use of this oldest of war practices.

    Imperial Japan was no exception. In the years leading up to the outbreak of war with America, many planners knew or sensed a coming conflict. Many in the Japanese army had the impression that the American army, while large and incredibly well equipped, would have a lot of morale problems. This basic thought was shared by Hitler’s Germany as well as many in Europe. These countries all put stock in the theory of nationalistic purity. It was common to believe that the more “racially pure” your country, the stronger it is. But being that America was the world’s melting pot, and has always suffered problems in regards to race relations and class, in the crucible that is modern warfare these internal problems would rip the army apart. Some in the Imperial Army thought that many of the soldiers fighting for America were forced conscripts, and they only needed to remind them of the comforts of home and how much they were missing to make them question their entire reason for being there.

    So with the outbreak of war, the Imperial Army worked in conjunction with NHK (Japan’s public broadcasting company), to create a program to demoralize enemy troops. They had the idea of playing popular Western music that would remind the troops of home and make them think of the dance halls that their girl might be at dancing with another guy. As if this was not clear enough, in between the songs announcers would even spell these things out (not super subtle). But there was a big problem with this plan, while the Army task force tasked with this job had Japanese people who were able to read, write, and translate English, they had no one who could speak English without an accent. So they decided to use captured prisoners. Some of these women would become Tokyo Rose.

    The Tragic Story of Iva Toguri (アイバ・戸栗・郁子)


    Iva (pronounced Ai-va) Toguri was born to Japanese immigrants in America in 1916. Her father immigrated to America first, saved up his money then sent for his wife. Soon after arriving they had Iva. Like many immigrants in America they wanted their daughter to become American, so she only ate American food, and her parents only spoke to her in English. Apart from being racially Japanese she was, culturally speaking, as American as apple pie. She went to university and just months before Pearl Harbor she went to Japan to care for a sick aunt. She was less than impressed with Japan. She did not speak the language, had never used chopsticks, hated eating rice all the time. She tried to return home in late November but due to a mistake in the paperwork, she was unable to board her boat. Weeks later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and she was trapped in Japan.

    Often, when war breaks out countries will scour their own populations for any civilians from the enemy state. They will usually detain them for the duration of the war, or send them back to their own country in some sort of exchange. This happened in the Pacific War as well, Japan knew that any American-born people of Japanese descent could be an excellent resource. It was also bad PR if a lot of your messages to your people is about racial purity and how culturally better Japan was than America, only to have many of your own countrymen flee to the enemy nation. So Iva and all other foreign-born Japanese were forced to stay in Japan. They were pressured to renounce their foreign citizenship, and many did. But Iva staunchly held on to her American citizenship, and as a punishment, she was not given a ration card. And without a ration card, she could not get food.

    Totally isolated from her family at home and trapped in a foreign land, Iva was able to get work at an English language newspaper. There she was discovered by the people running Zero Hour, and they asked her to help them host it. She was to read demoralizing statements to the troops. Initially, she wanted no part in it, but in desperate need of sustenance she joined. There she met British-born Major Charles Hughes Cousens who had been taken prisoner in Singapore and had been somewhat of a radio celebrity in Australia. He was put in charge of Zero Hour, and worked tirelessly to subtly undermine the propagandistic messages without his Japanese overseers realizing.

    She worked on Zero Hour for three years, but refused to read any of the truly blatant propaganda, and when she was forced to read some she tried her best to change subtly in ways to make it funny. Zero Hour was a big hit with the soldiers. Far from making them feel depressed, the thoughts of home gave them more motivation to bring a quick and decisive end to the war so they could go home.

    After the war finally ended, Iva looked forward to going home finally. But when she finally got home, she was arrested for treason. Initially charges against her were dropped, but some American radio personalities whipped up a political firestorm about her and persuaded the Justice Department to investigate her again.

    Although many soldiers testified that she never read any of the propaganda, and Cousens also testified that she never committed treason, the anti-Japanese racism was still strong in post-war America, and this American woman, whose only crime was not giving up her American citizenship, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She basically was the single scapegoat for possible crimes committed by other Tokyo Roses.

    Iva would serve six years of her term, and eventually be pardoned by none other than President Gerald Ford in 1976. She was later commended for her bravery by many veterans groups.

    As tragic and interesting as Iva’s story is, rumors tell of another Tokyo Rose… A tall woman with red hair and a penchant for flight.

    Amelia Earhart… The Spy?


    The mystery of Amelia Earhart is one of the greater mysteries of the Pacific. She was one of the greatest pilots of her day. Without pilots like her, the modern air industry would have not existed. These early pilots risked life and limb on incredibly perilous journeys. In the Summer of 1937, Amelia started her last fateful trans-Pacific flight. Amelia Earhart disappeared July 2nd, 1937 while crossing the Pacific. Most scholars believe that she either crashed into the Pacific or crashed on an uncharted island and perished. But there are many rumors and eyewitness testimonies that tell an entirely different story. Amelia Earhart, the great woman pioneer of the sky, was captured by the Japanese navy.

    Some believe that Amelia, who was friends with the President of the United States, was sent on a secret mission. Her famous flight across the pacific was actually a cover for her to fly over Japanese military positions and take photos. This theory claims that either due to malfunction or interference by Japanese fighters Amelia was forced to land. The Japanese military checked her plane and found the cameras. Since it would be an act of war to punish an American, Japan never reported that it had Amelia in custody. America also did not want trouble, so Roosevelt kept quiet about the true nature of Amelia’s mission. Here, the story diverges into several paths. Some claim she was executed then and there, while others say she was taken prisoner. This later one is what we will look at.

    Amelia Earhart… Tokyo Rose?

    While Iva Toguri is most commonly associated with Tokyo Rose, it is believed that there were at least a dozen women who acted as a host for the show. We also know that the leadership behind Zero Hour almost exclusively used captured foreigners as hosts for the show. Many of the hosts never met each other, so it is entirely possible if Amelia was taken prisoner, she might have been forced to work on the show as one of the many voices of Tokyo Rose. In fact, some close friends of Amelia claim that some of the hosts sounded just like Amelia.

    So, what happened to her? There are some witnesses, both Japanese and American, who claim to have either seen Amelia or her missing plane in Gualdalcanal. There are Japanese villagers who claimed that they saw a tall white woman with red hair being escorted by military police. It is thought that she was executed by Japanese military officers on either Gualdalcanal or another Japanese-controlled island. There are a few American soldiers who claim that after reclaiming an airfield from the Japanese forces, they found out about Amelia Earhart’s plan and were ordered to destroy it and bury the remains. The story does not sound entirely plausible to me… But we may never really know.

    Amelia’s husband looked into the rumors that she was Tokyo Rose and after a lot of investigation he finally came to the conclusion that there was no real evidence that any of it was true. In fact, a lot of the evidence of this Amelia Earhart Spy Theory just really doesn’t add up at all. Why capture her in the South Pacific, bring her to Tokyo for several years then send her back to the South Pacific to execute her? While it is most probably not true, it is an interesting scenario to consider.


    The story of Tokyo Rose is incredibly interesting to me, not only as a person interested in psychological warfare but as a person interested in the idea of identity. Think of Iva Toguri; racially Japanese, culturally American, and asked to aid the war effort against her birth country in support of the country of her parents. The mind games it must play on you! Only to return to your country to be hounded as a traitor for nearly 40 years!

    Iva was not the only woman put through this. Not only were there other women giving voice to Tokyo Rose, but there were similar projects in both Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. War, especially the world wars, are full of great events that we all know and remember and read about in our school textbooks. But every war is made up of millions of tragic stories that are known to very few. I think that it is, of course, of utmost importance to learn about those great events, but we must also never forget the stories of the everyday people who fought to survive in a world at war.

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