They Call Her Tokyo Rose
By Keith O'Brien
JANUARY 20, 1998:
The Toguri family works their Japanese import goods store on Chicago's North Side as they have since the 1960s. Located near the corner of Clark and Belmont, J. Toguri Mercantile is one of those anonymous storefronts you may have walked past many times without notice. Behind the counter, small, withered Japanese-American women in aprons ring up a customer's purchase of rice crackers and tea as they make conversation in Japanese. The foreign words echo into the high ceilings and down the empty aisles. When the customer thanks the women for her groceries and walks out the door, the conversation stops. Under the soft, yellow lights, the silence is almost deafening. For Iva Ikuko Toguri, the 81-year-old woman who now runs her father's store, that silence is her life.
They called her Tokyo Rose -- a temptress of the vilest kind. A woman who used the airwaves to taunt America's fighting men in the Pacific during the bloody, brutal battles of World War II. A federal jury convicted her of treason and sentenced her to ten years in prison in 1949. Tokyo Rose—the name is vaguely familiar, strangely sinister, mildly provocative. Tokyo Rose brings to mind a woman elusive and mysterious, dark and brooding. She is shifty and cool to the touch, but steamy under the collar like an Asian summer.
Yet Tokyo Rose, at least as we perceive her, never actually existed. She is a myth first spawned by U.S. servicemen listening to female disc jockeys on wartime radio in the Pacific, then seized and molded by a U.S. government seeking to hand out blame for years of death and destruction, and finally propagated by silence, ignorance and ambivalence in the fifty years since. In the case of the seductive siren Tokyo Rose, myth has melted into memory, memory into myth.
But the real story of the woman who became known as Tokyo Rose is even more intriguing than the tale of some sexy, seductive woman calling men from their warships to watery graves. Iva Toguri's story is a drama emblematic of the most significant events of the twentieth century: World War II, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. It is a story of one woman's undying love for America during a time when her name and face made her an alien in the very country she called home. It is a story of human tragedy and perseverance against all odds. Her story, very simply, is the stuff of Hollywood -- an epic whose characters are star-crossed lovers and embattled soldiers, villainous lawyers, politicians and journalists, and one heroic woman who quietly endured the lies in a vain attempt to live a simple life.
Iva Toguri is still alive. But with the exception of a couple of unauthorized biographies, a few television productions and a smattering of newspaper articles written over the last two decades, her story is all but dead and forgotten. Hollywood has not asked to talk to her. Publishers have not been able to. Now, with age and time catching up with the innocent Japanese-American woman who, at the age of 25, left her California home in the summer of 1941 to care for her mother's ailing sister outside Tokyo, there is an urgency to tell Toguri's compelling tale before it's too late. However, those who now struggle to tell it—Iva Toguri included—are hobbled by debate, by the power of her myth, and by the silence that echoes loudly in the rafters of time.
"Poor Iva," laments Ron Yates, a Chicago Tribune correspondent in Tokyo from 1974-77 and the Trib's Japan Bureau Chief from 1985-92. "She's getting old. Old," he says again. "This story is never going to get told until I tell it myself. I've got files on her, files and files, notes from when we have talked. It's just a shame. It ought to be put together."
Yates, who claims "unequivocally" that no one is better suited to tell Toguri's story than he is, first heard that she was the woman called Tokyo Rose when he was living in Chicago in the early 1970s and got a letter from a reader. Soon after, "I began to see that something was not quite right," says Yates, now the head of the journalism department at the University of Illinois. "The evidence and the trial itself didn't seem to be done in the right way. If you take it out of the context of the time, you think, ‘Why didn't anybody see this?' Well, at the time, three years after the war, 1948, there was a lot of hatred toward the Japanese. A lot of people had lost sons and mothers and fathers. You could kind of get some sense about why she was being prosecuted. But even so, even when you allow for the temper of the time, there seemed to be something wrong."
Yates returned to the story in 1976, after he was stationed in Tokyo. He tracked down two of the men who had testified against Toguri in 1949. There, inside a restaurant in Tokyo, Yates sat stunned as Kenkichi Oki and George Mitsushio, both California-born Japanese-Americans who were Iva's superiors on the wartime broadcasts, said they had lied at the trial when they claimed she made a treasonous broadcast after the U.S. Naval victory in the Leyte Gulf of the Philippines in October 1944. Through tears of guilt and shame, they admitted that Toguri had done nothing treasonous. Nothing at all. "It was tough for them," Yates says.
"It was a tough time. But at the same time, you shake your head and say, ‘How could you do this to this woman who didn't do anything wrong?' But looking at the times again, they were terrified." In May 1976, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo contacted Yates to confirm the information. Support, albeit silent, began to build for her pardon. Finally, after the Trib's stories and an appearance on "60 Minutes," President Gerald Ford pardoned Toguri in his last official act in office on July 19, 1977.
It was an anti-climactic end to Toguri's epic tale, which began in 1941 when things first began to go wrong for her. The daughter of Japanese immigrants who came to the States near the turn of the century, Iva Ikuko Toguri was born on July 4, 1916—a date that would later be noted for its cosmic irony. One of four children, she lived with her parents in Los Angeles and worked in her father's Japanese import goods store before going off to Compton Junior College in 1934. After a semester, she transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles and continued to pursue a future in medicine as a zoology major. When she graduated from UCLA in 1940, life stretched out before her like the American Dream itself.
But in June 1941, just as diplomatic talks between Japan and the U.S. were beginning to sputter and stall in Washington, D.C., Toguri's mother, Fumi, received word that her only living sister was sick. Unable to go to Tokyo herself because of illness, Mrs. Toguri sent Iva instead. Now almost 25, Toguri was more than a little reluctant. Despite her heritage, she had never been to Japan. She was a nisei—first-generation Japanese-American—who had little knowledge of the world that her parents left behind in Japan. Not unlike most children of Asian immigrants at that time, Toguri saw herself simply as an American.
Her ship, the Arabia Maru, set sail from San Pedro, California, to Kobe via Yokohama July 5, 1941. As Toguri stood on the deck that day in the sparkling white sharkskin suit that her sister had made for her, she waved good-bye to her family down on the dock. Little did she know that upon her homecoming, joy and celebration would be replaced by controversy and hatred. This young woman, the veritable girl next door, would return an alleged war criminal. Toguri's life was about to change forever.
As Japanese planes interrupted the early morning calm over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Toguri caught a glimpse of her bleak future. Since her arrival, Toguri's letters home had expressed little happiness about her life with her aunt and uncle in Setagaya, a suburb of Tokyo. Unaccustomed to Japanese food, her diet suffered. Unable to communicate in her parents' native tongue, her plight was only exacerbated by the fact that she looked Japanese, and therefore was expected to speak the language. She had few friends and even fewer work opportunities. Moreover, the Japanese were beginning to feel the effects of their nation's war-stretched economy. Toguri wanted out and told her father, Jun Toguri, as much in a letter not long before the attack on Pearl Harbor. But now, like approximately 10,000 other Japanese Americans in Japan at the time war broke out, she was stuck in a foreign land. If she wondered what her new life would be like now that Japan and the U.S. were at war, an unannounced visit from the Special Security Police two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor gave her some idea. She was the enemy, and the Japanese were watching.
As part of their frequent visits, the local police and kempeitai, or military police, demanded that Toguri renounce her American citizenship. They said it would make life easier on her, implying punishments if she did not comply with their forceful requests. She told them no way. Bill Kurtis, who scored an interview with Toguri back when he was "a young cub reporter" with WBBM-TV Channel 2 in the mid-1960s, has stayed in touch with her ever since. According to Kurtis, such stubborn loyalty was and continues to be pure Iva. "She's always there," he explains. "She has a kind of unwavering loyalty to me and my friendship—exactly the same kind of loyalty that caused her not to renounce her U.S. citizenship, which is what caused the problem in the first place."
Between visits from the kempeitai, Toguri found part-time work with the Domei News Agency, monitoring the airwaves for American movements in the Pacific for 110 yen per month, or about $5. In June 1943, she also began working as a typist for Radio Tokyo at NHK's American Division of the Overseas Bureau. However, her duties soon required much more of Toguri.
Radio Tokyo was responsible for English-language radio broadcasts in the Pacific, which included anti-American propaganda. One show that became particularly popular was "Zero Hour," which played the newest music of the day and gave war reports. Organized and presented by Allied prisoners of war under the supervision of Japanese military intelligence, the "Zero Hour" broadcasts were subtly sabotaged by the POWs, including Australian Army Major Charles Cousens, a former radio celebrity in Sydney.
When Radio Tokyo asked Cousens to add a female voice, he chose Toguri from amongst several Japanese-American women at NHK, although she was less experienced in broadcasting and less appealing in her presentation. Unlike the other women, Toguri's voice was stunted, not smooth. She sounded sincere, not sexy. In other words, she was exactly what Cousens was looking for: someone he could teach and mold to read scripts that pleased the Japanese supervisors at Radio Tokyo, but did little damage to the morale of Allied men.
Like other female radio personalities who broadcast in the Pacific during the war, Toguri operated under a stage name. On the air she was Orphan Ann. From late 1943 to nearly the end of the war in the Pacific, Toguri read scripts that Cousens had written (she wrote a little on her own as well, after Cousens collapsed from a heart attack in the summer of 1944).
But with the end of the war and the U.S. occupation of Japan, Toguri wept with joy. Now, finally, she would be able to return home. Only when she made her homecoming to California, it was as the much-touted war criminal Tokyo Rose.
By all accounts, and from the few "Zero Hour" tapes that remain, Toguri said little in her broadcasts that could be construed as treasonous. Moreover, despite the servicemen's use of Tokyo Rose to describe the female voices they heard on the radio, after the war U.S. military research failed to find any evidence of the name Tokyo Rose in radio programs from all over the Pacific.
However, as the media swarmed across Japan in search of the post-war scoop, a confused, young woman, excited about going home, became yet another victim of the war. She offered herself up freely to the press, explaining exactly what she did because she thought she had done no wrong. In the process, she became a star amongst the servicemen who thought they had heard her voice all those years. Military investigators, following the stories about this Tokyo Rose, tore her away from husband Felipe d'Aquino, whom Toguri married in 1945 after their years spent trapped in Japan. She was locked away in barracks without counsel and along the way became "the one and only Tokyo Rose."
Naoko Shibusawa, a Northwestern University doctoral candidate, has studied the news accounts of that time and Toguri's ordeal while researching her dissertation on post-war images of the Japanese. Shibusawa has been able to identify the qualities of Toguri's case that captured the American imagination. "The thing about a UCLA-educated woman who went and became a traitor to the U.S. entered into myth," she argues. "All the newspapers keep going back to repeat that she went to UCLA. It's important. It's important, of course, because it hooks into that old thought that Americans had about Japanese, Asians and Orientals in general—they use Western education, Western methods against Westerners. They come over here and study us, only to get at us in nefarious ways."
Toguri's three-month trial would become the biggest and most expensive legal battle to date, with a price tag of $500,000. She was ultimately convicted of one count of treason (she had been charged with eight) with nearly no concrete evidence against her. She was sentenced to ten years in prison and given a $10,000 fine. She served more than six years of that sentence in Alderson Federal Reformatory in West Virginia.
For anyone who cares, the details of Toguri's story are well-documented in U.S. legal and military records and brought to light in such books as 1979's "Tokyo Rose: Orphan of the Pacific," written by Masayo Duus. But for Yates, the pardon that Ford granted Toguri and the mere facts are not enough to soothe the pain of a lifetime. He feels that if the wrongs of the past that cannot be fully righted, at least they can be explained in her story—a story that seasoned journalists like Yates and Kurtis see as nothing short of incredible. "The problem is not that it's a bad story. It's a wonderful story. A beautiful story," Yates says. "It's a love story with everything you could possibly want. It has survival, an indomitable sprit, a woman born on the 4th of July, who graduated from UCLA with everything in front of her. She does her duty and gets caught up in World War II like a whole lot of other people did and winds up suffering the rest of her life."
"Her life is a fairy tale," Kurtis agrees. "It's a wonderful story. Everyone who hears is says that it should be a movie. Think of all that."
So why hasn't Toguri's story become a movie? The answers vary. Barbara Gross Trembley, Toguri's unofficial Los Angeles-based "advisor," bought the rights to her story about six years ago. According to Trembley, Toguri's story faces an amazing amount of prejudice because of both her Asian-American heritage and because of the way the Tokyo Rose myth has warped American perceptions of Toguri's life. In the last few years, NBC, CBS and TriStar Pictures, among others, have shot down the story, and now Trembley is looking to independent filmmakers. "It's very hard to kill a myth," she concludes. "She is written into myth. We need to write her back into humanity."
Yates, who is hesitant about being critical of the process because of his friendship with both Trembley and Toguri, calls the sale of the story in Hollywood "misguided." He believes that a book -- written from Toguri's perspective -- would help generate publicity for Trembley's movie plans. However, that idea gets little support from California. Two years ago, when Yates and Toguri, who apparently is now very enthusiastic about telling her story, sat down to begin work on a book, Trembley intervened and called it off, saying that an autobiography would hurt her cause in Hollywood. Moreover, Trembley refuses to allow press access to Toguri at this time. NewCity's attempts to interview Toguri were denied by both family members and Trembley herself.
Yates says the gridlock in Hollywood makes him more than a little frustrated. "I think she needs to tell her story quite frankly," he explains, his voice strained. "She's never done it. Never done it. What feelings was she experiencing? What went through her mind? Everything about the period and how she survived through the war as an American woman who couldn't speak Japanese—I don't even really care about having a credit for the book. It's one of the most riveting stories to come out of the war era and it needs to be told before it's too late." But in brushing off interview requests, Trembley says Toguri has "been through enough."
However, until someone tells her story to the nation, Iva Ikuko Toguri will remain veiled in mystery, with only the black-and-white facts of history to support her claims of innocence, as she sits quietly in her North Side shop.
"If it's supposed to happen, it's going to happen," Yates says. "Unfortunately, that will probably be at some point after she passes on. That'll be the only time I'll be able to do a book on it. But that'll be too late. Iva won't be able to get anything out of it. That's the other tragedy here."
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