The Tragic Tale of Tokyo Rose

February 2018

A former Girl Scout who graduated from UCLA unwillingly became the notorious voice of Japanese propaganda during World War II.

“Hello you fighting orphans in the Pacific, how’s tricks?” The young female radio announcer greeted GIs with American slang as they tuned into the Japanese radio during the Pacific War. “Reception okay? Why, it better be, because this is All-Requests night. And I’ve got a pretty nice program for my favorite little family, the wandering boneheads of the Pacific Islands.”

A half dozen

Iva Toguri was born on the Fourth of July 1916, the first American citizen in her family. She was the eldest daughter of Jun and Fumi Toguri. Her parents and her older brother, Fred, had been born in Japan and were Japanese citizens. Iva had dual citizenship until she was six. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria, Jun struck his daughter’s name from the family register in Japan: from then on, she was 100 percent American.

Her father had come to the U.S. in 1899 at age seventeen after completing high school in his native Yamanashi prefecture. Granted permanent residence in the U.S., he worked for a while in Seattle. As anti-Oriental feeling mounted on West Coast, he found he could not get U.S. citizenship. Returning to Japan, he married Fumi Iimuro, who remained in Japan for six years with her family. Jun returned to America, worked several jobs, and returned multiple times to Japan on visits: there the Toguris’ first child was born.

In 1913, the Toguris arrived in San Francisco and, when Iva was three, her parents moved to Calexico, on the Mexican border, where Toguri tried to raise cotton. They moved on to San Diego, where two more children were born, then on Los Angeles, when Iva was twelve. Jun Toguri finally prospered, expanding an import business into a retail grocery and variety store selling goods from Japan. Iva, like all of the children, worked in the store after school and also helped to take care of her mother, who suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure.

While the Toguri store sold Japanese products, Iva’s father had no intention of bringing up his children in the traditional Japanese culture.

“Our family home was located in a typical American community,” Iva later testified. “I went to the neighborhood grammar school and attended church in the neighborhood. I took part in normal activities at school and at [Methodist] church . . . There was some Japanese spoken in our family until we started to attend public school, thereafter English dominated. We followed both Japanese and American cooking in the home. My parents tried to raise us according to American customs. We celebrated all the national holidays, all Christian holidays.

Jun Toguri wanted his children to be Americans and he limited their contacts with other Japanese Americans. He bought a house in a largely American neighborhood: Iva’s playmates were nearly all Americans.

As a consequence, Iva grew robust on American food, and became competitive like American teenagers. In addition to joining the Girl Scouts and playing field hockey in high school, she made the tennis team. An average student, she wanted to be a doctor. Only about one in twenty Nisei women went on to college, but Iva enrolled in Compton Junior College, after one semester transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles, to prepare for medicine. Remembered by professors as lively and lighthearted, she majored in zoology and on weekends and vacations took camping trips. She especially enjoyed paleontology field trips into the Mojave Desert, looking for fossilized specimens. One professor recalled Iva’s good sense of humor, her kidding, and joking—”she seemed 100 percent Yankee.” She liked to attend UCLA football games, registered as a Republican in 1940, and helped her father with the driving on long business trips around the United States.

“I never felt there was prejudice among teachers or schoolmates,” Iva later said. “Racial prejudice was never discussed at home and [I] never was aware of the existence of it.”

This was a remarkable statement for a Japanese American looking back on California in 1940, where there was a long history of anti-Japanese sentiment. Especially during the Depression era of the 1930s, bitter resentment of Asian-Americans had grown as they competed for jobs with white workers. As early as 1913, the resentment of the white majority had found voice in politics: under the Alien Land Law, Issei were barred from owning or leasing land. The teaching of Japanese was forbidden in the schools. Japanese immigration, thriving since the 1850s, was limited in 1907, then prohibited in 1924: Japanese could only get resident-alien status. As industrious Japanese like Jun Toguri prospered in the 1930s, hostility towards them only grew. Part of Jun Toguri’s insistence on integration into the American way of life was to blind Iva to the racial prejudice around her.

After graduating from UCLA with a B.A. in zoology in 1940, Iva decided to go to graduate school, taking premedical studies the following year. Then, in June 1941, her mother received a letter from an in-law in Japan. Fumi’s only living sister was ill and wanted to see her for the first time in thirty years. But Iva’s mother was too sick for such a long journey. The family decided it was Iva’s duty to go before she continued her studies. Iva was not looking forward to this trip—she spoke no Japanese and detested Japanese food—but she acceded to her parents’ request.

There could not have been a worse time for such a trip. When her father wrote to the State Department in Washington, D.C., to apply for her passport, no reply came. Diplomatic relations between Japan and the U.S. were at their lowest point in the twentieth century. The Toguris seemed completely oblivious to what many Americans knew. Only last minute talks underway in Washington, D.C. could avert war now that Japan had become an Axis ally of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, and was continuing its territorial expansion. Still, Iva and her father went ahead with their plans. Iva raced around gathering bags of food, clothing, medicines, and other gifts for her Japanese relatives. Scheduled to sail on the Arabia Maru on July 5, when she had not received a passport by July 1 she went to immigration office, where she was told to take along a sworn certificate of identification: that would do. Once in Tokyo, she could go to the U.S. embassy and apply for a passport to come home.

Iva turned twenty-five the day before she sailed. There was a big celebration, combining her twenty-fifth birthday, the Fourth of July, and her farewell, at a Chinese restaurant. That Fourth of July 1941, Iva had a last supper with her family. It was the last evening they ever had together. The next day, the family went to see Iva off at San Pedro. Her father helped her lug the baggage, made heavier by all the American food he was thoughtfully sending along, enough to last through her stay. In all, Iva took thirty pieces of luggage. With an eighteen-year-old girlfriend, Cheiko Ito, who also was going to Japan to visit relatives, she stood at the railing and waved until they could see their families no more.

lva’s troubles in Japan began immediately. Japanese officials refused at first to give them entry visas since they had no passports. She was finally allowed ashore the next day. Her aunt and uncle were kind to her, but she found the sounds, the smells, and everything “strange.” “People were stiff and formal to me. I felt like a perfect stranger, and the Japanese considered me very queer.” She looked Japanese, but she spoke no Japanese. She had trouble adjusting to being treated like a child again, how to sit on the floor, and how to eat without utensils. She particularly resented not being allowed to leave the house without a chaperone, her cousin, a woman her age. Her one time of relaxation seemed to be at morning classes at a Japanese language school.

As communications with the U.S. grew worse (none of her letters reached her family), she managed to get a letter to her parents by entrusting it to a returning Nisei. She was anxious to go home. The day she arrived in Japan, the Japanese Army occupied French Indochina. The next day, President Roosevelt declared economic sanctions against Japan, freezing all Japanese assets in U.S. banks, bringing Japanese-American trade to a virtual halt. In retaliation, Japan ordered the freezing of all U.S. funds. The Japanese ambassador to the U.S. was informed by President Roosevelt that if the Japanese tried to extend further their military conquests in Asia, the U.S. would take steps to oppose them. By the time Iva heard from her parents on October 9, 1941, the Japanese government had already decided in secret to attack the Hawaiian Islands and declare war on the U.S. unless the U.S. abandoned China, lifted the freeze on Japanese assets, and restored trade relations. By this time, Iva and Cheiko were anxious to go home, even if they could not read a Japanese newspaper to glean any hint of the rising tensions.

On November 25, 1941, the day the U.S. Secretary of State and the Japanese Foreign Minister broke off talks in Washington, Iva and Cheiko called their parents long-distance and told them they still were unable to get passports at the U.S. Embassy, but that they wanted to come home right away. One week later, Iva received a telegram from her father telling her to book passage home on a ship leaving the next day, but she soon learned that she could not buy a ticket without a valid passport. Shunted from the U.S. consulate to the language school for proof she had been a student, to the Japanese Finance Ministry, she was finally told she could not leave Japan until how she had spent her money could be verified; that would take at least four days. On December 1, the ship sailed without her. She wouldn’t have gotten very far. The ship turned around when, a few days later, Japanese radio announced that war had broken out with the United States. Iva couldn’t understand the broadcast and she did not entirely comprehend that she was stranded.

It was only two days later that Iva had her first terrifying visit from a plain-clothes officer of the Foreigners Section of the Special Security Police. She was interrogated about her daily activities, how much money she had, and she was told that, if she were smart, she would register as a Japanese citizen. But that meant that Iva would automatically lose her American citizenship. She refused. Her aunt and uncle, interpreting for her, were visibly shaken. Iva Toguri was one of 10,000 Japanese Americans forced to remain in Japan until the war’s end. The Japanese government urged them to enter their names on the family register and pledge their loyalty to Japan as a preliminary step to draft them into the Japanese military. Iva was one of the few who clung to her American citizenship through the war, resisting continual pressure applied during thrice-weekly visits by the police.

She tried various schemes to leave Japan, going in February 1942 to the Swiss Embassy, which was accepting applications from stranded Americans for repatriation. But without a passport she was barred from the ship that took American diplomats, journalists, and businessmen home. When she paid to have the Swiss cable Washington to verify her citizenship, they were told her citizenship was in doubt. As winter came on, Iva, never before away from Los Angeles, suffered terribly in the unheated, thin-walled, wooden house. She had to keep her ship money intact, so she was forced to start selling off her woolens to raise the money to pay rent to her relatives, buy food, and pay for language school tuition. She took part-time jobs typing and teaching piano at the language school.

By late March 1942, as she waited for another repatriation ship, she decided to seek a job. But she was regarded as an American and, without proper papers, few would consider hiring her. She finally found a part-time typing job in the Monitoring Division of the official Domei News Agency. She had to work late at night, but at least she had found a job and would have enough to eat. She apparently did not know she had crossed an invisible line when she began to listen to Allied short-wave radio news broadcasts from Australia and the U.S. for troop movements.

Apparently it was through the International Red Cross that Iva learned the bare outline of what had happened to her family. Just how she got to see their names on the list of interns at the Gila River Relocation Center in the Arizona desert is unclear. At first she did not believe it. She thought the relocation camps were the propaganda inventions of the Special Security Police. It was not until after the war that she learned all the details. One month earlier, unbeknownst to her, her mother had died.

When the soldiers had come to the Toguri house in Los Angeles early in April, her mother, father, brother, and younger sisters had been herded into a truck and taken to the Tule Lake assembly center, in the northern California wastelands, where they were assigned a 20-by-25 foot open room in a makeshift barracks with only a communal toilet. “The barracks were crowded, flimsy, and without any privacy,” writes Japanese-born biographer Masayo Duus, who interviewed the Toguri family twenty years later. “The strain of being suddenly forced to live in such circumstances was too much for Fumi Toguri and she died a few months later." It was more than three years before Iva knew of her mother’s death, although she had a vivid dream a year later making her sure her mother was gone.

The rest of the Toguri family was sent to the Arizona desert, where the temperature often reached 110 degrees. Late in 1943, they were given the choice of remaining interned or moving to a section of the country far removed from the West Coast. On his buying trips, her father had become familiar with Chicago: at sixty-two, he took his family there to start over. He managed to open a small store on North Clark Street by 1944 which grew into a large department store after the war.

But for Iva, the war was far from over. The constant visits to her aunt and uncle by security police were followed by name-calling and spitting at her as she walked home to their neighborhood from her nearby job. Her relatives were showing the strain. She decided to move out. On August 27, 1942, she heard again from the Swiss consulate. Another repatriation ship would leave the next month. The ship would go to New York by way of India. The fare would be $425. She no longer had enough money. Unable to get a ration card, she had eaten up her savings and she could no longer reach her family to see if they could help her. She dejectedly removed her name from the repatriation list. To make matters harder to bear, she went home one night to find three security police ransacking her room, taking away all her English-language books.

By June 1942, Iva was too seriously ill to go on working. She was suffering from an improper diet and malnutrition. Hospitalized for six weeks, she had to use up her remaining money to pay her hospital bill. When she got out, she answered an ad for a second part-time job, this time as an English-language typist for Radio Tokyo. On August 23, 1943, she reported for work in the American Section. Working only a few hours each afternoon after finishing at her Domei monitoring job, Iva typed English-language broadcast scripts written by Japanese writers, correcting their grammar. The scripts were broadcast by shortwave radio as part of Japan’s “psychological warfare” program. They were read by announcers, many of them women and many Nisei. Occasionally, the women were drafted from the typing section.

As the importance of radio propaganda grew, the Japanese Army decided to employ Australian and American prisoners-of-war it had captured early in the fighting. By late 1942 there were three at Radio Tokyo: Major Charles Cousens, who had been a popular radio announcer in Sydney before the war; Captain Wallace E. Ince, an American officer arrested in Japan; and Lieutenant Norman Reyes, a Filipino. When Iva began dropping into their office to chat in English with them, at first they suspected she was a Japanese spy. In her job at Domei she was able to monitor Allied news and she wanted to pass it along to them to temper the Japanese propaganda they were being fed by their captors.

On March 1, 1943, Radio Tokyo began to broadcast a new program to U.S. troops listening on shortwave sets in the South Pacific. The Zero Hour, whose title played off the name of Japan’s most-feared fighter plane and the time of an attack, was intended to make GIs homesick by broadcasting discouraging news from home. In fact, because of the good music it provided and the light, breezy patter of the Nisei women announcers reading scripts written with mocking irony by the Australian and American writers, the show, broadcast early in the evening, became enormously popular with the GIs, anything but demoralizing them, they later testified. In mid-November 1943, Major Cousens requested that Iva Toguri be released from her typing duties to become one of six women reading The Zero Hour scripts.

When Iva protested that she had only agreed to become a typist, she was informed by her Japanese supervisor that she must follow Japanese Army orders. “I have written it and I know what I’m doing,” Major Cousens tried to reassure her. “All you have to do is look on yourself as a soldier under my orders. Do exactly what you are told….You will do nothing against your own people. I will guarantee that personally because I have read the script.”

Two and a half years after leaving California, Iva made her first broadcast with more misgivings about her voice than her patriotism. “Major Cousens said my voice is not what you call a gentle and sweet voice,” she later testified, “but he wanted a Yankee voice.” Her job was to sound cheerful. The major urged her to talk as if she were in a group of GIs. He suggested that she take the name “Orphan Ann.”

After a Boston Pops recording of “Strike Up the Band,” Iva opened her fifteen-to twenty-minute segment by saying, “Here comes your music,” then, after reading a greeting written by Cousens, played three or four 78 rpm records, mainly classical or dance records, selected by Cousens, ad libbing a few introductory comments. The fast-paced scripts were full of double meanings, slang words, and jokes beyond the English language capabilities of the Japanese staff.

So popular was the show, according to American news stories the Japanese monitored, that the Japanese decided to expand the use of prisoners-of-war, assembling them at a special secret facility in Tokyo. Twenty-six more POWs arrived in December 1943. There was intense psychological pressure and occasional beatings by guards. Major Cousens urged the others to “fight” the Japanese by helping covertly to boost GI morale with the broadcasts. Gradually, the health of the POWs grew worse as they were fed only radish soup and grain usually used only to feed chickens. Iva, buying black-market food with pay from a third job typing for the Danish consulate, smuggled food and medicines to Major Cousens, who distributed it among his men. She even smuggled in a precious woolen blanket wrapped around her under her clothing for an ailing POW suffering from a fever and chills.

In the spring of 1944, Iva, who had become close friends with a part-Japanese, part-Portuguese staff member at Domei, Filipe J. d’Aquino, moved in with his family; in late January 1945, they decided to get married. She began to take more and more time off from her broadcasting job. Iva used intensifying Allied air raids on Tokyo as an excuse for missing work. Filipe urged her to quit her job and stay home, but a visit by State Security Police persuaded her to continue playing records on The Zero Hour.

On August 15, 1945, Felipe and Iva held hands and cried when they heard a broadcast that no Japanese had ever expected to hear: the voice of Emperor Hirohito, going on the air for the first time after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, announcing his decision to “endure the unendurable” and surrender. But for Iva Toguri, an even longer private war was only beginning.


American journalists arriving in Tokyo competed for “scoops.” They searched for the elusive “Tokyo Rose,” the name GIs had invented for a mythical seductive-voiced Japanese woman announcer. One rumor had it that “Tokyo Rose” was really the missing American aviator Amelia Earhart! The best rumor was that there were six women, including Iva Toguri, who had broadcast to GIs. Two notoriously sensational journalists, Clark Lee of the Hearst-owned International News Service and Harry Brundidge of Cosmopolitan, teamed up to find “Tokyo Rose” and beat out other journalists with an exclusive interview. Bursting into Radio Tokyo, they asked the manager to identify the real “Tokyo Rose.” At first, he insisted there was no such single person, but his own wife was one of the six announcers. Evidently to protect her, he named only Iva Toguri.

With the help of a Hawaii-born Nisei who had worked with American journalists in Tokyo before the war, they tracked down Iva and Felipe d’Aquino through the bombed-out streets of the city, inviting them to meet them at a posh hotel the next day. There, dangling a $2,000 payment—a fortune in war-torn Japan—they interviewed Iva and asked her to sign an exclusive contract in which she was identified as “the one and only Tokyo Rose.” (She never received the $2,000 payment.) Amid more interviews and a press conference during the next few days, Iva was asked if she would mind talking to U.S. Eighth Army intelligence officers.

Press stories filed in Tokyo may have been lighthearted, but back home in the United States they produced a storm of outrage. Iva Toguri was dubbed a “traitor” in news stories before there were any official charges against her, but as a result of news stories, the Army decided to arrest her. For one full year, she was held without bail in solitary confinement in Sugamo Prison, which housed such war criminals as Marshal Tojo. Denied permission to hire a lawyer or to see her husband, she was repeatedly interrogated by an FBI agent sent to prepare a case against her. Eventually, the Justice Department ordered her released for lack of evidence of any wrongdoing.

Ironically, now that she was free, Iva wanted more than anything to go home to America. When she became pregnant, she applied once more for a passport. Her request, received against a backdrop of treason charges flying thickly in the U.S. during the Red-hunting hysteria of 1948, led to her rearrest. American Legion and Native Son Lodge members in Los Angeles, active in the 1942 relocations, demanded her trial for treason. Syndicated radio and newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, frequently attacking government officials for being “soft on traitors,” met with the U.S. attorney for Los Angeles and demanded that the Justice Department reopen the case. In his broadcasts, which reached twenty million Americans, he crusaded against Iva Toguri. Yielding to pressure, the Justice Department ordered her rearrested shortly after her baby died and taken on shipboard to San Francisco. Iva Toguri became the first American woman ever tried for treason. She was convicted after a three-month, million dollar trial in which the government produced fifty witnesses—many of them brought at government expense from Japan—to testify that her broadcasts had demoralized U.S. troops and that she had not been coerced into making them. Her defense attorneys were not paid to bring witnesses from Japan to corroborate her story. The trial judge refused to allow a mistrial when the jury deadlocked for four days, repeatedly sending the jury back to deliberate until it reached a guilty verdict.

In the end, Iva Toguri was sentenced to ten years in prison and fined $10,000. Immigration officials refused to allow her husband to stay in the U.S. after the trial and somehow persuaded him to sign an agreement never to return to the U.S. They stayed married but never saw each other again. Iva served seven years in federal prison before she was released in 1956. She remained stripped of her citizenship, and for nearly thirty years was a stateless person, unable even to obtain a passport to leave the United States.

In the early 1970s Japanese Americans, who had at first considered Iva’s case as a disgrace to all Nisei, began to speak out against the scapegoating of Iva Toguri. U.S. Senator S. I. Hayakawa, himself a Nisei, took up her case in his San Francisco Chronicle column. He personally went twice to the White House to plead her case. On his last day as President, Gerald Ford issued a full presidential pardon to Iva Toguri, restoring her U. S. citizenship. She lived quietly in Chicago, first working in, and then finally managing, her father’s department store, until she passed away in 2006.