By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
In 1941, Iva Toguri was a 25-year-old UCLA graduate visiting family in Japan. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she found herself stuck in Tokyo, speaking little Japanese and craving a hamburger.
Eventually, the American was coerced into taking part in an English-language propaganda radio show, “Zero Hour,” where she became one of a group of voices known collectively as “Tokyo Rose.” Toguri, who refused to give up her U.S. citizenship and allegedly snuck food to American POWs, resisted involvement with the show. But her producers, former POWs themselves, convinced her that by working together, they could subtly undermine the Japanese war effort.
When the war ended, Toguri was tried by the U.S. government for treason and jailed for six years.
Seventy years later, Japanese playwright and visual artist Miwa Yanagi explores this story in her fictional play, “Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape.” We have a tendency to forget history, said Yanagi through an interpreter in an interview with The Rafu. Especially vulnerable is the history of minority groups, who have fewer witnesses, fewer people willing to fight to keep their stories alive.
“Zero Hour” is about 80 percent English and 20 percent Japanese. Yanagi originally wrote it in 2013 for a Japanese audience, with that ratio swapped. In either country, most audience members don’t understand the entire content of the play.
Then again, the theater experience always depends on individual perception, says Yanagi. She tells a story about how she once received a long letter from a man who had seen the play and spent the entire time focusing only on the green and red—play and record—buttons on the stage.
This viewer had developed a complex theory about how the entire key to understanding the play came down to just those two colored lights. Yanagi shrugs as she tells this story, not willing to write it off as crazy. There’s so much happening in this play, that you’ll find something new each time you watch it, she says.
During the American Occupation, Yanagi’s mother, now 82, lived in Kobe. She remembers seeing the U.S. soldiers come into her town, “kakko yokute, ashi ga nagakute,” handsome, long-legged. At the same time, the Japanese soldiers came home defeated, their clothing rumpled.
Like many Japanese people her age, Yanagi’s mother appreciated that the U.S. government let the emperor live after the war ended.
But the friendly relationship that Japan and the U.S. share today didn’t come from pure forgiveness or goodwill, Yanagi clarifies. It came from manipulation by the Japanese and American governments. Propaganda, in other words, in the form of handsome soldiers and pop culture. Without that, neither country would be able to forget its pain and resentment.
“In that sense, the Occupation worked perfectly,” she says.
Before Yanagi began working in the theater, she was an undergraduate studying textile dyeing in Japan. According to Uryu Tsushin, a magazine published by the Kyoto University of Art and Design, she worked office jobs throughout her twenties and mostly put aside her art during that time.
When she came back to it, in her late twenties, she began with an exhibit featuring an elevator girl—the cute, uniformed girl you’ll still find pressing buttons in Japanese department store elevators—who simply sat in an empty gallery, smiling all day. “It was clearly representing myself,” she told Uryu Tsushin.
She would return to the subject of elevator girls again and again in photography projects.
Yanagi is drawn to these girls—women—of contemporary Japan who work, out of necessity, in jobs that leave them no room to express their identity.
The young woman broadcasters of “Zero Hour,” in their blue, collared, girly uniforms, very much resemble Yanagi’s elevator girls. But in the play, unlike in still photos, they’re able to speak, and through their voices they’re able to find some sense of themselves.
“Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape” will be showing at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Center), 631 W. Second St. in Downtown Los Angeles, on Thursday, Feb. 26, through Saturday, Feb. 28, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets start at $25 for general audience. For more info, visit www.redcat.org or call the box office at (213) 237-2800.