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Radio Tokyo at War

by James Wood

As is the case with most government-funded broadcasting services, Nippon Hoso Kyokai, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, in 1941 had a national and an international broadcasting service.

At that time, before Pearl Harbor, the overseas broadcasting bureau was transmitting international programs to the world over a network of SW transmitters - some beamed towards Western Europe, Scandinavia and the Soviet Union, others to Canada and the USA. The programs were produced in English, French, Italian, German and Russian. At the time, ordinary people accepted that the Japanese attack on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor was one of surprise. However, the attack had been preceded by a fairly lengthy period of strained relations between the two countries, and there is considerable evidence suggesting that President Roosevelt knew the attack was coming; one theory is that it was part of his strategy to get America committed to the war. However, the severity of the raid and its overwhelming success, were a fearsome shock to American self-confidence.

Pearl Harbor was merely the first of a long series of victories by Japanese Imperial forces. It was soon followed by surprise air attacks on widely separated parts of SE Asia, stretching from Burma to the Dutch East Indies.

After the speedy conquest of Malaya, the British fortress of Singapore, once though unassailable, fell to the Japanese, when the British garrison of 65,000 regulars surrendered to 15,000 Japanese troops on February 10, 1942.

One month later, Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, fell to Japanese forces. In May, the Japanese took the Philippines, and with them the American base at Corregidor. A few months later, Hong Kong, the second jewel in the crown of the British Empire, fell without a shot being fired. The sun had set over Britain's Far Eastern colonies. Within a few months, Japan had acquired an empire which extended from Burma through to Java, Sumatra, Bali, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, and stretched a quarter of the span of the globe, from Burma to the Midway Islands.

The sheer speed of the Japanese onslaught meant that many vital strategic installations were seized intact. These included radio installations for both broadcasting and SW communications. In Hong Kong, the vital wireless installations on Stonecutter's Island were taken in working order; some were put to military use, while others were used to extend the voice of NHK Overseas Broadcasting Bureau.

Following its string of victories, Japan had acquired a radio broadcasting network of unequalled proportions. By the skilful use of SW pick-ups from NHK studios in Japan, NHK could beam its broadcasts with even greater power than before.

Very soon the voices of Japanese operators dominated the airwaves of South and East Asia. But the evidence is that in the beginning, Japan did not use these facilities to their full extent. NHK established some broadcasting studios in Batavia, Manila, Singapore and Hong Kong, but there is little evidence of these being used for propaganda purposes in the first year of the war with America (although broadcasts were beamed to the west coast of America, which had a large percentage of Japanese-Americans).

Equally, the Japanese high command showed little initiative or enthusiasm for becoming involved with propaganda broadcasting; it was beneath the dignity of the Imperial Army to engage in such unethical practices, and probably contrary to the spirit of bushido. The Japanese could afford to adopt such an attitude: they were victorious in battle, had acquired an empire for the emperor and the army had proved itself in battle against American, British and Australian troops.

However, as the pace of Japanese victories in the field began to diminish, interest was generated in commencing propaganda broadcasting. After some consultation with NHK, the number of hours allocated to broadcasting American type programs was increased. At the same time it was agreed that a psychological warfare program should be initiated against American troops holding some territory in the Pacific.

A special department was set up for the purpose, co-ordinating the activities and involvements of the foreign office, the home ministry, the Domei news agency and a few lesser agencies. Overall responsibility for propaganda was invested in the Eight Section G2, a department of the general staff headquarters.

The leadership of this new department was contested by all branches of the armed forces and the foreign office, but in the end it was the Imperial Army that came to have the largest say in the matter. Major Shigetsugu Tsuneishe was placed in overall command, and continued to hold this post until Japan's surrender in September 1945.

The department's first attempts at psychological warfare used printed material, so it may be said they were copying the first attempts by the British government in the use of propaganda leaflets. However, the first magazines dropped on American soldiers were an improvement on the British leaflets that had used ridicule against Hitler. The Japanese propaganda magazines were clearly aimed at lowering the morale of the American GI, using such methods as depicting full-busted American blondes back home pining for their loved ones in the South Pacific.

Although there might have been truth in this simple message, it failed to have much effect on the American soldier. But the Japanese were learning. The power of Allied psychological warfare was beginning to take effect on Germany and the occupied countries of Europe, and there was no reason why it should not be effective in the Pacific, provided a formula could be found.

It was decided to adopt the use of the spoken word, with the aid of radio transmitters using short waves, and to aim these broadcasts directly at the American troops. In the beginning, the problems must have been immense. The project called for a team of producers, script writers, typists, translators, and news presenters. But the logistic problems were minor difficulties compared with that of producing scripts in the English language. Because of the radically different syntax of the two languages, the end result could easily prove to be comedy, rather than the intended result which was to be psychologically frightening.

From Eight Section G2 the call went out to find suitably qualified people. Major Tsuneishe is generally credited with the idea of employing American and Allied POW's. Orders were duly sent out to all Japanese theaters of war, and the POW camps in Japan, to screen all POW's for experience of any kind in the related disciplines of scripting and studio presentation.

In a few weeks, the perfect candidate had been found and sent to Tokyo G2 headquarters. He was Major Charles Hugh Cousens, the quintessential upperclass English gentleman with a background of broadcasting in Australia. Captured at Singapore, Cousens was then a brigade commander with the Australian Army, having re-enlisted on the outbreak of war, but he had first been commissioned at Sandhurst into the British Army in 1930.

It was his civilian occupation between these two periods of military service that really interested the Japanese authorities. After his emigration to Australia before the war, he became station announcer for radio station 2GB Sydney.

This single fact was to change his life for the duration of the war. Cousens was interviewed and questioned by Tsuneishe concerning his experience in broadcasting. He was then invited to co-operate with the Japanese authorities in setting up a broadcasting service to American soldiers. When he refused, it seems he was given the straight choice between working for NHK and death, which probably made the decision to co-oerate an easy one to make.

Within a month, Cousens had been joined by two other POW's. These were Captain Wallace Ince and Lieutenant Norman Reyes, US Army, both aged 20. Both had been captured after the fall of Corregidor in the Philippines. As with Cousens, the background of these two soldiers was almost tailor-made to suit the requirements of NHK. Ince had been in charge of a subversive radio station broadcasting from inside Corregidor, which had purported to be a freedom station, announcing itself as 'The Voice of Freedom', and Lt. Reyes had been his assistant.

Ince and Reyes were given the same treatment in Tokyo as Cousens, with the result that both agreed to co-operate with NHK in the preparation and presentation of radio broadcasts. Cousens made his first broadcasts for the Japanese authorities in October 1942. By all accounts, it was less than satisfactory, an Allied monitoring station noted that the broadcast by a POW gave the impression it was being read from a prepared script.

It was vital to the success of the project that Cousens' co-operation was assured; he was the senior officer amongst the POWs and the one with the most experience of broadcasting. To secure his co-operation, the Japanese authorities promised better living conditions, a clothing allowance and other privileges such as visits to geisha houses.

As the months went by, all three officers were given additional responsibilities including the checking of draft scripts for errors of grammar, syntax and the like, and later were allowed to write their own scripts for broadcasting. After the war had ended, they claimed that this freedom to prepare scripts had enabled them to slip in hidden messages and sentences with double meanings, that would be obvious to the Gis for whom the propaganda broadcasts were intended, and this may well have helped to undermine the Japanese effort.

In early 1943, Eight Section G2 embarked on a new project, devised in conjunction with NHK and its foreign service monitoring station. The idea was original and well thought out. SW monitoring stations would track and copy broadcasts from the many radio stations in US cities.

These local radio stations broadcast news of the kind that the American soldiers in the Pacific were not likely to hear from army sources: local disasters, fires, major accidents, shipping losses etc. These news items would then be recorded, transcribed, edited and retransmitted to US forces over the NHK SW network.

Disturbing broadcasts such as these could undermine the morale of soldiers away from home, particularly if the news was true. The Japanese had learned that propaganda based on truth is more effective than any propaganda based on lies, and it was the truth they were telling the Americans.

Text is an excerpt from 'Japanese War Time Broadcasting' in the book 'History of International Broadcasting, Vol.1. Published by and © The Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1992 and included with permission of the publisher. Digitalized layout © Radio Heritage Foundation. Images © as detailed.


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