Elizabeth Gray Vining; Quaker Who Tutored Japan’s Emperor-to-Be

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Japan’s young emperor-in-waiting had been carefully instructed on what to say to the American woman who would become his tutor.

Say it was very good of her to come so far to teach you, his chamberlains told Crown Prince Akihito.

But before the meeting, Elizabeth Gray Vining, a children’s author from an old Philadelphia family who became the first foreigner allowed inside the living quarters of the Imperial Palace, had sent the prince a box of American confections. It was a precious gift in the war-battered Japan of 1946, when sugar was a scarce commodity and candy a rare luxury even for royalty.


So Akihito, excited as any boy of 12 would be, forgot his prescribed speech. “Thank you for the candy,” he blurted out.

The chamberlains were horrified. But not Vining, who would spend much of the next four years encouraging independence in her tradition-bound student.

“I knew right then,” she said, “that we would get along very well.”

Such candor became the trademark of an enduring friendship between the Quaker schoolteacher and Japan’s 125th emperor. The unusual bond, maintained through correspondence, phone calls and occasional visits, was broken with Vining’s death last month, more than half a century after she undertook her teaching assignment.

Vining died Nov. 27 at a Quaker retirement community in Kennett Square, Pa. She was 97.

She called her tutelage of Akihito “a fairy story” in the 1952 book she wrote, “Windows for a Crown Prince.”

“It’s a fairy story,” she wrote, “that a quiet Philadelphia Quaker should have been picked up and carried halfway across the world and dropped in the middle of the oldest and most mysterious court in the world.”

This is how the story began: A group of 25 American educators had traveled to Japan to conduct a study on postwar education. During a meeting with the head of the group, Emperor Hirohito made a request for “an American schoolmarm” to teach his son.


Hirohito had two requirements. He wanted a woman, “because he didn’t think the crown prince had had enough feminine influence in his life,” Vining told The Times in 1967. Akihito, in keeping with imperial custom, was separated from his family at the age of 3 and raised by other adults in the imperial household. He saw his parents only once a week.

The other requirement was that the tutor be a “Christian, but not a fanatic,” said Vining, who took this to mean that the emperor had no desire to see his son converted to Christianity.

Hirohito’s request was relayed to the American Friends Service Committee, which was active in Asia; Vining worked for the group in Philadelphia. The head of the Japan desk thought Vining would be perfect for the job, but she was about to leave for a writers colony to work on a book, and dismissed the idea outright.

She relented the next day, saying she would accept the job if it was offered but “would not lift a finger to apply for it.”

Some weeks later, the offer came. In October 1946, she found herself on a former warship--”an awful old bucket”--sailing for Japan.

Her instructions on arriving were simple. “I was told, ‘We want you to open windows to a foreign way of life for our crown prince,’ ” Vining recalled. She said she did not view the job as “selling America” to Japan’s future leader, but she did feel the need to “set him free--to teach him how to have fun.”


She tutored him privately and at the school he attended with the offspring of nobility. One of her goals was to expand his contacts with other children, so she invited Akihito and his classmates to her Western-style home one afternoon a week.

She gave each of her pupils an English name to break down formality and encourage more democratic interactions. Akihito initially was not receptive: Vining called him Jimmy, to which he replied, “No, I am the prince.”

She and her royal charge read a biography of Abraham Lincoln, discussed Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence and shared hopes for world peace.

She called parent-teacher conferences with the emperor and empress, once telling Hirohito in frank terms that he needed to see his son more often. Hirohito had confided that he hadn’t felt worthy of a closer relationship because of his shame at being unable to prevent Japan’s involvement in World War II.

On the eve of Akihito’s crowning as emperor in 1990, Vining recalled her former pupil as “a good student, very bright and very nice.”

She predicted that the man she taught as a boy would not be a carbon copy of his father. “He wasn’t hidden away like his father was,” she said. “He will be much more visible, more like Queen Elizabeth.”


Her liberal influence may have found its most dramatic expression in Akihito’s choice of a bride. Not an arranged marriage, as tradition would have mandated, but the product of a love affair, the union of Akihito and Michiko Shoda, the daughter of a milling company owner, took place in 1959. Vining was the only foreign guest. Later, when the imperial couple had children, they chose to raise them by themselves.

In the years after she left Japan, Vining resumed her career as a writer, turning out 29 books in all, half of which were for children. She held to her pacifist beliefs, shocking the Japanese when they learned of her arrest on the Capitol steps during an anti-Vietnam War protest in Washington.

The schoolmarm and her celebrated pupil remained in touch through the years, including an emotional reunion during his trip to the United States in October 1987. They exchanged birthday greetings, and Akihito sent her photographs of his family at Christmas.

When the imperial couple paid an official visit to the United States in 1994, she was invited to a White House reception by President and Mrs. Clinton. Vining, then 91, declined because of the frailties of age. Instead, she chatted on the phone with the emperor, who turned to an aide afterward and commented, “She sounded like she was doing very well.”