Thursday 21 August 2014

A Quiet Philadelphia Quaker

Today, in my occasional (very occasional, but I'm trying to improve) series on lady travellers, please meet Elizabeth Gray Vining - and Crown Prince (now Emperor) Akihito.

1946.  World War II had been over for less than a year and Japan was occupied by Allied troops, led by the Americans under General Douglas McArthur.  The Emperor decided (or had it decided for him) that his son, the Crown Prince, should learn English.

Picture the scene.

One morning late in May Samuel Marble, now President of Wilmington College, Ohio, who was then organising the [Friends'] Committee's relief project for Japan, came in to talk to me about an appeal we were preparing.  After we had finished the business in hand he turned to me and said without preamble, 'Would you consider having your name suggested as tutor to the Crown Prince of Japan?'  

Elizabeth Gray Vining was 'a quiet Philadelphia Quaker', a librarian and children's author, who was left  widowed when her husband was killed in a car crash.  The committee appointed to find a tutor for the Crown Prince had already determined that the right candidate would be a woman, a Christian, and someone with no prior knowledge of Japan, 'since she was to teach by the direct method entirely in English'.  They also determined that this non-Japanese speaking, Christian woman should be about 50.  Apart from the age requirement (she was only 44), Elizabeth Vining fit the bill.  Despite initial protestations, in October 1946, Mrs Vining arrived in Japan.

Her book, 'Windows for the Crown Prince', describes her first impressions of Japan, the extraordinary experience of getting to know the Imperial Family, lessons with the Crown Prince (and later on with some of his siblings and classmates).  It also describes the occupation and the rebuilding of Japan - including the war crimes tribunals.

My favourite aspect of the book are Mrs Vining's descriptions of Japan - both for the interest of learning about life there under the occupation and also for reading about the culture and landscape.  One passage particularly stayed with me, where she writes about her first night in Tokyo.

As I lay in bed waiting for sleep, I heard the sound of wooden clogs in the street outside, a clip-clop that made me realise more keenly than any other one thing that now I was actually in Japan.  Clip-clop, clip-clop, lightly yet with a little drag, the wooden gets passed along the lane and died away.  Later in the night I felt my first earthquake, a tiny tremor from the earth's centre like the flicker of a fish's tail - a catfish, the Japanese say, moving its whiskers.  In the morning the rain was gone and I woke to a dazzling blue and gold October day.  From the flat roof on top of the house I could see Mount Fuji, ethereal in the distance, white-shawled against the blue sky.

I, too, have lain awake on my first night in a new country, waiting for sleep.  I have noticed every noise that marked the new place as different, aware of things that would later become part of a familiar soundscape.  Not scared, but very aware; not yet ready to relax into my surroundings.  And then I have woken up to dazzling skies and views and felt my wings spreading … though I've never had to prepare to meet an Emperor.

Reading the book I did occasionally wonder if Mrs Vining were fatally naive or had just drunk the Kool Aid - her account of General McArthur is, well, imagine 'gushy' as rendered by a quiet Philadelphia Quaker.  But she was clearly aware of her role, as much goodwill ambassador as tutor, and she deserved her praise.  The Emperor is supposed to have said, 'If ever anything I did has been a success it was asking Mrs Vining to come here.'

On balance, I think Mrs Vining's own summary of her extraordinary task is the best.

I had been asked to open windows on to a wider world for the Crown Prince.  I had tried, but who can say to what extent I had succeeded?  But certainly many windows had been opened for me - and perhaps through me for others - both on Japan itself and on that ancient, ceremonious, hidden world within the Moat.  Through windows, whichever way they face, comes light, and light, I thought, is good.

Elizabeth Gray Vining's obituary is here.

If you'd like to read 'Windows for the Crown Prince', second hand copies can be found online. Edmund de Waal, in one of my favourite books, 'The Hare with the Amber Eyes', references its sequel, 'Return to Japan' - so if my recommendation isn't enough … 

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