#17 Elizabeth Gray Vining – Writer and Tutor to the Crown Prince of Japan

At 13 Elizabeth Janet Gray sold her first writing for $2.00 to “The Churchman,” a religious publication. At 17, she sold another. She loved to write. Her father was also a creator, an inventor of surveying instruments. John Gray’s tools helped Robert Peary explore and map the North Pole. In the faroff frontiers of Siberia, they had enabled surveyors to lay out an important transcontinental railroad. “Jane” as she was called by her friends had a better idea of these distant places than most of her classmates at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia.

Born on October 6, 1902 to John Gordon Gray, a Scotsman, and Ann Moore Iszard of Philadelphia Quaker stock, Jane was a keen observer of people and an avid reader. She was well liked and enjoyed being with her friends in the classroom and on the tennis courts. Entering Bryn Mawr College at 16, she focused on history and literature. She continued to write, feeling each day not complete unless she’d put ideas and imaginings on paper.

After college, she taught civics, history, and English at a high school on the New Jersey shore. Her students liked her for her energy and encouragement. She enjoyed tapping their potential. In the late afternoons, the ocean often beckoned her, its vastness and movement a cauldron for her creativity. She sent her writing off with hopes for publication though with little initial success. No matter. She used her early rejection letters to paper the walls of a nook in her small bedroom. Encouragement and guidance from a book editor, May Massee, kept her going. She decided to write children’s books because she loved to reread her favorites from her childhood and could never throw them away. She found her students doing the same. They often talked about the characters as heroes and friends.

She returned to Philadelphia. Then in 1926, armed with a degree in library science from Drexel Institute, she headed to a job at the University of North Carolina. With friends, work, and renewed energy, she published two children’s books in three years, Meredith’s Ann and Tangle Garden. Among her friends and co-workers was a young man named Morgan Fisher Vining. They feel in love, married, and built a house in the woods. It was their special place. Sometimes she would slip away to a secret spot surrounded by trees and visited by forest creatures. They kept her company as she wrote her next books. Maggie McIntosh was published and earned her first Newbery nomination. She and Morgan were elated.

They went to New York to celebrate the recognition of Morgan’s work at the university and the publication of her fourth book, Jane Hope. Unfortunately, Morgan was killed in a terrible car accident and Elizabeth suffered serious injuries. She moved back to live with her mother in Philadelphia and recuperate. She was devastated by Morgan’s death. Her grief and injuries weighed heavy. Where she had worn her Quaker mantle lightly up to this point, she discovered the healing power of silent worship. In Meeting she found acceptance, a growing strength, and an inner calm to fill her aching heart. Later she would speak of the communal gathering of worshippers waiting on God to speak to them, saying, “…the search of each is intensified by the search of all.”

She returned to her writing and was further strengthened by the poetry of Sir Walter Scott and her research into the history and personalities of early Quakerism. She wrote biographies, Young Walter Scott and Penn, and even dipped into non-fiction with Contributions of the Quakers. The last caught the eye of leaders of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). They asked her to join the staff. It was here several years later that word came of an overseas teaching opportunity, tutor of the Crown Prince of Japan. Though encouraged to apply, Elizabeth did not. Her book, Adam of the Road, had recently come out and won the Newbery Award. She was too busy with her work and her writing. Quaker heavyweights, Rufus Jones and Clarence Pickett, were recruited to convince her to apply. Finally, she agreed to consider an offer.

Why was the Emperor Hirohito of Japan looking for a Quaker tutor for his son, Akihito? It was a story of interconnection, the small but influential world of Quakers in Japan, and the political situation following WW II. General Douglas MacArthur ran the Japanese occupation after its defeat by the Allies. He wanted to strengthen Christianity and democratize the country. One of his military advisors was General Conner Fellers, a pro-Japanese Quaker, who was a mutual friend of George Stoddard, the Head of the US Education Mission to Japan and Clarence Pickett of the AFSC. Fellers did not want Emperor Hirohito to be brought before a tribunal for war crimes. Choosing a Quaker pacifist tutor would please MacArthur and protect Hirohito.

What else did Hirohito want in a tutor and what did he know about Quakers? Taken from his parents at three according to imperial custom, he was cared for by Adachi Taka, the Quaker daughter of Adachi Mototaro, a friend of Inazo Nitobe from their Sapporo Agricultural College days. Nitobe had been a prominent Quaker educator and diplomat who died in 1933. He had founded the Quaker Network in Japan, a group of influential men in politics with contact with the imperial court. Hirohito knew Quakers to be pacifists. He also knew them to be Christian but not fanatical, preachy, nor self-righteous. They were not as interested in conversion as other churches and were open to people of varying religions and cultures. Hirohito also wanted an American woman of about 50, basically unfamiliar with Japan and its language. When George Stoddard shared Elizabeth Gray Vining’s name and background with the emperor, Hirohito knew she had all the requirements plus three important additions. She was a widow and would have compassion borne of sorrow. She was an author of children’s books and would be sympathetic to a boy of 12, lonely and confused by the chaos and defeat of the just concluded war. Mrs. Vining was a graduate of Bryn Mawr, where a number of early Japanese graduates had attended. He agreed. Later, he would declare that choice one of his best successes.

Akihito had been primed for his first meeting with Mrs. Vining, according to the imperial culture. He had practiced what he was to say and do. He had been controlled by adults for all the days he could remember. Being shy, he rarely if ever spoke up for himself or questioned the chamberlains who ran his life. And then, she was there – tall, quietly elegant, a gentle smile just showing, simply but stylishly dressed. He could not help himself. “Thank you for the candy.” She acknowledged his gratitude with a slight nod, a knowing word, and a twinkle in her eye. She had made a wise choice with her present. Thus began the four year teacher-student relationship followed by a friendship of another 49 years.

Elizabeth Gray Vining believed that each child is unique like a leaf or flower, should be allowed to grow to flowering in the child’s own way, and given the tools to do work in the world. She entered the classroom where Akihito and other wealthy boys studied. Immediately she noticed the deference the other boys paid to the Crown Prince and his somewhat haughty response. She began by giving each student an English name – John, Robert, Alfred. Akihito was called “Jimmy” but refused. Elizabeth’s sense of equality was firm, “In English class you are “Jimmy.”‘ It was an important message. She used the Book of Knowledge to teach English structure, vocabulary, and culture. She urged Akihito to play with the other boys and develop good sportsmanship while having fun. In his private sessions, she sought to instill confidence and self-control. She introduced him to the kindness and non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi, the integrity and simplicity of Abraham Lincoln, and the honesty, courage, and equality of William Penn. She used Penn’s dealings with the Native Americans as a example of how one bases actions on values and respects the differences of others.

The first foreigner welcomed into the private quarters, she developed relationships with the whole family. She taught the other imperial children and the Empress Nagako English and western culture. She played cards with them, taught the children Monopoly, shared poetry, and went on trips with them. She encouraged the parents to spend more time with their children and show interest in their academic progress. In turn, the Emperor and Empress enjoyed her company and often invited her to join them in their quarters to share Japanese language and culture.

Akihito benefited greatly from her four years of instruction. His actions in subsequent years showed lessons well learned. He chose his own wife and promised to protect her always. Often hard due to imperial protocols and infighting, it was a difficult promise but he has done his best. He continues to reach out to his people. Together, the couple has travelled around the country and been with those who have suffered in time of disaster such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Although limited constitutionally from interfering in politics, he has used speeches to promote “apology diplomacy” for past military actions and the necessity to continue the pacifism in the present constitution in the light of the recent government calls for a more nationalistic, militaristic stance. He and his wife Michiko have raised their own children and shown an interest and support in the education, sports, and training of physically and mentally challenged children and adults. Interested in fish as a child and trained in ichthyology and marine biology, Akihito has written academic papers and supported scientific studies.

Elizabeth Gray Vining continued her relationship with the imperial family through visits, calls, and correspondence. Each year on her birthday, a gift of flowers was delivered to her by the Japanese Ambassador to the US or his representative. She cherished the photos of the family that came with their Christmas greeting. She also continued to write and to support education of Quakers and others. When she died in 1999, she had followed her belief that life is a trust, given into our hands to hold carefully, use well, enjoy, and give back when the time comes.

Questions to ponder:

  • What were some of the lessons Mrs. Vining learned and taught through the years?
  • How have you found silence to strengthen you when you are troubled or have a problem to solve?
  • What is the place of “fun” in your life?
  • How do you stir your “cauldron of creativity” on a daily basis?


  • Elizabeth Gray Vining’s many children’s books, biographies, and non-fiction
  • The recent videos about the Emperor Akihito made by the Japanese network NHK and available on the internet
  • Juvenile fiction and non-fiction on Japan such as Zen Shorts and Zen Ties by Jon Muth; Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say; The Sign of the Chrysanthemum and The Master Puppeteer by Katherine Paterson; Umbrella by Taro Yashima; and A Primary Source Guide to Japan by Tobi Santon Stewart

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