A Continuing Quaker Thumbprint on Japanese (& World) History

A Continuing Quaker Thumbprint on Japanese (& World) History

Recently, there’s news about how the Japanese prime minister is about to dump the antiwar provisions of Japan’s constitution — which have kept Japanese troops from fighting in other countries for seventy years.

Hey — what could possibly go wrong?

There have been loud street protests there against this impending change. Good on them.



But another major dissenting voice there is very subdued, but unmistakable: that of Japanese emperor Akihito.

He’s made statements about this more than once. In fact, many Japan experts believe this dissent, as much as his age, is behind his latest statement in August 2016 about being allowed to “retire” or “abdicate” the Chrysanthemum throne. But there is now no constitutional provision permitting such an action.

“Any legal changes will take time, probably years, to usher through.” the Washington Post reported. ” But in the meantime, the emperor’s intentions probably will create headaches for [prime minister Shinzo] Abe, whose top — and controversial — priority is revising the constitution to loosen the pacifism imposed on Japan after the war. . . .”

As a report in Japan Times summarized his role in early 2015:

“The people’s Emperor speaks truth to power“: 

“Since his reign began in 1989, the Emperor has weighed in on sensitive issues numerous times and in doing so has repeatedly repudiated the agenda of right-wing nationalists. Of course his words are carefully vetted and are sufficiently ambiguous to avoid an explicit political stand, but in the context of his remarks and gestures over the years, his choice of topics represent a powerful message to all but the most obtuse.”

Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

Recognize the key phrase in that headline? Thereby lies a story for Quakers,  worth recalling today.  Here’s a version of it, which shows how small-scale, low-visibility work can cast a long shadow. It centers on a mostly-forgotten Quaker writer, mainly of children’s books:

Elizabeth Gray Vining, who died in 1999 at 97, was an eminent figure among Quaker authors of the twentieth century. She was also a candid observer of many things, including both Quakerism and herself.
    Consider, for instance, what she wrote in 1939 for a compendium on “Contributions of the Quakers,” specifically the section on “the Arts”:

    “This section, unfortunately, might almost be entitled: What the Friends Have Not Given. When they ruled music and decoration out of their meeting houses, the Quakers, being a consistent people, put music and art out of their lives too. So intent were they on worshiping God and helping man that they overlooked the healing and inspiring power of great music and great art….
    “Quakerism has produced scientists, as you would expect, for a scientist is one who gives his life to the search for truth …. Quakerism also produced saints, philosophers, philanthropists, reformers, prophets.  Perhaps that is enough. Perhaps we should not ask for artists, too.”

Elizabeth Gray Vining in later years.

    But avoiding creative work was not enough, certainly so for her. She also, by her own testimony, knew she wanted to be – had to be – a writer from the time she was a child. Her publishing debut came at the age of 13, with a story in “The Young Churchman,” for the princess-ly sum of $2, and an encouragement from the editor to send more.

    From then her life was marked out by four poles: her brief marriage; Japan; Quaker Philadelphia; and through it all, her writing.

    Born Elizabeth Janet Gray and raised in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, she married Morgan Vining in 1929. Less than four years later, her husband was killed, and she was seriously injured, in a New York automobile accident.

If her physical recovery was long, Vining’s emotional healing went on for the rest of her life. Forty years later she wrote of “the long slow assimilation of grief. Sorrow becomes a companion, a way of life. Grief and joy are opposite poles; joy and sorrow often walk hand in hand.”

    She had done teaching and library work when, in 1946, she was selected to be an American tutor to crown prince Akihito of the Japanese imperial family; one of the stated requirements for the position was that the tutor be “a Christian, but not a fanatic.” When Vining quotes this description later, one can see the sly grin; she spent nearly four years in this assignment.

How did it happen that she was picked for this key assignment? A more scholarly assessment of the choice came in a 2010 study by Kaoru Hoshino, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh:

“Over the past decades, scholars as well as the media have given explanations as to why it was Vining, a Quaker, not Chaplin or someone else, who was chosen for the position, and their explanations seem unanimous. Vining was chosen because she was not only a Quaker known to be a pacifist but also an author of children’s literature, whom the Japanese expected to be sympathetic to the 12-year-old crown prince in the midst of the postwar confusion. Some also write that the imperial side found Vining more ideal than the other candidate [a Presbyterian], as she, having lost her beloved husband in an accident, had experienced the utmost sorrow in life and therefore would have compassion for others.

Elizabeth Gray Vining with crown prince Akihito.

While such reasons may have been true, there was also another reason why the imperial advisers preferred a Quaker, and based on several sources, the religious denomination of the new tutor was, in fact, one of the major factors that led to the imperial household’s decision to hire Vining. According to Maeda Yōichi, son of Maeda Tamon and the crown prince’s French tutor, a Quaker woman was considered most ideal because Quakers are pacifistic but not self-righteous or preachy. Japanese officials also found Quakerism ideal because it was understood, among Christian religions, as most compatible with the oriental world (where different religions had long co-existed) and therefore a Quaker would not force conversion.”

 — “Why an American Quaker tutor for the crown prince? An Imperial Household strategy to save Emperor Hirohito in MacArthur’s Japan.”  Kaoru Hoshino, Master’s Thesis, U. of Pittsburgh, 2010

    As personally enriching as this Tokyo sojourn was, Vining returned to the U.S. in 1950 to discover that it had also made her something of a celebrity. “Oh, Mrs. Vining!” gushed one matron, on meeting her in Maine, “How wonderful to meet you! I have never been so close to royalty before.” She published several books based on her experiences in Japan, and one of them, Windows for the Crown Prince, was a 1952 best-seller.

    Friends report that even in her last years, around the time of her birthday a sleek diplomatic limousine would pull up at Kendal, the Quaker-related retirement community southwest of Philadelphia where she lived, and disgorge the Japanese ambassador, often accompanied by a large spray of sumptuous flowers, for a courtesy call on behalf of her former pupil, now the emperor.

Vining-Windows-Crown-Prince-Cover    Given that Friendly connections paved the way for her time in Japan, one might think Vining had one of those long Quaker pedigrees. But in fact she was a convinced Friend, who was drawn magnetically to meeting in Washington, DC after her husband’s death, when her native Episcopal services proved no help.    

“It was the silence that drew me,” she wrote, “that deep healing silence of the meeting at its best, when the search of each is intensified by the search of all….I found each Sunday just enough of acceptance, of strength, of inner serenity to carry me through the week…My searching, restless, arid heart was like a stranded boat which was lifted for a time on buoyant waters from an ocean beyond the boundaries of selfhood.”

    Once inside the Quaker circle, however, Vining steeped herself in the most Anglophilic Philadelphia-centered version of the faith, rarely straying from a circuit that included Germantown Meeting, the American Friends Service Committee’s headquarters downtown, and Pendle Hill in suburban Wallingford, with side trips to Quaker and literary locales in England and Scotland.

Friend-of-life-cover    This focus turned up frequently in her work. Vining spent three years working intensively on a biography of Rufus Jones, who became the mid-20th century icon of Philadelphia Quaker culture (though himself an immigrant from New England). The book, Friend of Life, explores Jones’s thought and work deeply, reverentially, and well; but from it one will get little insight into why Jones was so reviled, by so many, for so long, even decades after his death. Why not? The best guess is that the opposition, by Vining’s time, came almost entirely from outside Philadelphia, and is thus only barely worth notice.

    She also wrote about Jones’s idol, John Greenleaf Whittier, a biography of William Penn, and a historical novel, The Virginia Exiles, about a group of Philadelphia Friends who were falsely accused of spying for the British and taken prisoner by George Washington’s army during the American revolution. She returned to Japan as the only Westerner invited to the crown prince’s wedding; she described this journey in Return to Japan (1960).

Vining-Return-to-Japan-Cover    She was not entirely uncritical of her adopted community, however. Listen to the narrator from her 1967 novel, I Roberta, fingering the way old-time Friends had turned the plain language, originally used as a blow for equality, completely inside out:

“Some Quakers have a way, which I dislike, of saying thee to other Quakers and you to outsiders. If there’s a roomful of Friends and non-Friends, they’ll sort it out quick as lightning, theeing the sheep and youing the goats in the same breath.”

    But if her range of vision was sometimes limited, her sense of vocation was always clear: she was a writer. “I am with Book as women are with child,” she once said. Besides best-sellers, among her 25 books, Adam of the Road, for young readers, was a Newberry Medal winner in 1943.
    Yet for all her dedication, she spoke of this career late in life with an appealing modesty:

“That I have never been the writer that I wanted to be has not greatly diminished my satisfaction in the work of writing. Every book has fallen short of my vision for it…There must be many people like me…not first-rate writers, but…born writers, who write because we would rather write than do anything else, because we are fulfilled while writing, because in some obscure way we feel guilty when we are not….”

    As a later member of this writer’s fellowship, I smile and nod at the clear-eyed wisdom and balance of this last comment. Friends are fortunate that our contribution to the arts is much more real 75 years after she commented on the lack thereof. Elizabeth Gray Vining’s long life of creative labor is one major reason for the improvement.

And beyond the books, she left a thumbprint on history that may be faint now, but is still visible.

— Adapted from The Harlot’s Bible, a collection of Quaker essays, now available in paperback and Kindle.



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