Elizabeth Gray Vining exhibit
Ella Culton '23 has curated an exhibit on Elizabeth Gray Vining and her time in Japan after World War II.
Elizabeth Gray Vining acts as an important figure for recording history and bearing witness to a burgeoning new world at the end of World War II. Vining, a Quaker woman from Germantown, Pennsylvania, was the English tutor of the Crown Prince of Japan between 1946 and 1950, remaining close acquaintances with Crown Prince Akihito (later Emperor Akihito) until her death in 1999. Through her letters, journals, and even novels, Vining’s accounts paint a picture of Japan now colored by our modern understanding of post-war recovery and more complex definitions of victims and perpetrators during conflict. As a Quaker woman, Vining was a staunch supporter of a transition to peace after World War II, although her motivations for peace what it might look like are distorted by Vining’s lack of belief in the importance of cultural distinctions and traditions, as shown by her imparting Western ideologies in her teaching of the Crown Prince and his classmates. Vining did not hold resentment or anger towards the Japanese people; instead she felt an immense sympathy and empathy for the Japanese (albeit misplaced at times), especially for her students. By her own definition Vining sought to educate the Crown Prince about a changing world, and the new position he would soon hold in it, exposing him to Western ideas and themes through her teachings. Throughout her relatively short tutorship of the Crown Prince, Vining developed life-long friends and acquaintances, both with US and Japanese distinguished officials like Shinzo Koizumi and General MacArthur, providing her papers, now housed in Quaker & Special Collections, with a plethora of global perspectives. Ultimately, Vining is a product of her time, and through her letters, articles, and speeches, we can critique and learn from her American Quaker response to war and recovery in the mid 20th century.
In moving through the Vining collection for a project this past spring, I found myself fascinated by the complex figure shaping up in front of me. In digging through articles, personal letters, diaries, notes, and more, I began to wonder more about the woman who was Elizabeth Gray Vining. As collections are not always organized in a linear fashion, I would sporadically gain bits and pieces of information about her life, like her tragically short-lived marriage to Morgan Fisher Vining. While Vining herself is an interesting mystery to unfold, some of the most poignant and profound pieces of her collection come from those who surround her: her students, colleagues, and friends. Their stories, often retold to Vining, help to clarify the complexities of nationalism and recovery for the “losing side of the war.” Collections like this are a large part of the allure archives: you are able to flip through the artifacts and pages of someone’s life until you almost feel as though they are a good friend. While we only hold a small, physical collection of E.G. Vining’s life, I highly recommend digging into the details of this rich, historically significant woman and time period.
-- Ella Culton ‘23
Ella Culton’s exhibit “Elizabeth Gray Vining: A Quaker in Postwar Japan” will be on display from September 28, 2020- December 18, 2020 in Lutnick Library’s Heritage South Reading Room. Interested researchers can also explore her papers in Quaker & Special Collections.