Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560
Hirohito, the emperor of Japan, made the unprecedented decision in 1946 to ask Dr. George D. Stoddard, the head of an American education mission sent to survey the Japanese educational system at the end of World War II, if he could obtain an American tutor for his son the crown prince. In so doing, he set in motion many rounds of consultation and planning that resulted in the choice of an American woman, a Quaker, to tutor Crown Prince Akihito, as well as other royal family members and peers of the prince, for a period of four years. This arrangement presented a rare opportunity for the tutor, Vining, who provides a warm, personal account of her close relationship with the royal family during the years from 1946 to 1950.
The crown prince was twelve years old when Vining began her work with him. Thus, the young adult reader has the chance not only to contrast the differences in the educational program provided for a future emperor but also to gain valuable insights about Japan and its customs and about how a foreigner in Japan goes about the process of acculturation to a non-Western culture. The book also offers a rare glimpse of intimate details of the daily life and routine of a future emperor, as Vining received an inside view of life in the palace that remains unavailable even to most Japanese citizens.
Almost in diary form, Vining records what she saw candidly but sensitively, focusing both on her reactions to her assignment and on approaches used in teaching and the prince’s response to them. Throughout the account, several specific book titles from his curriculum are named and rationale is provided for their selection. Topics on an exceedingly wide range were chosen to ensure that “windows for the crown prince” will indeed be opened, allowing him to be prepared adequately for his future duties as emperor in an ever-shrinking world. The book is entirely factual; no fictionalizing is needed to make the account more interesting.
Sensitive to the new culture, Vining frequently comments on customs perhaps unknown to or misunderstood by the average American, such as the obon festival celebrating the annual visit of the souls of the dead, and explains their background and the purposes that they serve in Japanese society. She shares the attitude of the emperor toward World War II, the cooperation of the Japanese people with the American occupation forces following the war, and the kinds of changes that came about in Japan during the postwar years. She is also sensitive to how Americans are perceived by the Japanese, commenting at one point on the perception of the “aggressive rudeness” of the American man, however unintentional it may be.
Some of the impressions that Vining had of the crown prince as she bid farewell to Japan at the end of her assignment are noteworthy. In terms of physical development, she saw “a chubby small boy develop into a poised young man.” More important, she noted the development of his character as she perceived it: He had great natural dignity and a shyness that could be misinterpreted as arrogance. He was a person slow to trust but steadfast in that trust once it was given. He practiced honesty with himself and with others. He was modest and possessed a strong sense of responsibility and a deep love for Japan.