July 9, 2009

The Emperor's English Teacher

From the vaults:

学習院中等科 (Gakushuuin-chuutouka, the middles school division of a prestigious school) in Tokyo-- This old photo shows the current Japanese emperor, Akihito (emperors don't have last names in Japan), on the far left, beaming a smile, and his English/Western Thought tutor, Elizabeth Vining, who is conduction some sort of spelling competition.
I looked up Mrs. Vining and found out that she taught the then prince for four years, and was the only foreign guest at his wedding. She was probably one of only a handful of native English speaking teachers in Japan at the time.
It is said that Mrs. Vining had a strong effect on the young Akihito, who she called Jimmy instead of the more formal "crown prince" title he at first wanted, instilling in him a sense of independence and courage to break with tradition. Long before she died in 1999, she wrote a book about her time with the prince, entitled Windows for the Crown Prince, and another, Return To Japan. Looks like they've been out of print for a while, but I hope to pick up a used copy.
Bonus info about emperor names:
  • While they don't seem to have a family name, the imperial family can be referred to as 皇族 (kōzoku, from the kanji emperor+family).
  • While it's okay for us to refer Akihito by his name in English, in Japanese they always have to call him 陛下 (his majesty) or 天皇 (emperor) or the like. In the linked article, they referred to his then princely-self as 皇太子明仁さま (crown prince lord Akihitio). I think calling him Jimmy is reserved for Mrs. Vining ;-)
  • Emperors get new names when they die that supersede the old ones. Lately, the convention is to rename emperors after the era that they lived in, which happens to start and end with their lives. Just remember that Akihito will become Emperor Heisei after his death.
  • 天皇 translates to emperor in English, but within the Japanese language is only used to refer to Japanese royalty, not other kings or emperors. Incidentally, Japan is the only country in the world with a living emperor.

    1. I did not know Japan was the only nation with a living Emperor. Interesting. The old man really is special.

    2. Great little post, and interesting to hear about the English teacher; I had never known that she existed, to be honest. I feel like a whole chasm has been opened in my knowledge about Japan!

      I do find the story of the Japanese royalty, especially in modern times, quite upsetting, in that their every moves are governed by a council of officers and they have absolutely no power whatsoever, even less than Madge in the UK. Great post though!

    3. Yeah, I think it really sucks that they can't even get something as basic as letting women be empresses done without government approval these days.

    4. I think it's quite normal for a royal family of a country to have their actions dictated by government. Remember they represent their country and since they are born into the job, they are not always the "best man for the job" so the government simply has to keep an eye out. Some governments do it more than others but that's besides the point.

      What do Japanese call the Chinese emperor then? 皇帝 or something?
      And additionally, kings and queens are called 王様 and 女王 respectively. They're different words in Japanese just like in English.

    5. Interesting article on the royal.
      皇太子 would means crown prince
      天皇 literally means Sky King/Emperor. More better translation is Emperor of Heaven.

    6. I did a search on the book, and you can download the original PDF at archive.org here:


      Lots of blank pages at the beginning so keep clicking through. Thanks for this post.


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