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A Md. man's chance meeting of Japan's Crown Prince Akihito in 1953

A Md. man's chance meeting of Japan's Crown Prince Akihito in 1953
Elizabeth Gray Vining, left, greets then 19-year-old Akihito, center, and his friend Robert Togasaki on the campus of Haverford College in 1953. (Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College)

Late last month, Japan’s emperor Akihito abdicated his supreme office because of increasing ill health. Thus ends his 30-year reign on the Chrysanthemum Throne, the world’s oldest continuing monarchy.

I had the good fortune to meet Akihito more than 60 years ago at Haverford College at the beginning of my senior year. It was Sept. 15, 1953, and the 19-year old crown prince was in the United States en route home after representing his country at the coronation in Westminster Abbey of Queen Elizabeth II. My job was to welcome Akihito on behalf of Haverford’s student body. It was a perfunctory duty, perfunctorily performed. But for me it was a tiny tug at history’s sleeve.

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For Akihito, the visit was not only a welcome respite from the relentless ceremonies of an international tour. It was his joyful reunion with two dear friends. One was his former tutor for four years in post-war Japan, Elizabeth Gray Vining — the author of many books for young readers and the catalyst for Akihito’s visit to our Quaker campus. (Their friendship continued after Akihito became emperor in 1989 and lasted throughout Vining’s life.) The other was Haverford sophomore Robert Togasaki, his former classmate at a Japanese private middle school and a fellow pupil of Vining’s.

A reporter covering the Crown Prince’s tour for Philadelphia’s The Evening Bulletin noted that he “broke into a sunny smile” when he saw Mr. Togasaki. And Mr. Togasaki, later a professor of biology at Indiana University, told me several years ago that a high point of his day was the long walk they took together, speaking Japanese.

The Evening Bulletin provides additional details of the Crown Prince’s visit: He was eager to see the duck pond where, he was told, freshmen “got a hazing.” He stood on the sidelines of Walton Field to watch football practice and was forced to dodge a husky lineman in pursuit of an errant punt. He attended a philosophy seminar and ate in the dining hall with a group of students, faculty and Haverford’s president. He was fascinated, The Evening Bulletin reported, when he “saw for the first time an automatic soft drink dispensing machine. He put a coin in, got a cool drink and, grinning happily, presented it to a friend.”

The Crown Prince’s Haverford visit was a resounding success. As The Evening Bulletin noted, “Observers thought the 19-year old heir to the imperial throne felt more relaxed among the youthful students than he had seemed to be on ceremonial occasions and educational tours.”

Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College
Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College

A postscript: There was another visitor of special note that semester. His signature is on the same page of the 1953 guest book at the Haverford library’s Quaker & Special Collections unit, seven lines below Akihito’s. On Oct. 19, Glenn T. Seaborg, a Nobel Laureate in chemistry, was on campus as part of a Haverford program that brought persons distinguished in the arts, sciences and public service to teach and otherwise interact with the student body.

Seaborg had worked on the wartime Manhattan Project that developed the bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and surely terrified 11-year old Akihito, then in hiding with the royal family in the countryside.

One would suppose that the careers of these two signatories, ironically linked in that guest book, would be wholly disparate. But as befits invitees to a campus rooted in Quaker pacifism, each was a strong advocate for peace.

Before the bombs were dropped, Seaborg joined other scientists in unsuccessfully urging President Truman to demonstrate the awful power of atomic energy in a remote, uninhabited location in order to encourage Japan to surrender without unprecedented destruction and massive loss of life. He later served for 10 years as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and promoted arms control and the peaceful uses of atomic energy.

Akihito’s career has been even more transformative. A hallmark of his reign, the New York Times recently reported, “was a long campaign to repent for the nation’s wartime sins.” His state visits to wartime sites such as Okinawa, Saipan, the Philippines and Singapore were only samples of his many public gestures that helped restore one of the world’s most reviled warlike nations to an honored place as a nation at peace in the global community.

Let us wish Akihito well in his retirement.

Stephen H. Sachs was United States attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and state attorney general from 1979 to 1987. His email is steve.sachs@wilmerhale.com.

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