Riverdale Recalls Its Japanese Past, Royalty Included
PS 81 Robert J. Christen in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx received international guests on February 14. Shigeyuki Hiroki, the ambassador and consul general of Japan, stopped by with his staff after requesting the visit as part of his research into the roots of the Japanese community in the city, reports Sarina Trangle for The Riverdale Press.
While the Japanese population in the area has been declining, that was not the case between the 1970s and 1990s when a peak number of Japanese-speaking students attended the elementary school prompting the school to start an ESL program. There was even royalty among the student body.
Beginning in the 1970s, Riverdale became a prime real estate target for many Japanese companies that needed to find homes for their employees. Japanese businesses began looking elsewhere when more apartments were turned into co-ops.
One of the first, and most famous, Japanese students to go to PS 81 was Masako Owada, who became the princess of Japan when she married Crown Prince Naruhito Tsugunomiya in 1993. She attended PS 81 for at least two years in the early 1970s, according to Phyllis Tandlich, a retired PS 81 teacher.
Ms. Tandlich described Princess Owada as a model student in a Jan. 21, 1993 Riverdale Press story about the wedding.
“She was a great little student, but she understood English better than she spoke it,” Ms. Tandlich said in the article. “We had a class picture taken when she was my student … I just sent it to her to congratulate her.”
Staff and parents, including Deirdre Burke, an achievement coach with Children First Network 104, recalled the priority Japanese gave to education.
Ms. Burke, whose son attended PS 81, said several of the Japanese parents rejected the idea of having their children taught as English language learners because they wanted their children to learn English rather than be taught in their native tongue.
In addition to learning in English at school during the week, many families brought their children to PS 24 on Saturdays for Japanese lessons so that they would retain fluency.
During his recent visit, Ambassador Hiroki and his staff also brought a bit of Japanese culture back to the school.
Mr. Hiroki invited PS 81 to learn about tea ceremonies, traditional Japanese attire and sushi through educational materials brought by his office.
He and Anne Kirrane, the school’s interim acting principal, said they planned to set up an e-mail pen pal exchange between PS 81 students and students in Japan.