They may not have known it at the time, but P.S. 81 students decades ago attended classes with a future empress.
With Japan’s Emperor Akihito set to abdicate April 30, Crown Princess Masako, née Masako Owada — who lived in Riverdale and attended P.S. 81 around the late 1960s and early 1970s — will become Japan’s empress consort when her husband, Crown Prince Naruhito, ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1.
In fact, Brad Trebach was among those P.S. 81 classmates, although he didn’t know Masako personally. But Trebach believes Masako lived with her parents in an apartment on Henry Hudson Parkway.
Masako didn’t stay in Riverdale too long, however — she reportedly left for Japan around 1971. Yet, her native land actually has a certain bond with Riverdale dating back decades, although it would seem it’s not quite as pronounced as it once was.
In fact, P.S. 81 educated generations of Japanese Americans during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, according to past reporting by The Riverdale Press. While the school’s Japanese population has waned significantly over the last couple of decades, an influx of Japanese-speaking students was so high in the 1970s, P.S. 81 created a new English as a Second Language program to meet their needs.
Riverdale actually became a coveted real estate hotspot for some Japanese companies like Sony Corp., seeking homes for their employees. That changed some years later, however, when Japanese businesses began looking elsewhere as more and more apartments converted to co-ops. But early on, places like Skyview-on-the-Hudson were particularly attractive to Japanese residents.
And one of the first, and perhaps most famous, Japanese students to attend P.S. 81, was Masako Owada. When she earned the title of princess after marrying Naruhito in 1993, one of her teachers — Phyllis Tandlich — described Masako to The Riverdale Press at the time, as a model student.
Masako “was a great little student, but she understood English better than she spoke it,” said Tandlich, who died in 2012. At just 6, Makaso was especially deft at mathematics and art. Her parents were diligently involved in her education, and made a point of showing up at every parent-teacher conference.
Apparently Masako wasn’t alone in that respect. Japanese students at the time tended to be top-flight pupils — attentive and dedicated, thanks to a cultural emphasis on education.
“When we saw a Japanese student in class, we beamed and smiled,” Tandlich said. “It was such a joy to have them.”
But in addition to learning English at school during the week, some Japanese parents also brought their children to P.S. 24 on Saturdays, where they’d attend Japanese lessons to retain fluency.
“They were very, very committed students,” Phyllis Bernstein, recalling her own experience as a literary coach who began teaching at P.S. 81 in 1978, told The Press decades later.
Masako emerged as a potential bride for Naruhito in 1986 after meeting him at a state function held shortly after she passed the rigorous entrance exam for the Foreign Ministry, according to published reports. Her father, Hisashi Owada, was one of the agency’s top career diplomats and served as administrative vice minister. He also served as judge on the International Court of Justice between 2003 and 2018.
Masako spent her first four years in Moscow before arriving in New York. By the time she was 7, however, she was whisked to Japan, attending a private school in Denenchofu, a posh residential neighborhood sometimes described as Tokyo’s Beverly Hills.
Masako came back to the United States to complete her high school education at Belmont High School in Boston while her father lectured at Harvard University. She herself graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1985 with a degree in economics, before spending a year at Tokyo University’s law school and then entering the Foreign Ministry.
When the crown prince was being pressured to find a bride, he reportedly resisted efforts by Japan’s Imperial Household Agency to arrange meetings with various prospects. Instead, he insisted on Masako, vowing to protect her his entire life. His ideal partner was someone who spoke English, liked sports, cooked a mean meal, and was both “low-key” but also stood by “her own opinions.”
Yet it seems Masako’s family may have encouraged her to push back against the prince’s overtures. Her mother, Yumiko, reportedly expressed a certain ambivalence when news broke the crown prince had chosen her daughter as his bride. And Masako, in bed ill at the time, declined to talk to reporters.
Natsuko Takami — originally from Tokyo — didn’t know Masako personally, but she and her husband raised their daughters in Riverdale some 30 years ago, where they felt in good company.
“There were so many Japanese (people) here,” she recalled. “I felt like I was in Japan. When I (went) to the supermarket, I (saw) so many Japanese wives.”
But that’s changed rather drastically since Riverdale underwent a co-op boom. Faced with the decision of buying or living elsewhere, Japanese residents ultimately leaned toward the latter.
“I don’t know how many (Japanese) families are left,” said George Hirose, a Japanese American who grew up in Riverdale on Tyndall Avenue. His family moved to the neighborhood in 1962 when he was 5, after a stint in Queens.
“There was an exodus from Riverdale out to New Jersey,” while others settled in Scarsdale, Hirose added. “A lot of executives went to Greenwich, Connecticut — out of Riverdale to kind of cleaner, different sorts of environments. Companies just decided to move everybody.”
And still, to this day, Trebach marvels at the fact he attended school with a future empress — yet, she was just one among a strong community of Japanese students.
“A lot of the non-Japanese kids at P.S. 81 got an exposure to Japanese people and culture that they wouldn’t have had” otherwise, Trebach said. “I can remember, in the lunchroom, the Japanese kids would come with their own lunchboxes. Their mothers would make these beautiful arrangements of rice and seaweed and Japanese radishes. I would visit many of their apartments, eat with them, go to their birthday parties.
“For me, and for others in Riverdale, it was (our) first exposure to things Japanese, at a time that New York City didn’t have that many Japanese establishments.”