Shigeyuki Hiroki, ambassador and consul general of Japan, and his staff couldn’t help but applaud last week during his visit to PS 81 when they received an unexpected welcoming in their native tongue.
The school’s librarian Nikki Grochowski, who had clearly done her homework, greeted the group with a hearty “Kangei shimasu.” Judging by the big smiles and clapping hands, the gesture was much appreciated.
Mr. Hiroki had requested the Feb. 14 visit to the Riverdale Avenue school because he knew it had educated generations of Japanese-Americans during the 1970s, 80s and 90s and he wanted to do more research on the roots of the Japanese community in New York.
While the school’s Japanese population has waned significantly over the last two decades, in the 1970s, the influx of Japanese-speaking students was so high that PS 81 needed to create a new English as a Second Language program to meet their needs.
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.”
Mr. Hiroki joked of the princess, “She has a Riverdale accent.”
Also attending the meeting was Lisa Vacca-Rizopoulos, associate professor of education at Manhattan College; Sister Margaret Egan, a professor of education at the College of Mount Saint Vincent; Edward Meyer, dean of The Mount’s school of professional and continuing studies; Deirdre Burke, an achievement coach with Children First Network 104; as well as other PS 81 staff. They recalled being impressed by the emphasis the Japanese place on 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.
“They were very, very committed students,” said Phyllis Beinstein, a literary coach who began teaching at PS 81 in 1978.
It was clear from those attending the meeting that students at the time benefited from the experience, learning more about one another’s cultures.
Ms. Burke recalled that her son was always jealous of his Japanese friends who brought neat bento boxes, a Japanese food box with separate compartments for rice, meat or fish and vegetables. She said she usually packed him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Everyone laughed when Mr. Hiroki said he was “very familiar” with peanut butter and jelly from his days of attending school in Milwaukee.
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.