Tokyo Ever After
Emiko Jean’s Tokyo Ever After is listed for grades 6-8 on Amazon, and it will be fine for that intended audience, especially in a library that is working to diversify. I do not, however, see it having what it takes to reach audiences beyond that maturity level, or to become a classic when a better version of this same story comes along.
Izumi Tanaka discovers that her father – the man her mother has never talked about – is the Crown Prince of Japan. Soon, she finds herself in Japan, a country she has never visited, where she does not even speak the language, yet is suddenly part of the institution that represents the national spirit. It’s a lot to handle even without the distraction of hot bodyguard Akio.
Izumi frustrated me. If I found out I was a princess – yes, even when I was in high school – I would have tried to… well, try. Izumi is given a binder of information to study before she comes to Japan and does not even open it. She doesn’t look up or ask what sericulture is, so she is unprepared and freaks out during a cultural photo op when a silkworm climbs on her. She bulldozes her way into meeting Akio’s sick mother, which is supposed to move him by showing that she is caring, but I felt it was horribly rude to barge in as an unexpected guest on a sick person (all the more so if you are royal! Give people time to vacuum and brush their hair!) Partway through the book, Akio starts talking about how wonderful Izumi is, and I genuinely couldn’t figure out what he was talking about.
Akio, the hero, is better developed. Not original, but a solid execution of a YA archetype – ‘rude until-and-because I love you’ handsome dreamboat.
I appreciated that there is interesting cultural detail in this story. After their traumatic internment in the United States during World War II, Izumi’s grandparents tried assimilation, not passing along their knowledge and experience of Japanese culture and language. Izumi struggles with her identity as a result;never sure if she is “Japanese enough”; her experiences growing up in a largely white area show her she is always a hyphenate in America (“Japanese-American,” not fully “American.”) The Japanese setting has more than just the most obvious details (I love having snack food details like onigiri and Pocari Sweat alongside kaiseki fine-dining). And if Izumi were just coming to Japan to meet a long-lost, non-royal family, it would have been enough.
The general distinguishing characteristics of Japanese royal life are there. We hear about the religious component, how the royal family traces its origins to the sun goddess and has duties in Shinto. Izumi and her grandfather talk about inheritance law, which in Japan limits succession to males, and we learn that a princess has to leave the royal family upon marriage. The visuals are correct as well. The Japanese palace is a deceptively simple space of wood, tatami, and paper. Whereas Europeans are typically found in coatdresses and family gemstones, Izumi joins the Japanese princesses in sixties-style pillbox hats, twinsets, and pearls. The Japanese royals are among the world’s most educated, having produced multiple PhDs and professors. Izumi’s father’s interest in botany is a good riff on the actual PhD in ornithology held by the real-life Crown Prince.
All of this is completely adequate for a B grade for an older reader, and possibly an A for a middle-grade reader. However, there are too many fumbles to go higher. When Izumi talks to her grandfather about succession, she thinks about how she could theoretically inherit if primogeniture changed, without mentioning that the Constitution a) also specifies legitimacy and b) that this is a decision for Japan’s parliament, not for the royals. The emperor then invites her into a ceremony despite her not being of age. The real-life emperor couldn’t even abdicate without permission; there is no way this could get by the Imperial Household Agency. Will 7th graders know or care? Probably not, but I did. Izumi’s relationship with Akio is portrayed as impossible because his background is ordinary, but multiple real-life Japanese princesses have married men who are not in the elite. Why create a fictional sticking point when there are so many real ones, like the fact that getting serious would require giving up the royal status she only just discovered? Because Japan values seniority, and the Imperial Household Agency is notorious for controlling the royals, I found it implausible that the heroine would be set loose with a hot twenty-something head of security and a teen lady-in-waiting (nor would that teen be qualified to dress a princess in kimono). I understand that we don’t know much about the daily lives of the Japanese royals but that just makes it more important to accurately reflect what we do know.
If you are reading this review as a teacher, librarian, bookseller, or other recommender/provider of books to young people, this is absolutely worth having on your shelf. While not perfect even for its intended audience, it is perfectly adequate. For an adult fan of YA, however, especially one who’s into royals like I am, Tokyo Ever After disappoints.