Izumi Tanaka is a normal, Northern California teenager. She’s an average student and spends much of her free time at the local diner with her friends, a quartet they’ve dubbed the Asian Girl Gang, or AGG. In her final semester of high school, life as she knows it suddenly comes to a halt when she discovers that her long lost father—a man she has never met—is the Crown Prince of Japan. He remained unmarried, pining for Izumi’s mother, a sansei or third generation Japanese American who fits in better with the kombucha crowd than those whose tea is poured by servants.
Emiko Jean’s latest young adult novel, Tokyo Ever After, has been compared to The Princess Diaries and Crazy Rich Asians. Once Izumi discovers the identity of her father and tries to reach out to him, it doesn’t take long before the Japanese embassy in Washington, DC gets involved. Soon Izumi is on her way to Tokyo to meet her father, flying alone in first class with only one other passenger, her personal imperial guard, Akio. It’s her hope that she will feel more at home in Japan than in Mount Shasta. But is that even possible in a closely controlled imperial court where her every move will be scrutinized, down to an unscheduled bathroom break at Narita upon landing?
Izumi’s first impressions of Tokyo materialize on the drive from Narita to the palace, where she’s to meet her father for the first time.
I clutch the windowsill and press my nose to the glass. There are verdant parks, tiny residential buildings, upmarket shops, galleries, and restaurants. For each sleek, new modern construction, there is one low-slung wooden building with a blue tiled roof and glowing lanterns. It’s all so dense. Houses lean against one another like drunk uncles.
She soon finds the pageantry of court life stifling, wishing she had the freedom to explore the city she viewed on that first drive in Tokyo. Her adjustment is made more difficult by her female cousins, two standoffish teenagers she dubs the Shining Twins because they seem robotic. No matter how much Izumi tries to adapt, the Shining Twins remind her that she’s an outsider.
Izumi ends up falling for the dashing Akio, a twenty-year-old aspiring pilot who is pushed into the imperial guard service out of duty to his family, of which the male members have been a part for generations.
Unlike The Princess Diaries, this story however takes place in a real country with a real royal family. Japan has an actual Crown Prince, of course: he’s married. It seems inconceivable that an actual Prince in line to the throne would have a child born out of wedlock.
Jean has lifted biographical details from the actual royal family in Japan. The Shining Twins’ mother is rarely seen in public because she has never adjusted to royal life; another character in the book was a diplomat before she married into the royal family. There’s also the issue of whether a female (in this case, Izumi) can ascend the role of Empress. Those with some knowledge of Japan will see barely disguised references to the actual Masako, a former diplomat (and commoner) who married the then Crown Prince and is now Empress. She had a very real-world struggle in adjusting to royal life, in part because she has just one child and that child is a daughter. Worse, however, are the overtones of American exceptionalism in having the American Izumi as the instigator of reform in a traditional (and apparently flawed) Japanese system.
So while Tokyo Ever After can be read as an entertaining rom-com, there is the risk that YA readers might come away with the impression Japan and its culture are in need of a Westernized savior like Izumi.