HONG KONG – This royal wedding will be an atypical, inconspicuous affair.
When Princess Mako of Japan, the niece of Emperor Naruhito and the daughter of his younger brother, Crown Prince Fumihito, gets married in Tokyo on Tuesday, there will be no lavish ceremony or rites traditionally associated with Japanese royal weddings. In another premiere, she foregoes the roughly $ 1.3 million lump-sum payment that female royals receive after losing their imperial status by marrying a commoner.
The reason: public disapproval of her groom Kei Komuro (30), who has just studied law, because of a financial dispute in which his mother was involved. Instead of spending tax dollars on the wedding, which was delayed by years in the controversy, the couple simply register their marriage with a government agency. In the coming weeks they are supposed to leave Japan in silence to start a new life in the USA.
The couple’s dramatic exit from royal life has intrigued the media in Japan and elsewhere, drawing comparisons to Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle. Palace officials said this month that Mako, who turned 30 on Saturday, developed complex post-traumatic stress disorder because she “couldn’t escape” the attacks on her, Komuro and their families.
Their history has also drawn attention to an impending succession crisis to the Japanese monarchy, which is believed to be the oldest in the world. Since the ascent to the chrysanthemum throne is limited to the male bloodline, the family is running out of members – a total of 18. Neither Naruhito’s daughter Aiko nor Mako and her sister Kako stand in line because they are women. Now the future of the crown rests on the shoulders of Mako’s 15-year-old brother, Prince Hisahito, the only heir of his generation.
Questions about the fate of the imperial family are part of a wider debate about the role of women in Japanese society, said Ken Ruoff, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University and author of Japan’s Imperial House in the Postwar Era, 1945-2019 . ”
“We’re talking about the national symbol, and if the national symbol is restricted to men only, it says a lot about the state of gender equality in Japan,” he said.
Changes in Japanese law after World War II limited the emperor to a symbolic role and drastically reduced the size of the imperial family by removing 11 branches out of 12. Of the 17 royals left after Mako’s departure, five are male, including former Emperor Akihito, 87, who abdicated in 2019, and his younger brother, Prince Hitachi, 85.
The family number will continue to shrink as more female members marry, adding to the burden of royal duties on those who remain.
The Japanese government has previously tried to address the issue with proposals including restoring the royal status of men from the former branches and allowing women to stay in the family after commoners marry. Polls show that the majority of the public are in favor of women or their male children becoming emperors, but there is strong opposition from among the Conservatives and the issue became less urgent with the birth of Hisahito in 2006.
“He has to watch this with considerable curiosity,” said Ruoff of the controversy surrounding Mako’s marriage, noting that Hisahito would also have to marry a commoner because there were no other options.
“This whole recent drama with his older sister is unlikely to help that process,” said Ruoff.
Japan’s post-war constitution enshrined the right for people to marry freely and said marriage should be “based only on the mutual consent of both sexes,” in contrast to a long tradition of arranged marriages that existed before World War II.
“Even if a person is a member of the imperial family, any climate that restricts a person from free marriage is out of date,” the center-left Japanese newspaper The Mainichi said in one editorial this month.
Mako’s father also cited the constitution to explain why he consented to marriage.
“If you are really serious about marriage, we as parents should respect your feelings,” said Fumihito, better known as Akishino, at a press conference last November.
In a statement last year, Mako said that while not everyone agreed with their relationship, she and Komuro were “irreplaceable” to one another and that their marriage was “a necessary choice for us to live our lives while carefully protecting our hearts protection”.
It’s not the first time that the princess has gone her own way. Instead of the renowned Gakushuin University in Tokyo, which is preferred by the imperial family and other Japanese elites, she decided to study at the International Christian University in Tokyo. There she met Komuro in 2012 at an event for foreign students. (Mako was an exchange student in Scotland and later earned a Masters in Art Museum and Gallery Studies from the University of Leicester, England.)
Their engagement was announced in September 2017, with the wedding scheduled for the following year. But then reports surfaced of an argument between Komuro’s mother and her ex-fiancé who claimed she owed him more than $ 35,000. Critics asked if Komuro, whose mother raised him alone, was fit to marry a princess, and the wedding was postponed.
In August 2018, Komuro graduated from Fordham University in New York to study law. He returned to Japan last month for the first time in more than three years and was quarantined under the country’s pandemic border rules for two weeks before he and Mako could get back together.
There was further uproar when he arrived in Japan with long hair tied in a ponytail, which critics said was inappropriate for a princess’ future husband. His hairstyle has been dissected on the front page of newspapers and photographed from multiple angles.
When Komuro met Mako’s parents Fumihito and Crown Princess Kiko at their imperial residence on October 18, the ponytail was gone. But public questions about the financial dispute persist even after Komuro released a 28-page statement in April stating that his mother thought the money was a gift and that he would pay to settle it himself.
Takeshi Hara, a professor at the Open University of Japan and an expert on the imperial family, said Mako’s experiences mirror those of other female royals. Naruhito’s consort, Empress Masako, a Harvard graduate and former diplomat, spent years out of the public eye amid mental health problems that some attributed to pressures to produce a male heir. (She and Naruhito’s only child, Aiko, was born in 2001.)
“I think this conveyed the picture that the imperial family as a system can never make women happy,” Hara told NBC News.
In addition to the classic tabloids, imperial family members would now also have to deal with criticism on social media.
“Even if the Imperial Household Agency wanted to regulate it, there is no way to control it,” said Hara. “You just have to open your computer and everyone can see what has been said.”
In interviews near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, citizens expressed irritation at the media coverage and concerns about Mako. But they also had criticism.
“I was hoping it would be like a love story in the movie,” said Reina Sakaguchi, a kindergarten worker who was visiting from the nearby town of Saitama. But after seeing Komuro’s ponytail, she said, “My cheers turned to concern.”
Komuro should be free to do what he wants once they are married and live in the US, but in Japan, she said, “he should look right as that is normal in Japanese society.”
Sayaka Fujita, 41, who works at an international school, said Mako was being denied the right to live her life like everyone else.
“I feel sorry for her in that regard,” she said. “But she lives and grew up with public funds, so I can understand why some people want to have a say.”
Komuro, who graduated in May, is expecting his bar exam in December and is moving to the New York office of the law firm Lowenstein Sandler. (On the day of his marriage, he is also named the winner of the annual student writing contest by the New York State Bar Association’s business law department.) Mako, who recently quit her job as a researcher at a museum at the University of Tokyo, didn’t say what she’s going to New York.
But Ruoff said Americans shouldn’t expect the couple to be media characters like Harry and Meghan.
“They won’t do that,” he said. “They will just go away.”
Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong; Arata Yamamoto and Olivier Fabre reported from Tokyo.