Japanese princess to marry commoner in moderate end to royal saga



HONG KONG – This royal wedding will be an unusually low-key affair.

When Princess Mako of Japan, niece of Emperor Naruhito and daughter of her younger brother, Crown Prince Fumihito, marries in Tokyo on Tuesday, there will be no lavish ceremony and none of the rites traditionally associated with Japanese royal weddings. . In another first, she forgoes the roughly $ 1.3 million lump sum payment royal women receive after losing their imperial status by marrying a commoner.

The reason: the public disapproval of her husband, Kei Komuro, 30, a young law graduate, over a financial dispute involving his mother. Rather than spending tax dollars on the wedding, which has been delayed for years amid controversy, the couple are simply registering their marriage in a government office. In the coming weeks, they should quietly leave Japan for a new life in the United States.

The couple’s dramatic exit from royal life has fascinated media in Japan and elsewhere, drawing comparisons to British Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle. Palace officials said this month that Mako, who turned 30 on Saturday, had developed complex post-traumatic stress disorder due to her “inability to escape” attacks on her, Komuro and their families.

Their story has also drawn attention to a looming succession crisis for the Japanese monarchy, said to be the oldest in the world. With the Chrysanthemum ascension to the throne limited to the male line, the family is running low on members – 18 in total. Neither Naruhito’s daughter, Aiko, nor Mako and his sister, Kako, are 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 sole heir of his generation.

Princess Mako of Japan during Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony at Tokyo Imperial Palace on October 22, 2019.Kazuhiro Nogi file / Getty Images

Questions about the fate of the imperial family are part of a larger 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 from “The Imperial House of Japan in the Postwar Era, 1945-2019.

“We are talking about the national symbol, and if the national symbol is limited to men, that says a lot about the state of gender equality in Japan,” he said.

Changes in Japanese law after WWII confined the Emperor to a symbolic role and significantly reduced the size of the Imperial Family, removing 11 of the 12 branches. Of the 17 royals who will remain after Mako’s departure, five are men, including former Emperor Akihito, 87, who abdicated in 2019, and his younger brother Prince Hitachi, 85.

The number of family members will continue to decline as more and more women marry, increasing the burden of royal duties on those who remain.

The Japanese government has already attempted to address the issue, with proposals such as restoring the royal status of men from old branches and allowing women to remain in the family after marrying commoners. Polls show that a majority of the public supports allowing women or their male children to become emperors, but there is strong opposition among conservatives, and the issue lost its urgency in 2006 with the birth of Hisahito.

“He must look at this with considerable curiosity,” Ruoff said of the controversy surrounding Mako’s marriage, noting that Hisahito would also have to marry a commoner for lack of other options.

“All of this recent drama with his older sister is probably not going to help this process,” Ruoff said.

Japan’s post-war constitution enshrined the right of people to marry freely, asserting that marriage should be “based only on the mutual consent of both sexes”, contrary to a long tradition of arranged marriages that predated the Second. World War.

“Even if a person is a member of the Imperial Family, any kind of climate that prevents a person from an open marriage is out of time,” the center-left Japanese newspaper The Mainichi said in an op-ed this month. this.

Mako’s father also cited the constitution as an explanation for why he approved the marriage.

“If they really want to get married, I think that as parents we have to respect their feelings,” Fumihito, better known as Prince Akishino, said at a press conference last November.

In a statement last year, Mako said that while not everyone agrees with their relationship, she and Komuro are “irreplaceable” to each other and that their marriage is “a choice. necessary so that we can live our lives while carefully protecting our hearts. “

A difficult engagement

This isn’t the first time the princess has gone her own way. Rather than the prestigious Gakushuin University in Tokyo, favored by the imperial family and other Japanese elites, she chose to study at the International Christian University in Tokyo. It was there that she met Komuro in 2012, at an event for students interested in studying abroad. (Mako was an exchange student in Scotland and went on to earn a Masters in Art Museum and Gallery Studies at the University of Leicester in England.)

Their engagement was announced in September 2017, with the wedding due to take place the following year. But then there were reports of a dispute between Komuro’s mother and her ex-fiance, who claimed she owed him more than $ 35,000. Critics questioned whether Komuro, whose mother had raised him on her own, was fit to marry a princess, and the wedding was postponed.

In August 2018, Komuro left for Fordham University Law School in New York. Last month, he returned to Japan for the first time in more than three years, quarantined for two weeks under the country’s pandemic border rules before he and Mako could reunite.

There was further uproar when he arrived in Japan with long hair tied in a ponytail, which critics said was inappropriate for a princess-to-be husband. Her hairstyle was dissected into the headlines, photographed from multiple angles.

Emperor Naruhito of Japan, Empress Masako, Crown Prince Fumihito of Akishino, Princess Kiko, Princess Mako and Princess Kako during New Years Eve celebration at Tokyo Imperial Palace on January 1, 2020. Kunihiko Miura / AP File

On October 18, when Komuro met Mako’s parents, Fumihito, and Crown Princess Kiko, at their imperial residence, the ponytail was gone. But public questions persist over the financial dispute, even after Komuro released a 28-page statement in April explaining 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 experience echoed that of other royal women. Naruhito’s wife Empress Masako, a Harvard graduate and former diplomat, has spent years out of the public eye amid mental health issues some have attributed to the pressure to produce a male heir. (She and Naruhito’s only child, Aiko, were born in 2001.)

“I think it conveyed the image that the Imperial Family as a system can never make women happy,” Hara told NBC News.

In addition to traditional tabloids, he said, members of the Imperial Family are now also facing criticism on social media.

“Even if the Imperial Household Agency wanted to regulate it, there is no way to control it,” Hara said. “Just open your computer and everyone can see what has been said.”

In interviews near the Tokyo Imperial Palace, members of the public expressed irritation at the media coverage and concern for Mako. But they also had criticism.

“I was hoping it would be like a love story in the movies,” said Reina Sakaguchi, a kindergarten worker visiting from nearby Saitama. But after seeing Komuro’s ponytail, she said, “My cheers turned to worry.”

Princess Mako, who recently quit her job as a researcher at a University of Tokyo museum, has not said what she plans to do when she moves to New York after the wedding. Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP via Getty Images File

Komuro should be free to do whatever he wants once they are married and live in the United States, but in Japan, she said, “he should have looked decent because that’s what which is normal in Japanese society “.

Sayaka Fujita, 41, who works at an international school, said Mako was denied the right to live his life like anyone else.

“I’m sorry for her in this regard,” she said. “But she lived and grew up with public funding, so I can see why some people would want to have a say.”

Komuro, who graduated in May, is awaiting his bar exam results in December and has joined the New York office of law firm Lowenstein Sandler. (On his wedding day, he was also recognized by the Business Law Section of the New York State Bar Association as the winner of its annual student writing competition.) Mako, who recently quit her job as a researcher in a museum at the University of Tokyo, did not say what she plans to do in New York.

But Ruoff said Americans shouldn’t expect the couple to be media figures like Harry and Meghan.

“They are not going to do this,” he said. “They will just disappear.”

Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong; Arata Yamamoto and Olivier Fabre reported from Tokyo.


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