TOKYO – Japan’s hit royal dramedy – if it were a TV show it might be titled The Perils of Princess Mako – finally came to an end on Tuesday with the young royal’s marriage to her college sweetheart, Kei Komuro.
The couple has – hopefully – the happy ending they sought. It has not been easy: Komuro’s status as a commoner, and his family’s financial issues, have made him and his four-year wooing of the princess a tortured courtship that has taken place under the glare of a deeply intrusive media.
Mako leaves many things behind. She has had mental health issues due to the stresses, has abandoned her royal status, and – in a nod to press accusations around Komuro – has declined to accept a $1.4 million parting gift from the Imperial Household.
Her exit also leaves the Imperial Family one princess down: It now numbers only 17 members. This situation is forcing Japan to take a look at its Imperial Household laws and its shrinking royal family.
More broadly, it is raising questions over the role of women in a society that suffers under one of the world’s lowest glass ceilings.
A controversial romance
Mako, 30, and Komuro, 30, started dating when they were students at the International Christian University on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Mako was an art curator in the making, Komuro was heading towards a career as an international lawyer. He also had a reputation as something of a playboy.
But love apparently blossomed. In September 2017, the couple held a press conference and announced their engagement at the Akasaka Imperial East Residence. Their happy smiles and glowing demeanors captivated the public and charmed the press. They were set to tie the knot in November 2018.
It seemed like a match made in heaven. Alas, it was not quite the Shinto version of heaven.
In December 2017, a magazine, Weekly Woman, dropped a bombshell: Komuro’s mother had financial issues with her ex-fiancé. The former fiancé’ claimed Komuro’s mother owed him $36,000 – and that some of that money had been used for her son’s education.
In a country where everyone knows the saying, “The child of a frog is a frog,” the financial and marital problems of Komuro’s mother were automatically his problems. What followed was a feeding frenzy as every other media followed up.
Komuro’s mother was called “a gold digger,” Komuro was “a gigolo.” The press speculated that he sought the $1.4 million Mako was due to receive when she left the Imperial Family.
The law on that is clear: when a princess marries a commoner, she must leave the Imperial Family. To soften the blow, and maintain the dignity of departing royal ladies, they are given a lump-sum payment to keep them well-off.
The marriage was portrayed as a looming disaster. In February 2018, for the first time, the powerful Imperial Household Agency announced the wedding would be delayed.
In August, Komuro escaped Japan to study law in the United States.
In a November press conference, Mako’s father, Prince Akishino, said of the wedding: “We can’t have the ceremony until the majority of the people are convinced this is something to celebrate.” Mako later issued an elegant rebuttal, explaining why she would stand by her man.
And while they stayed in touch, the two didn’t see each other until after Komuro graduated from law school, took the bar exam and came back to Japan. He knew he would have to run a gauntlet upon his return – and so it proved.
Upon entering Japan on September 27 this year – to quarantine before reuniting with his beloved – he was greeted with malicious glee by the Japanese press. who were fascinated by his new look: a ponytail.
Ponytail Returns, blared one tabloid. When he sliced off the ponytail, another tabloid suggested he had broken the beautician laws by summoning a stylist to sheer his locks at home. Under Japan’s rather odd Beautician Laws, only performers or those incapacitated can summon a beautician to their dwellings. Everyone else must go to a salon.
But regardless of hairstyling, this October the Imperial Household Agency announced that it was final: the marriage would take place this month. They also announced that Mako had been diagnosed with PTSD after years of enduring insults and defamation directed towards herself, her fiancé and his family.
After Tuesday’s ceremony, they will – hopefully – live happily ever after. But what about the remaining 17 members of the Imperial Family?
The non-rights of royalty
The issues of whether a female member of the Imperial Family should be allowed to become an empress, and how to sustain the dwindling institution, are very much intertwined. It involves a discussion of the basic human rights of Japan’s royalty.
The post-war constitution of Japan stipulates that when a man and woman want to get married, the decision is solely up to them. But some scholars argue that the Imperial Family doesn’t have the same human rights as ordinary people, as guaranteed in the constitution.
There are some grounds for that. The Emperor was once considered a god, after all. But the more down-to-earth argument is that the lifestyles of the Imperial Family are only possible with the support of the people and their taxes.
The 1947 Imperial House Law does stipulate that only males can ascend to the throne. It also states that any female member who marries a commoner must exit the family.
That is hardly in keeping with the 21st century but is par for the course in Japan, which ranks 120 out of 156 countries in gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum.
Moreover, Japan’s media has argued that they have every right to invade the privacy of Princess Mako and Komuro, raising the taxpayer’s yen argument, adding that her fiancé and his mother are fair game, for the same reason.
Going, going … gone?
The highly restrictive environment is contributing to the falling numbers in the Royal Family. The Imperial Household laws have over the years created a situation which makes Japan’s Imperial Family seem like an endangered species.
There are now only three heirs among the remaining imperial family members. Prince Hisahito, 12, is the only male in his generation, which raises concerns about the viability of the dynasty going forward.
With Mako no longer a princess, the Imperial Family consists of only 17 members. And five are unmarried females. They will be booted out if they marry a commoner. If they are going to marry at all, they only really seem to have the choice of marrying a commoner at this point in time.
Although theoretically one of them could marry Prince Hisahito and stay in the family, this seems unlikely.
Pundits point out that if this situation continues, the Imperial Family will continue to decline, meaning the burden on each member of the family steadily increases. Although their functions are entirely ceremonial, it’s not going to be easy to maintain their activities.
In the face of this slow-burning crisis, the public supports adaptability, but the ruling party does not.
In a poll taken in 2019 by Kyodo News, more than 80% of the public approved of having an empress. In fact, throughout Japan’s history, eight women ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne.
But the ruling Liberal Democratic Party finds the idea of an empress abhorrent.
Indeed, when the new emperor, Naruhito, had his succession ceremony on May 1, 2019, no female family members were allowed to attend, on order of the government and Imperial Household Agency.
The thinking behind that decision was that, when the regalia of Imperial succession was handed over, it could have been seen as support for allowing matrilineal heirs to ascend the throne.
It’s clear to many that the Imperial Household law is behind the times. It originally didn’t have any guidance for abdication, so when the previous emperor decided to retire, it sent the government into a tizzy.
The 2017 special legislation that permitted Emperor Emeritus Akihito to abdicate also called for the government to consider ways to address the succession issue “speedily” after the law’s implementation.
The government was supposed to report their findings to parliament, but in 2021, there’s still no answer. The 2017 legislation mentioned the possibility of allowing women to stay in the Imperial family after marriage, to form their own royal households. That hasn’t happened.
Japan’s women problem
In March this year, then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga assembled a relatively young and diverse panel to examine Imperial Household issues. Those issues included how to sustain the Imperial Family and whether or not an empress should be allowed.
Suga was hardly a great national leader, but proved to be far more egalitarian on issues of gender than his predecessor, the still-powerful Shinzo Abe. The current panel has put forth some interesting ideas.
They proposed that the female members of the Imperial Family could remain in the Imperial Family after marriage. However, the majority of the panel seemed much more in favor of a retroactive move that would allow male members of the former Imperial Family return to the Imperial Family through adoption.
A source close to the Imperial Household Agency told Asia Times that he expected nothing would change. “Prince Hisahito is the legitimate heir. Case closed. There’s no real impetus to discuss female-led Imperial houses or having an Empress right now,” the source said.
Former minister of health and welfare, Yoko Komiyama, wrote an elucidating essay for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in September. She pointed out that the beloved Imperial Family’s problem is a mirror of Japan’s problems.
“Japan has become a society with an extremely low birthrate. The Imperial Family isn’t an exception. There is only one male member of the royal family in the next generation after His Majesty the Emperor Hisahito. It would be too inhumane to impose the responsibility of giving birth to a male child on his marriage partner.
“I would like to see a return to the discussions that took place during the time of former Prime Minister [Junichiro] Koizumi [in power, 2001-2006]. We need constructive discussions that face the reality of a society with a very low birthrate.”
She noted the need for retaining Imperial female members even after their marriages, and concluded: “I think the Imperial Family will not be able to survive unless the Emperor is allowed to be an Empress.”