Japan's Princess Mako's Controversial Marriage to a 'Commoner,' Explained
Despite the fact that monarchies are a century or two out of fashion, the timeless drama of royals continues to be a source of endless fascination to the public. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Princess Diana captivated the world, and in the 2000s, her son, Prince William, was a regular on the front pages of tabloids thanks to his romance with his then-girlfriend, Catherine, now the Duchess of Cambridge.
Fast forward to the 2020s: the media scrutiny has only gotten worse, at least from the perspective of the world’s Last Aristocrats. Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, are still the subjects of tabloid fodder after the U.K. press turned against them after their move abroad. Now, their story is being paralleled halfway around the world in Japan, where a princess of royal blood has married a “commoner,” to the great displeasure of the Japanese public.
Tabloids in Japan have been giving Princess Mako’s fiancé (now husband), aspiring lawyer Kei Komuro, the Meghan Markle treatment, dissecting everything from his mother’s relationships to his choice of a ponytail. The romance of Princess Mako and Kei Komuro is far from a fairytale.
Here’s everything you need to know about the controversy:
Who is Princess Mako?
Princess Mako belongs to the oldest royal line in the world. The imperial family of Japan has been in power for almost three thousand years. Where European and Chinese dynasties were toppled every century or so, the imperial family of Japan has stayed—powered by the public’s belief in their divine heritage and sacred symbolism of a united Japan.
Unlike European royals whose adventures and scandals are often plastered all over magazines, Japan’s imperial family members rarely, if ever, make noise. Even in the case of Mako’s upcoming wedding, the princess has been largely silent on the issue, leaving the noise to be made by the press.
Princess Mako is the niece of the current emperor, Emperor Naruhito, and the first grandchild of the former emperor, Emperor Emeritus Akihito. As Emperor Naruhito has no sons, Mako’s father, Crown Prince Fumihito, will inherit the throne after his brother—making Mako the daughter of a future emperor. She will also be the eldest sister of a future emperor as her little brother, 15-year-old Prince Hisahito, is second in line for the throne. He is the only male of their generation, and thus, the last heir.
Japan’s royal family is known for its strict succession laws and even family laws. According to the Imperial Household Law, only men are allowed to ascend to the millennia-old Chrysanthemum Throne. Not only are women excluded from the line of succession, but they are also excluded from the royal family when they are married. Only sons and their wives and children are considered part of the official imperial family.
Princess Mako was always destined to lose her royal title, but the public is still taking offense to her choice of husband.
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Who is Kei Komuro?
Kei Komuro, a “commoner” in comparison to the princess, is a new law graduate. He first met Princess Mako at the International Christian University in Tokyo in 2012 when they were both students. The two began dating and got engaged in 2017 with plans to marry in 2018. But the press got wind of Komuro’s mother’s financial troubles, which earned public disapproval and pushed the imperial family to postpone the wedding.
Following the controversy, Komuro moved to New York to enroll at Fordham University’s law school, where he graduated with a Juris Doctor degree in July. He’s currently waiting for the results of his bar exam as he plans to pursue a career as a lawyer in the U.S. A former paralegal at a Tokyo law firm, Komuro has also worked in tourism, at a restaurant, and at an English language school.
Initial reactions to Komuro’s relationship with Princess Mako were positive until his mother’s drama came to light.
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Why is the public against it?
Japanese tabloids, eager for headlines and sales, dug up Komuro’s mother’s financial issues, particularly her financial dispute/debt with her former fiancé, who claimed that she owed him over ¥4 million (about $40,000). The money was reportedly used to help finance Komuro’s education, and the former fiance is expecting the money to be paid back.
A simple debt issue was enough to derail Komuro’s reputation to the public, who were quick to pounce on an issue that Komuro is not even technically accountable for. An unpaid financial issue is seen as a stain upon the imperial family, who are perceived as above regular folk. And lately, tabloids have been quick to pick on the smallest faults in Komuro, including the ponytail he decided to wear upon arriving at Narita airport for his wedding.
The public expectations of imperial family members are also a point of issue, as Princess Mako isn’t the first to be subjected to the standards placed upon by the people and the press. The emperor’s wife, Empress Masako, has shied away from cameras for years due to criticism that she wasn’t able to provide a male heir. As for Mako, the pressure and scrutiny have been so intense for the imperial princess that she's reportedly developed PTSD from tabloid coverage.
The contention goes deeper than a debt. Komuro’s commoner status was already a point against him, and his plans to work and settle in the U.S. with Princess Mako have only increased criticism. The idea of an imperial princess working to earn money—although she’s already employed as a researcher at the University of Tokyo Museum—is hard for some to swallow. Even more surprising is the fact that the princess has rejected the lump-sum payment given by law to imperial princesses about to leave the imperial family.
Why does this even matter?
The reactions to Princess Mako and Komuro’s wedding is both unusual and outdated, but it gives us insight into the complicated relationship modern monarchies have with the public. While the abolition of the imperial family is far from ever happening in Japan, the imperial royal family, like other constitutional monarchies, rely heavily on public opinion. As for the lives of the imperial princesses, a title might come with privilege, but at the cost of the freedoms that regular people enjoy.
At 29, Princess Mako has finally married her longtime boyfriend and left behind the title she was born into as they prepare for a new life as civilians in the U.S. Yet the tabloid attention and constant criticism of her husband have made her story far from a fairytale.