Princess Mako’s wedding pushes world’s oldest monarchy closer to extinction
26th October 2021

Tokyo: Japan will maintain tradition in the imperial household even if it means the end of the monarchy.

After a four-year engagement, Princess Mako, the niece of 61-year-old Emperor Naruhito, married her longtime boyfriend, Kei Komuro on Tuesday. And because the country’s imperial law strips women of their royal status after marriage, the princess will exit the family, leaving behind just 12 women and five men.

Princess Mako arrives at the Hotel Grand Arc Hanzomon in Tokyo for a press conference on the day of her marriage to Kei Komuro.Credit:Getty Images

There were 67 members of Japan’s royal family after World War II. As of Tuesday, there will be just 17, and only three heirs to the throne among them: The emperor’s 85-year-old uncle, Prince Masahito; his brother, Crown Prince Fumihito, 55; and his nephew and Princess Mako’s brother Hisahito, 15.

Japan is among a handful of modern monarchies that limits succession to men — Saudi Arabia, Oman and Morocco among them. It is generally considered the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world, having been founded in 660 BCE.

Their marriage consisted of an official from the Imperial Household Agency (IHA), which runs the family’s lives, submitting paperwork to a local office in the morning, foregoing the numerous rituals and ceremonies usual to royal weddings, including a reception.

Mako and Komuro, both 30, announced their engagement four years ago, a move initially cheered by the country. But things soon turned sour as tabloids reported on a money scandal involving Komuro’s mother, prompting the press to turn on him. The marriage was postponed, and he left Japan for law studies in New York in 2018 only to return in September.

Following the controversy, Mako turned down a 152.5 million yen ($1.78 million) dowry that’s traditionally been awarded to royal women who marry, making her the first to do so since the war.

“It’s a radical departure from what is expected from women of the imperial family,” said Shihoko Goto, deputy director for Geoeconomics at the Wilson Centre, a Washington-based think tank, and an Asian affairs specialist.

“She is prepared to make financial sacrifices and uproot herself from the comfort, safety, and privileges of her life to pursue her own path.”

Kei Komuro, centre, leaves his house on in Yokohama, Japan, on Tuesday, before his wedding to Princess Mako.Credit:Getty Images

Mako’s wedding has spotlighted previous calls to allow women to be part of the line of succession, to shore up the world’s oldest, continuous, hereditary monarchy, and to bring it in line with more modern expectations of gender equality.

It’s an overwhelmingly popular idea, according to a Kyodo News poll taken in March and April when 85 per cent of respondent said they were in favour of a female emperor, and 79 per cent said they’d support letting the empress pass the throne on to her own children.

Ironically, the imperial family can’t do anything about it. The role of the monarchy, including its line of succession, is governed by Japanese law. In the past two decades, several top political officials have considered changing the rules to no avail.

Japan’s Crown Prince Akishino, centre, with his wife Crown Princess Kiko, second right, and their children Princess Mako, left, Princess Kako and Prince Hisahito at their residence in Tokyo last year.Credit:IHAJ/AP

In 2006, proposed legislation to allow female heirs to be in line to the throne was shelved after the birth of Prince Hisahito, the first male child in almost four decades. In 2012, then-prime minister Yoshihiko Noda considered allowing princesses to create their own royal branches and keep their status when they marry, an effort that stalled when he was replaced by Shinzo Abe.

More recently, ex-prime minister Yoshihide Suga launched an expert panel to look into the matter, an inquiry that petered out when he failed to win re-election. His successor, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, opposes passing down the throne through an empress.

While the number of royals has declined, the imperial house cost Japanese taxpayers 25 billion yen ($292 million) this year in food, education, personal expenses and the salaries of 1080 staff including chauffeurs, gardeners and archivists. The family also regularly sends funds to disaster relief efforts. The British Royal Family, in comparison, incurred about £50 million ($91 million) in expenses in 2019-20, plus an additional £30 million for renovations at Buckingham Palace.

On Monday, Mako visited Akihito and his wife Michiko – the Emperor Emeritus and Empress Emerita – to formally report her marriage to them, The Washington Post reported.

It was the first time in a year and seven months the royal’s first grandchild could meet her grandparents because of the pandemic. It was also the last time for her to greet them as a member of the imperial family. Princess Mako arrived by car at the Sento Imperial Residence, the couple’s temporary home in the Takanawa district of Minato Ward, Tokyo, and rolled down the window to wave at about 140 well-wishers and reporters awaiting her on the street.

On Tuesday, Mako and Komuro will hold a press conference, also a departure from traditional custom. Japanese royal weddings rarely capture attention overseas, and the low-key event is a missed opportunity for projecting soft power, said Goto.

“This wedding won’t have the kind of consumer spending impact that the marriages of Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle did in Britain,” she said.

While royals typically answer pre-submitted questions at such events, Mako and her new husband will make a brief statement and hand out written replies to the questions instead.

“Some of the questions took mistaken information as fact and upset the princess,” said officials at the IHA, according to NHK public television.

Komuro, dressed in a crisp dark suit and tie, bowed briefly to camera crews gathered outside his home as he left in the morning but said nothing. His casual demeanour on returning to Japan, including long hair tied back in a ponytail, had sent tabloids into a frenzy.

The wedding may boost the economy in other ways. Royal marriages in Japan have been linked to an uptick in marriages and births, a long-sought goal in a country with an ageing population. After the 1990 marriage of Crown Prince Fumihito, the number of marriages rose 3.7 per cent from five years earlier, compared to a 0.4 per cent drop the year earlier, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Economics. It peaked at 9.8 per cent in 1993 when the current emperor wedded.

The number of births follows a similar trend.

“We do not expect Princess Mako’s marriage to have a big impact on the macro economy,” says Yuki Masujima, a senior economist with Bloomberg Economics. “But it could have positive impacts on consumer sentiment and marriage rate, after a sharp drop due to the COVID crisis.”

Princess Mako, left, talks to her younger sister Princess Kako, in the garden of their Akasaka imperial residence in Tokyo earlier this month.Credit:IHAJ/AP

After the wedding, the newlyweds plan to live in the US, without financial support from the royal family or the Japanese government. Her fiance reportedly secured a job with a Manhattan law firm, while Mako — who has a master’s degree in art museum studies — has not announced her plans. It may prove a welcome reprieve after years of tabloid scrutiny.

Earlier this month, the Imperial Household Agency, the government office that oversees the royal family, said the princess had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of online abuse directed at the couple and their families.

“She has been experiencing a persistent fear that her life is going to be destroyed, which makes her pessimistic and makes it difficult for her to feel happy,” the statement said.


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