Royal Rebellion or Outdated Tradition? The Marriage of Former Princess Mako of Japan
As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, marriage is “the state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law.” For most people, marriage is a relatively straightforward and normal part of one’s life. However, in the royal sphere, marriage can be quite restrictive with regards to who one can actually marry. This occurs in almost all monarchies, with former princess Mako of Japan being the current headline. Former princess Mako is the eldest grandchild of Japan’s Emperor Akihito and daughter of Crown Prince Akishino. With the male-only succession laws in Japan, it means that as a female member of Japan’s imperial family, Mako will never have the opportunity to ascend the Chrysanthemum throne (McCurry, 2021).
On October 26th 2021 29-year-old former princess Mako wed her fiancé, Kei Komuro, of non-royal blood; this makes her the third woman in the royal family to wed a commoner since 1960 (Dooley, 2001). This event is making headlines not only in Japan but all over the world because of the opposition they faced along with the tabloid gossip and controversy regarding Kei Komuro’s mother’s financial situation. The couple has been compared to the British royals who underwent a similar situation in 2018, giving them the nickname “Japan’s Harry and Meghan” (BBC, 2021). However, there are further implications of the marriage not only for the imperial family, but also for Japanese traditions as a whole. So the question remains, why is this wedding so significant and what are its implications for the future of the Imperial House of Japan?
The oldest hereditary monarchy in the world: The Imperial House of Japan
Often revered for its connection to Shinto Kami, the Imperial House of Japan, also known as kōshitsu (皇室) in Japanese, is the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world dating back to the 660 B.C. (Blakemore, 2019). It is comprised of members of the extended family of the reigning Emperor of Japan, Naruhito (徳仁) who, under Article 1 of the Constitution of Japan, “shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” (Japanese Government, 1947) while the other members of the royal family engage in more civic duties. Despite the family’s status, the monarchy does not exercise state political power, and is used as a purely traditional figurehead, as Japan is a constitutional monarchy (Blakemore, 2019).
Under the Imperial Household Law, introduced in 1947, if a female member of the royal family marries a commoner, they must relinquish their royal status (Kikuchi, 2017). Not only does this relinquishment entail surrendering the official title, but also the membership of the imperial family and the allowance they receive from the state (Osumi, 2021). Moreover, members who leave the royal family are entitled to a large lump sum payment up to ¥150 million (around US$1.3 million) from the government in order to help the new couple start their new life (Kyodo, 2021). However, Mako will turn down the payment as well as be the first princess in Japan’s postwar history to forego the traditional Shinto betrothal ceremonies. Instead, the couple had tied the knot in October in a discreet ceremony (Kirkpatrick, 2021). After the ceremony, they moved to New York where Kei will work at a law firm, a move which is largely compared to Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan’s move to California following their announcement of cutting ties with the UK royal family (Inocencio & Uyeno, 2021).
The controversy surrounding the situation
Whether positive or negative, any royal situation comes with a media frenzy and in the case of the announcement of former princess Mako and Kei Komuro’s engagement, there were a number of different controversies. There was the financial dispute in 2017 which surrounded Kei Komuro’s mother, stating that she owed ¥4 million ($50,000) to a former fiancé, which therefore forced the couple to postpone their nuptials in 2018. However, there was more speculation around what the real reason for postponing was and the truth about the financial situation of the Komuro family. This garnered mounting public criticism against the couple getting married. In the end, with a slight nudge from his father-in-law the Crown Prince Akishino, Mr Komuro published a 28-page document in April 2021 aiming to explain and resolve the situation (Stein & Sweeny, 2021).
But what does all the controversy tell us about Japanese society, one so deeply rooted in tradition? For starters, parallels can be drawn between former princess Mako’s struggle and women’s positions in Japanese society, as it tells the story of a young woman’s rebellion against a deep seated patriarchy of Japan. The role of a woman in Japanese society is traditionally set to follow family expectations in major life events, such as marriage. Moreover, couples who enter into matrimony are legally required to choose either the husband’s or the wife’s surname, as stipulated in Article 750 of the Civil Code (1896). This forced renunciation of part of their maiden identity dictates how the patriarchal spirit is alive and well, even though the family system, also known as ie seido (家制度), was officially abolished in 1947 with the introduction of the Constitution of Japan (Sakane, 2016). The ie siedo was the officially sanctioned model of family structure in pre-1945 Japan where the family was led by the (ideally male) family head and was composed of the wife and children. Due to this societal pressure and convention, it is usually the woman who changes their maiden name to their husband’s surname. So in the case of former princess Mako, not only does Japanese societal pressure influence her life, but also under the Imperial House Law, only male descendants of the emperor can ascend the throne and therefore imperial women automatically become commoners when they marry commoners, but not imperial men. Ultimately, the controversial union shows why reform to a patriarchal system should start at the top (Kobayashi, 2021).
Additionally, the patriarchy discourages not only the female members of the imperial family from pursuing careers, but also Japanese women in general. There is a Confucian ideal of a ryōsai kenbo (良妻賢母) or ‘Good wife, wise mother’ in English, which was stressed during the Meiji period for women to learn and self-cultivate. It was a social policy which focused on the women’s role as a mother and educator within the realm of the home as their first priority (Barnett, 2004). Despite the changes occurring in Japanese society with regards to workplace equality, the magnitude of the issue of former princess Mako’s marriage signals that the imperial family would be an important place to initiate change due to the respect the family holds as an icon in Japan.
However, the marriage of a royal Japanese princess to a commoner also has implications for the future of the imperial family as well. With Mako’s departure from the imperial family, a long standing debate about the rapidly decreasing succession line of the imperial family has been kick-started. Currently, the family is down to 17 members compared to 67 members in 1945. There are only three potential heirs to the throne with one of them being Mako’s 15 year old brother. This has triggered a large discussion on the excessive restrictions of the imperial family and has the Japanese public seeking the broadening of constraints regarding who can inherit the role (Cohen, 2021). However, it's ultimately out of the public's hands, so only time will tell if, for example, Mako’s children would be allowed to rule in the future.
In conclusion, former princess Mako of Japan has officially separated from the imperial family, wed to her commoner husband Kei Komuro, and currently residing in New York City. The media frenzy that occurred did not discourage the couple, who have remained loyal to each other throughout the controversy. The couple has endured their fair share of criticism not only due to the scandal surrounding Komuro’s mother’s money issues, but also due to the significance her departure carries for the imperial family as well as for Japanese women. As Japan is a highly traditional country - one built on the belief that a woman’s place is in the home, where sexist remarks by high officials are thrown about casually - women in Japan require someone like Mako to show how change can be implemented. Another departure from the imperial family raises the issue of the future of the royal blood as the lineage is starting to dwindle due to succession laws. It remains to be seen whether Mako’s actions have truly impacted society and whether significant change can be brought about in Japan, a country holding steadfastly onto tradition.
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