But when Princess Mako, 30, a niece of the current emperor and an older sister of the likely future sovereign, married Tuesday, there was just a simple trip to a registry office in Tokyo, handled by their representatives.
The path to this moment has been torturous. Not long after the princess and her groom, Kei Komuro, announced their engagement four years ago, the public began to question her choice. Tabloids revealed that his mother had received 4 million yen (about $36,000) from an ex-boyfriend whom she had not repaid, leading critics to suggest that Komuro was trying to marry into the imperial family for money or fame.
Mako’s father withheld approval of the marriage, citing the curdled public opinion. The paparazzi chased Komuro, 30, after he left for New York to attend Fordham Law School and tracked his shaggy hair and food truck habits. Savage attacks on social media left the princess suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
When Komuro returned to Japan earlier this month to quarantine before the marriage, the scrutiny grew even more frenzied, bordering on the absurd. The media and the public were shocked, simply shocked, by the fact that he arrived from New York sporting a ponytail.
One tabloid weekly reported that a royal court official had sneered at Komuro’s choice to wear a pinstripe suit — as opposed to one in solid black or navy — to meet his future in-laws. In some surveys, as many as 80 percent of respondents have said they opposed the marriage.
Yet after waiting three years for Komuro to finish law school and start a job at a New York law firm, the patient couple, who were college sweethearts at the International Christian University in Tokyo, registered their marriage Tuesday morning. They planned to hold a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
To avoid having to answer unpleasant questions or address falsehoods, the couple were to give written answers to five questions from reporters submitted in advance. To avoid accusations that they were wasting taxpayers’ money, they paid to rent a room for the news briefing.
Underlying many of the virulent opinions about Mako’s choice of partner is a strain of existential panic about the royal family, which stands as a symbol of traditional Japan. The world’s oldest monarchy faces a looming succession crisis, and the princess’ marriage highlights a problem that the government has declined to address.
Under the Imperial Household Law, which governs the succession of Japan’s emperors, women are not allowed to reign on the throne. The law also stipulates that Mako must relinquish her royal title because she is marrying a commoner, and she will become a commoner herself. Any children she has will not be in line to the throne.
The vast majority of the Japanese public thinks the law should be amended so that women — including Princess Aiko, the 19-year-old daughter of the current emperor, Naruhito — can sit on the throne. A recent survey by Kyodo News showed that about 80 percent also want children born of royal women like Mako to be in the line of succession.
The conservative wing of the governing Liberal Democratic Party has staunchly opposed any changes that would allow women to reign or children of royal women to join the line of succession.
But the family is running out of male heirs, with just three left who can succeed the current monarch: Emperor Naruhito’s 85-year-old uncle; the emperor’s 55-year-old brother, Akishino, Mako’s father; and the emperor’s 15-year-old nephew, the younger brother of Mako and the only family member of his generation eligible to serve as emperor. (By contrast, the British royal family has more than 20 people in line to the throne, many of them female and none of them — yet — octogenarians.)
The possibility that the political establishment may have to bow to popular opinion or demographic reality means the public feels entitled to weigh in on Mako’s choice of husband, in case she is reinstated into the imperial family.
“As we don’t know yet whether female members of the family might be allowed to head a line of succession or succeed to the throne, people care so much about her marriage,” said Hideya Kawanishi, associate professor of modern history and an expert on Japan’s imperial system at Nagoya University.
The public has found Komuro unsuitable mainly because of suspicions about his family. His mother was widowed when his father died and then was entangled in a relationship with a man who later accused her of not paying back the $36,000 debt. Komuro and his mother say they believed the money was a gift, but after the public uproar, Prince Akishino asked Komuro to explain the situation. He delivered a 28-page document earlier this year detailing the financial arrangement and how it would be resolved.
The whole contretemps has left a lingering distrust of his family in the public’s mind. In Japan, “marriage is still a marriage between families,” said Michiko Ueda, associate professor of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo. “It is not just like you are married to a guy. You are married to a whole family.”
Rumours have metastasized and now impugn Komuro’s character. Critics on social media have branded him a gold digger or a grifter. The media suggested that a biography, posted on the website of Lowenstein Sandler, the law firm where he works in New York, listed awards that were fabricated. A spokesperson for Fordham Law School confirmed that Komuro, who graduated with a law degree in 2021 and received a master’s in law in 2019, did in fact earn the awards he listed.
Royal watchers say that Komuro falls short of traditional expectations for Japanese men and that his treatment reflects suspicion of the outside world.
“Part of it is that Komuro was not very submissive to Japanese values because he went to international school, is a fluent English speaker and quit a Japanese bank,” said Kumiko Nemoto, a professor of sociology at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
“In Japanese society, people like to see that people are sacrificing part of themselves to society and the group and family,” Nemoto added. Komuro, she said, is more “individualistic, trying to prove himself by accomplishing something professionally. I don’t think Japanese people like that much.”
Now that they are married, the princess, who will be known as Mako Komuro, may move to New York to join her husband. She has turned down a royal dowry worth about $1.4 million, so the couple will have to live off Komuro’s salary at first.
The princess holds a master’s degree in art museum and gallery studies from the University of Leicester in Britain and has worked at a museum in Tokyo for more than five years, so she may be able to find a job in New York’s art world.
Perhaps it is the couple’s decision to carve out their own life outside Japan that has invited the most public vehemence. Even if she must leave the family, the princess is expected to conform to traditional notions of duty.
“The imperial family used to be looked at like gods, beautiful and unreachable, but that is no longer the case,” Hanako Onodera, 59, said while walking with two friends in the imperial palace gardens last week.
“Maybe this generation now dares to speak out more and demand what they want more than the generation before,” she added. “They don’t feel as much pressure to put the country’s needs before their own.”
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