A version of this story appeared in a special October 26 edition of CNN’s Royal News. Sign up here.
A young, popular royal finds love with a commoner. The relationship sparks a tabloid frenzy, and the royal struggles with their mental health. Eventually, the couple marry and leave palace life behind for a fresh start in the US. Royal watchers might think they know this story – but it’s not the one you’re thinking of.
On Tuesday, Japan’s Princess Mako – a niece of Emperor Naruhito – wed her lawyer fiancé, Kei Komuro, in a ceremony that was distinctly lacking in the usual bells and whistles.
When you think of royal nuptials, you tend to think of allout celebrations complete with a lavish public ceremony, thousands of well-wishers lining the streets, and a country caught up in wedding fever. But that wasn’t quite the case here.
In fact, it was perhaps as low-key as a wedding can get – the couple submitted their registration at a local ward office in Tokyo and followed it later with a short news conference.
This muted affair also marked the end of Mako’s time as a royal. The newlyweds are expected to move to New York City, where Komuro works at a law firm.
While some may draw comparisons between the couple and the British royal family, the parallels are somewhat superficial.
Sure, it’s become fairly routine these days for royals to find their “happily ever after” with commoners. In the Windsor clan alone, we’ve seen the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret marrying photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, William and Kate and, of course, Harry and Meghan. But marrying a non-royal has also been accepted in wider European royal monarchies: Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik wed marketing executive Mary Donaldson, and Spain’s then-Crown Prince Felipe married former CNN+ anchor Letizia Ortiz.
And yes, exiting a royal family after falling for a commoner – one disapproved of by some – bears a resemblance to the Sussexes. Harry and Meghan famously stepped back as working royals, in favor of a new life in California, but don’t expect the Japanese newlyweds to follow suit.
“British royal family members grow up among great wealth. And they also spend a lot of time directly raising money for charitable causes, so know how it works,” says Ken Ruoff, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University. “So when Harry and Meghan went to the US, by telling various stories about the royal family, they managed to make millions and millions of dollars, all the while draping themselves in feel-good, left-wing causes.”
Ruoff says Mako’s departure is a “dramatic exit” but thinks they’ll opt for a quieter life now they’ve tied the knot. “I think what’s going to happen is they’re just going to disappear.”
While there are definitely surface level comparisons, Tuesday’s not-so-royal wedding in Japan is more nuanced. Most importantly, Mako is not choosing to give up her royal title. She is losing it because of Japan’s centuries-old strict imperial law.
The 30-year-old isn’t the first Japanese princess to swap the palace for a more ordinary life. Her aunt Sayako, the only daughter of former Emperor Akihito, was the last to do it in 2005 when she wed town planner Yoshiki Kuroda. But compared to that match, Mako and Komuro’s union has faced an unusual level of vitriol from large swathes of the public.
It should have been a love story for the ages. The college sweethearts announced their plans to wed in 2017. Excitement initially rippled across Japan but the public’s perceptions began to sour shortly afterwards.
The wedding – originally planned for 2018 – was delayed. Preparations for it have been plagued by public disapproval of the pair’s relationship, and a media frenzy over a financial dispute involving Komuro’s mother. The controversy even led some to paint Komuro as a gold-digger unfit for their beloved princess.
“There are so many doubts and misgivings about Kei Komuro and his mom, and people fear the image of the royal family will be sullied,” says Kei Kobuta, a royal affairs YouTuber. Kobuta said many royal watchers view Mako like a sister or daughter, and believe she has made the wrong choice.
Many in Japanese society hold the world’s oldest monarchy – and particularly its women – to mercilessly high standards that reinforce patriarchal values, says Kumiko Nemoto, a professor from the School of Business Administration at Senshu University in Tokyo, whose research focuses on gender.
“The Japanese public wants to feel affinity with the members of the imperial family, but they also want the family to follow gender roles and family norms where a woman, they believe, should obey the male authority in the family and the nation,” she explains.
In projecting these extreme expectations – which are reflective of a wider gender inequality that exists in the country – onto the family, Nemoto says the public sometimes ends up demonizing those who they see as tarnishing the family’s reputation. She says many saw Komuro’s career in the US as selfish, and deemed his upbringing by a single parent as improper.
“Perhaps, because many Japanese man and woman continue to live their lives with the large constraints of gender roles or social pressure of traditional family and careers, they may think that a man and a woman should sacrifice themselves for the marriage and family,” she adds.
Mikiko Taga, a Japanese royal journalist, tells CNN that Mako – who has represented her family on official trips to Bolivia and Peru – won over the public from an early age. “Her manners are impeccable. People viewed her as the perfect royal.”
Japanese royals are also required to have a certain mystique about them, says Christopher Harding, a senior lecturer in Asian history at the University of Edinburgh. “There has been no attempt in Japan to create a ‘media monarchy’ in the way that has happened progressively in Britain. There is more deference and respect, although that doesn’t stop some sections of the Japanese media from pursuing tabloid-style gossip stories,” he says.
Those smears have taken a toll on the bride who was revealed to be suffering from complex post-traumatic stress disorder earlier this month. She’s not the first of Japan’s royal women to suffer the intense pressure of public scrutiny.
“The present Empress, Masako, has a well-documented history of struggles with her mental health. So too does her mother-in-law, Empress Emerita Michiko,” adds Harding, who explores Masako’s role in his book, “The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives.”
Harding says Masako married into the imperial family believing she could continue her diplomatic career. “The reality has been less kind, at least until recently. Masako found that her main duty was to produce an heir.”
“Feminists in Japan, the United States and elsewhere were deeply disappointed, because they hoped that she might represent a fresh start,” Harding continues. “The Japanese public are generally sympathetic to the toll on mental health that a royal role can involve. But there has also been suspicion that mental health diagnoses are used to deflect criticism, or cover up shortcomings.”
“This was particularly the case with Masako,” he adds. “She required rest, as part of her treatment, but some criticised her for shirking her duties, and letting her husband do all the work.”
As a woman, Mako wasn’t in line to the throne – Japan’s conservative and patriarchal succession law blocks that. Instead, her role in royal life was to assist her male relatives. But the rules haven’t always been this way. Empresses have ruled Japan at various points over several centuries – until they were barred in 1889.
Mako’s departure will once again reignite the debate on whether imperial law should be amended to allow women who marry commoners to keep their royal titles as men do, and consequently bolster the dwindling line of succession.
For some, the idea of a so-called “empress regnant” on the Chrysanthemum throne is a barrier to modernizing the monarchy. But Harding says the real sticking point is the potential loss of patrilineal succession.
“Even when there have been empresses regnant in the past, the throne has always been passed down the male line,” he explains. “Those in Japan who are keen to preserve Japanese tradition … worry that if women are allowed on the throne then at some point in the future the country may well end with an emperor (or empress) whose mother is of imperial blood but whose father is not. This, for them, would be an intolerable rupture with the past.”
(With reporting from CNN’s Emiko Jozuka, Selina Wang and Junko Ogura in Tokyo and Nectar Gan in Hong Kong.)
DID YOU KNOW?
With Mako’s departure, Japan’s imperial family continues to shrink. There’s currently only one young successor to the throne, Mako’s brother, the 15-year-old Prince Hisahito.
Here’s a look at how survival of the world’s oldest dynasty rests on the shoulders of a schoolboy.
FROM THE ROYAL VAULT
We mentioned earlier that life as an Empress in Japan’s Imperial Family isn’t an easy ride. Going back into the CNN archives, we found this 2019 piece from international correspondent Will Ripley exploring the tough experience faced by Japan’s Empress Michiko. Have a watch:
At a press event on Tuesday afternoon, Mako appeared alongside her husband in front of a selected group of reporters. The pair apologized for any trouble caused by their marriage while expressing gratitude to supporters.
Thanks for reading our special edition on Princess Mako’s wedding. Let us know what you thought of the send and whether this is something you’d like to see more of in the future by emailing email@example.com. Regular programming of Royal News returns this Friday!
–Max & Lauren