Japanese royal Princess Mako, 30, the niece of reigning emperor Naruhito, tied the knot with her commoner boyfriend Kei Komuro in a ceremony devoid of fanfare and celebrations on October 26, four years after the couple had got engaged. Their match had sparked controversy and intense public scrutiny in the deeply conservative Japanese society and the princess now leaves the imperial household in keeping with rules that stipulate that any royal marrying a commoner has to give up her royal entitlements.
Who Sets The Rules For Japan’s Royals?
The Japanese imperial household is said to be the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy with its roots fading into legend. The reigning monarch, Naruhito, ascended the throne in 2019 and is officially the 126th Japanese emperor. Nippon.com says there is “no historical evidence for the existence of many of the emperors… much less those in the era stretching back to 660 BC, when the legendary first emperor Jinmu is said to have taken the throne".
But the rules governing the Japanese royal household — which decree, among other things, that only male descendants in the male line can ascend the throne — are more recent, going back to 1947, when Japan’s post-World War II constitution came into force. The Japanese emperor is a ceremonial post with the post-war constitution stating that he is “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people".
Since the laws governing the Japanese imperial household lays down that female members who marry commoners have to relinquish their royal status, Princess Mako will have to formally leave the family. That means, per reports, the size of the royal family is now down to 17 members, 12 women and five men. The strength of Japanese royals has dwindled from 67 right after World War II and there are currently only three heirs to the throne — Naruhito’s 85-year-old uncle, Prince Hitachi, his brother and Mako’s dad Crown Prince Akishino, who is aged 55, and his nephew and Mako’s brother, Hisahito, who is in his teens.
It has been pointed out that “as the majority of its younger members are female, the imperial family is likely to shrink considerably". But the ‘male only’ rule for dynastic succession — which only a handful of monarchies practice around the world today — has not been how things have always been with the Japanese royals and experts point out that historically, there have been female emperors as also female regents of minor emperors.
Allowing female descendants to succeed to the throne would be a ready solution to the urgent problem of heirs facing the Japanese monarchy, but it is a matter on which the royal family themselves have no control as ascension is determined by the Japanese constitution.
Have There Been Attempts At Reforms?
A vast majority of Japanese people told a recent Kyodo News poll they would be glad to have a female ascend the throne and that it would also be fine for children of women members of the royal household to succeed to the monarchy. But that is arguably not a point of view shared by the conservative Japanese ruling classes since attempts at changing succession rules have not borne fruit.
Reports say that a proposed law that would permit female heirs to become monarchs was put on hold in 2006 following the birth of Prince Hisahito, who was the first male child born in the royal household in almost four decades. Neither did a plan mooted in 2012 to allow princesses to create their own imperial branches and keep their royal status upon marriage go anywhere.
Yoshihide Suga is said to have appointed an expert panel to study succession reforms, but that too hit a wall after he was replaced by current PM Fumio Kishida, who is said to be opposed to the idea of a female line of succession.
How Has The Japanese Public Reacted To The Marriage?
The long courtship of Mako and Komuro — they met in college in Japan in 2012 — was marked by intense controversy over everything from Komuro’s mother’s financial dealings to the length of his hair.
The couple had got engaged in 2017 with the wedding to have followed a year later, but their plans had to suffer a four-year postponement and Mako’s father Prince Akishino only gave his consent to the match in 2020.
The negative public perception and media scrutiny reportedly saw Mako develop post-traumatic stress disorder with a statement from the Imperial Household Agency — which is tasked with managing the affairs of the Japanese royals — saying in a recent statement that the princess had 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".
What Happens Now?
Reports say that the newlyweds will be moving to the US, where Komura pursued legal studies and now has a job with a Manhattan law firm. Mako has a master’s degree in art museum studies but has not announced any career plans. She turned down a USD 1.3 million one-time gift out of taxpayer money that women of the royal family are entitled to receive upon marriage and her exit from the imperial household means that she cannot count on any help from the Japanese government or her family.
In fact, she is already reported to have left her royal residence and is living at a private accommodation in Tokyo. Shorn of her royal title, she will also need to apply for a passport under her new name, Mako Komuro, as Japanese imperial family members are said to not possess passports.
ABC News quoted Kazuko Ito, secretary general of Human Rights Now, as saying that “exclusion from the royal family might be a good thing for female family members since they will get freedom for the first time as a human being, not as a restricted virtual role model".