But since Japan’s Princess Mako and Kei Komuro announced their engagement in 2017, their union has been mired in scandal, public disapproval and tabloid frenzy.
A ponytail may not cause a stir in the West, but people in Japan are expected to reflect their status and role through their actions and words. People saw the ponytail as a sign Komuro wasn’t conforming to social expectations, according to Hitomi Tonomura, a women’s and gender studies professor at the University of Michigan.
Komuro cut off his ponytail ahead of Tuesday’s wedding. But that wasn’t the end of it.
While most royal weddings are marked by pomp and circumstance, this one will be a muted affair in a registry office followed by a news conference, then Mako’s departure from the royal family and a move to the United States. Some royal watchers say it’s a sign of the times for minor royals, who are no longer content to fit bygone rules about what they can do — and who they can marry.
Unfit for a princess?
As a child, the first-born grandchild of the former emperor and empress quickly won over the public. “Her manners are impeccable. People viewed her as the perfect royal,” said Mikiko Taga, a Japanese royal journalist.
Princess Mako had been expected to attend the private Gakushuin University with other members of the wealthy elite, but she opted to study a bachelor’s degree in art and cultural heritage at the International Christian University in Tokyo.
It was there she met Komuro, a man born just three weeks before her in October 1991, to a family of much more modest means.
Princess Mako’s study took her in another direction.
At a crowded news conference, the princess said she had been attracted by Komuro’s “bright smiles like the sun” and had learned over time that he was “sincere, strong-minded, a hard worker with a big heart.”
Japanese media dubbed him the “Prince of the Sea,” after the character he played in a beach tourism campaign for the city of Fujisawa, south of Tokyo.
All seemed to be going well, but then came the first sign of troubled waters.
The couple had planned to marry in 2018, but their wedding was pushed back. The Imperial household said the delay was due to a “lack of preparation,” but others suspect it was due to reports Komuro’s mother failed to pay back $36,000 she borrowed from her former fiancé.
“Although, in the United States, we would think mother’s business is unrelated to Komuro Kei, an adult man, people in Japan considered this to be problematic and transformed him from a nice, kind, truthful young man to a calculative opportunist who was after prestige and possibly money,” said Tonomura, the gender studies expert.
An unconventional union
A chance meeting at university is not the normal path to marriage for a Japanese royal.
Kaori Hayashi, a media studies expert and executive vice president of the University of Tokyo, said royal partners are usually carefully chosen from within traditional circles the Imperial family socializes with.
Additionally, in Japan, the perception that single mothers are incapable of raising proper children, still exists, added Tonomura, the gender studies expert.
“In Japan, there is also an intense misogyny that debases single mothers morally and economically,” she said.
“There is a traditional sort of sex-segregated role for men and women that plays out not only in the royal family, but in many institutions here,” said Nancy Snow, a professor of public diplomacy at the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
Komuro’s mother’s alleged financial trouble has contaminated ardent royalists’ image of the royal house, which ideally should appear symbolically pure and exist for the spiritual well-being of the Japanese people, Tonomura said.
That view, for instance, is held by Kei Kobuta, a royal affairs YouTuber, who organized a march in Tokyo attended by about 100 people last Saturday. He said many royal watchers like himself consider Princess Mako like a sister or daughter who has had made the wrong choice.
“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,” said Kobuta.
Pressures of Imperial life
The years of speculation and slurs have taken their toll on Princess Mako.
Earlier this month, the palace disclosed that she suffers from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The princess “feels pessimistic and finds it difficult to feel happy due to the persistent fear of her life being destroyed,” Princess Mako’s psychiatrist, Tsuyoshi Akiyama, director of NTT Medical Center Tokyo, told media at the Imperial Household Agency.
The princess isn’t the first Japanese woman of the royal family to feel the pressure of Imperial life. Japan’s Empress Masako married Emperor Naruhito in 1993, abandoning a high-profile diplomatic career for life in the royal household. The transition was difficult for Masako, who long battled with an illness doctors described as an “adjustment disorder.”
“Each case of a female member of the royal family struggling with mental illness has involved different circumstances,” said Ken Ruoff, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University and author of “Japan’s Imperial House in the Postwar Era, 1945-2019.”
“In the case of then Crown Princess Masako, it revolved almost entirely around her being blamed for not producing the requisite male heir,” he added.
“Fast forward to the case of Princess Mako, and it revolves entirely around her marriage being subjected to a level of scrutiny that few marriages are subjected to, especially when you consider that she’ll be exiting the royal house as soon as she is formally married.”
Under Japanese law, members of the royal household must give up their titles and leave the palace if they marry a commoner. As there are only 18 members of the Imperial family, Princess Mako isn’t the first to leave. The last royal to do so was her aunt, Sayako, the only daughter of Emperor Akihito, when she married town planner Yoshiki Kuroda in 2005.
As a woman, Princess Mako wasn’t in line to the throne — Japan’s male-only succession law prevents that from happening. Her role in royal life was to support her male relatives.
As a departing royal, Princess Mako was entitled to a one-off million-dollar payment, but in an effort to appease a disapproving public, she has decided to forgo it.
After the wedding, she’ll move to New York City where Komuro works at a law firm.
“This is a dramatic exit,” Ruoff said. “It’s a warning to the Imperial house. I mean, she clearly got fed up.”
A quiet life
Princess Mako and Komuro’s retreat from the royal spotlight is being compared to another famous couple — Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
Markle’s engagement to Britain’s Prince Harry sparked controversy when it was first announced in November 2017. Some believed a biracial, divorced American actress had no place within the British royal family.
But while Princess Mako’s “dramatic” exit from the royal family is somewhat comparable to “Megxit” — the term for the British couple’s departure — Ruoff, the historian, said the similarities end there.
“British royal family members grow up among great wealth. And they also spend a lot of time directly raising money for very various charitable causes, so know how it works. 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 said.
“I would predict there’s almost no way that Mako and her future husband are going to behave like that after they get married. In fact, I think what’s going to happen is they’re just going to disappear.”
According to Taga, the royal affairs journalist, the days of asking someone to fulfill the duties they were born with are coming to an end.
“That’s why I think it’s significant that two different royals from East and West are choosing to live the way they want,” she said.
“It marks the beginning of a new era.”