If shorn of titles and public standing, the marriage between two thirty-year-olds, Mako and Kei Komuro, would have the fairy tale culmination of a long period of courtship and romance. But in Japan where even if the monarchy is constitutionally “symbolic”, Princess Mako’s wedding to the “commoner” Komuro was not just any love story. Princess Mako is the eldest daughter of the Crown Prince Akishino and the niece of Emperor Naruhito.
Japan’s tryst with modernity and technology has not resulted in substantive gender equality, and patriarchy reigns supreme even in its sophisticated and highly industrialised economy with very few women in positions of authority. Symbolising this patriarchal setting is the “reformed monarchy”, which is subject to the 1947 Imperial Household Law, which restricts succession to “legitimate-born sons, grandsons and male line descendants of an Emperor” and women in the family who marry commoners are stripped of their royal status.
None of this prevented the now newly christened Mako Komuro from proceeding with her wedding that occurred on October 26, but a controversy almost derailed the marriage. Mr. Komuro’s mother had been embroiled in a financial controversy with her former fiancé, with the man claiming that he had financed Mr. Komuro’s education while his mother considered it a gift. This brought undue scrutiny over the princess’ choice of her fiancé with traditional conservatives and social media handles pressuring her by criticising her fiance and his family. The princess finally went ahead with her wedding, four years after her engagement, by forgoing a dowry worth ¥152.5 million and after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The royal family in Japan is currently headed by Emperor Naruhito, who succeeded his father Akihito who abdicated in 2019. With the law limiting successors only to male descendants, the only two possible successors are Akishino (the Emperor’s brother) and his teenage son Prince Hisahito.
This situation has put undue pressure on the women in the family to bear “male heirs” even as the Japanese Parliament, the Diet, passed a law in 2017 encouraging the possibility of allowing women born in the royal family to retain their imperial status even after marrying.
The drama surrounding the potential succession in the Imperial House is ironically converse to the institution’s role in post-War Japan. Under both Emperor Akihito and his son Naruhito, the monarchy sought to undo the excesses of the pre-war and war period and to keenly observe the constitutional mandate of a symbolic institution committed to the unity of Japan. The former emperor Akihito, in particular, sought to promote the values of pacifism, development, internationalism and democracy besides pride in a cosmopolitan and modern outlook rather than a jingoistic nationalism as symbols of Japan. He personally sought to undo the monarchy’s traditionalist part — by marrying outside the aristocracy, seeking to apologise to Japan’s neighbours for the war crimes committed during his father’s reign as Emperor in World War II, and much later, abdicating in favour of his successor, an act that had not been done since 1817. Akihito’s tenure was marked by a clear indication of the Imperial House seeking to emulate the role of the British monarchy in its political systemand that emphasis seems to be intact.
This reform in the role and outlook of the Imperial House was partly a result of design — an outcome of the new Constitution that was created with American pressure during the Allied occupation of Japan after its defeat in the Second World War — and partly a result of sui generis reform by the royalty, which prior to the Occupation presided over imperial expansion, militarisation and war. The outcomes of the war — the devastation of several cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki due to the dropping of the nuclear bombs by the U.S.— led to a re-evaluation of the role of the monarchy, which, despite its unpopularity in the immediate post-War period, survived and changed its emphasis to a symbolic sovereign power.
Kenneth Ruoff, a professor of modern Japanese history at Portland State University, told The Japan Times that Princess Mako’s marriage is a warning sign that could indicate that the imperial system is in a crisis, as it puts undue pressure on the only unmarried male successor, Prince Hisahito. Even the limited symbolism of the Imperial House has had a telling effect on the lives of the Japanese royals as they are forced to live up to the “morality” expected of the institution from the conservatives who dominate Japanese society.
Japan’s conservatism is under stress because of an ageing population and a dwindling labour force, indicating the need for reforms to allow for more women to take part in economic life. If Ms. Komuro’s articulated concerns are anything to go by, the royalty’s younger generation may also seek further reform and the loosening of conservatism in Japanese lives as much as theirs.