Princess Mako’s Wedding to Commoner Kei Komuro Puts a Spotlight on the Japanese Monarchy’s Succession Problem

Japan’s Princess Mako finally married her long-time commoner boyfriend Kei Komuro on Tuesday, ending uncertainty fueled by years of delay, controversy, and public scrutiny of their engagement.

Local media reports said Japan’s Imperial Household Agency, which handles the royal family’s affairs, submitted legal paperwork to register the couple’s union on their behalf on Tuesday morning.

Mako, the latest member of the Japanese family to abandon the monarchy in 2018 after Ayako Mori, is subject to the law that females can lose their imperial status if they marry a commoner. This makes her plain Makokomuro. She is also the ninth princess in Japan to have renounced her title as a royal.
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Japanese women are not allowed to take the throne. The succession must be patrilineal. Three men are eligible to succeed Emperor Naruhito. His 55-year old younger brother Crown Prince Akishino, his 15-yearold nephew Prince Hisahito, and his uncle Prince Hitachi, 86.

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NHK polled Japanese voters earlier to find that they would not mind having an empress from their maternal line or an emperor. But the ruling conservative elite, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, want to preserve the world’s oldest monarchy the way it is now.

“They believe that the unbroken male line is essential to the legitimacy of the throne,” says Jeffrey Kingston, the director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “This isn’t really about the facts—it’s about a patriarchal ideology and the assumption that women wouldn’t be appropriate, as sort of the symbol of the nation, which the emperor is under the constitution.”

Tradition, succession and Japan’s monarchy

Princess Mako, right, attends the enthronement ceremony where Emperor Naruhito officially proclaimed his ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne, at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, in Oct. 2019.
Kazuhiro Nogi—Pool/AFP/Getty Images Right, Princess Mako attends the enthronement ceremony, where Emperor Naruhito proclaims his ascension onto the Chrysanthemum Throne. It took place at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace in October 2019.

The concept of a female Japanese monarch isn’t new. Although eight Empresses have taken the Chrysanthemum Trinity in the past they were all descendants of the male line.

Women were not allowed to rule until 1889. In 1947, an updated Imperial House Law stripped the royalty status from 11 collateral branches of the family who had a common ancestor to the imperial family. If a princess weds someone outside of the nobility she will need to give up her imperial status. However, this legal change drastically decreased the number of eligible males.

Nevertheless, no princes were born after 1965 and this raised concerns about the future. Although the apprehensions eased after Prince Hisahito’s birth in 2006, there is still concern about succession. Prince Hisahito is currently the only male among the remaining seven members of the royal imperial family. Hisahito will remain the Japanese royalty if the remaining unwed princesses marry ordinary people. Speculation over Japan’s royal lineage will return.

“Will his wife produce a male heir?’ That will be the only thing people care about,” Kingston tells TIME.

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Kishida’s government is tasked with addressing the issue. As a leader in the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, and as a member the right-wing nationist group Nippon Kaigi the new prime minster is unlikely to be supportive of breaking 2,600 years patrilineal tradition that opens the throne for women or men of the maternal family. However, his spokesperson indicated that Kishida will accept the recommendations of a government panel, which included allowing imperial princesses to continue to be imperial and choosing male heirs from the former imperial family lines.

Christopher Harding is a Japanese historian who lectures at Edinburgh University. He said that the problem with conservatives extends beyond the person who sits on a throne.

“The difficult issue is the prospect of a child born of an empress regnant and a husband from outside the imperial family one day becoming emperor or empress,” Harding tells TIME. A empress is a woman who has her own kingdom and not one that is married to an emperor. “That, in turn, would play into wider fears about Japanese culture gradually being eroded through a combination of domestic pressures and—say some conservatives—shadowy foreign forces out to weaken Japan as an international power.”

Prince Akishino, Princess Kiko and Princess Kako wave to Princess Mako leaving her home for her marriage in Akasaka Estate in Tokyo on Oct. 26.
Kyodo/ReutersPrincess Mako was left at home by Prince Akishino (Prince Kiko, Princess Kako and Princess Kiko), who will be leaving for Akasaka Estate in Tokyo to witness her wedding on Oct. 26.

There is controversy around Princess Mako, and Kei Komuro

Japan has eagerly kept tabs on Mako’s relationship with Komuro since the couple announced their engagement in 2017, with a wedding originally set for November the following year. The two met in 2012 while studying in Tokyo’s International Christian University, and Japanese media initially stoked excitement over the match.

But this quickly soured after reports of a financial controversy involving Komuro’s mother and her former fiancé in 2018. After reports of a financial controversy involving Komuro’s mother and her former fiance in 2018, the couple had their wedding postponed for good. The Imperial family was nonchalant about it. Komuro traveled to New York to study law in August 2018. However, the couple were not spared media attention. Komuro spoke out earlier in the year about the allegations made against his mother and said that he would marry the princess.

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On Sept. 27 this year, after his graduation, Komuro returned to Japan to wed his fiancée—following which the couple plan to leave for the U.S.—but local tabloids were more fascinated with his new ponytail. So critical has been media coverage about the couple. A spokesperson for the Imperial Household Agency claimed that Princess Mako had a post-traumatic stress condition. He was quoted in the broadsheet. Mainichi Shimbun

Kingston thinks the media commotion is a reflection of Japanese concerns that Komuro may not be a suitable candidate for marriage to the Imperial family. “Who would want to put themselves in that pressure cooker and that goldfish bowl and have every move scrutinized and criticized?” he asks.

But for Yoshikazu Kato, a director of a Tokyo-based research and consulting firm Trans-Pacific Group (TPG), the unrelenting criticism reflects a shift in the imperial family’s relationship with the Japanese public. Questioning the Japanese royal family as a symbol of Japanese culture was once considered taboo. Kato now believes it’s time for the imperial household to be more open to discussing issues.

“Mako’s case is a good thing—it provoked a critical discussion,” Kato tells TIME. “This means progressive rather than conservative.”


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