Since the announcement of her engagement in 2017, royal watchers have anticipated more information about the wedding of Princess Mako of Akishino, niece of the Emperor of Japan. Now, more than four years later, we’ve finally learned more about when the marriage will take place—and how very different it will be than the marriages of most imperial princesses.
On September 3, 2017, Princess Mako appeared alongside her fiancé, Kei Komuro, during a press conference to announce their engagement at the Akasaka East Residence in Tokyo. Mako had known Komuro since they were university students, and they revealed during the press conference that they had been “unofficially” engaged for four years. Komuro was then working for a law firm in Tokyo, while Mako balanced her duties with the imperial family and work as a museum researcher. The wedding was initially expected to take place a year later, in November 2018.
But early in 2018, the plans for the upcoming nuptials suddenly skidded to a halt. Princess Mako, speaking through the Imperial Household Agency, addressed the reasons for postponing the couple’s wedding festivities. She stated that she “came to recognize the lack of time to make sufficient preparations” for the ceremony, adding, “We believe we have rushed various things. I wish to think about marriage more deeply and concretely and give sufficient time to prepare our marriage and for after the marriage.” She also mentioned the couple’s “immaturity” as a contributing factor, as well as a desire to wait until after a “series of ceremonies important for the Imperial family have ended smoothly.” (She was referencing the abdication of her grandfather, Emperor Akihito, and the subsequent enthronement of her uncle, Emperor Naruhito.)
Behind Mako’s statement, and the announcements of the IHA, lay another problem. While the couple’s wedding preparations were in full swing, reports surfaced about financial issues within Komuro’s family. The dispute stemmed from money given to Komuro’s mother by her former fiancé. She apparently believed the money (totaling around four million yen, or something in the range of $36,000 USD) had been a gift, and some of it was reportedly used to pay for her son’s education. The ex-fiancé, though, believed that the money needed to be repaid.
Though the scandal was primarily an internal family matter, and not directly related to the imperial family, some in Japan saw it as a red flag. If Komuro and his mother were comfortable taking money from one family member, they wondered, was the imperial marriage simply another money grab? Komuro issued a statement in April 2018 to try to quell the public’s fears. A few months later, in August 2020, he headed for New York, planning to continue his law studies at Fordham University. His prospective father-in-law, Crown Prince Fumihito, stated in November 2018 that he believed that the financial situation needed to be resolved before the marriage could go ahead; Komuro issued yet another statement in January 2019 arguing that resolution had been achieved.
Through all of the back-and-forth discussion over the marriage and the Komuro family’s finances, Princess Mako has remained a vital member of the imperial family, carrying out duties at home and representing the nation abroad. In recent weeks, though, it has been revealed that she was dealing with much more complicated issues herself behind the scenes. The public commentary and scrutiny led her to develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Last week, Mako’s psychiatrist addressed her health in a press conference, stating that the princess had been “subject to prolonged and repetitive instances of what she felt as slander against her and her family as well as her future husband and his family, and she had been unable to escape from it.”
Even as Mako carried out public engagements, she has continued to suffer from both the uncertainty about her future marriage and the public commentary about the situation. Her psychiatrist added that Mako “[felt] pessimistic and [found] it difficult to feel happy due to the persistent fear of her life being destroyed.” In November 2020, shortly after the enthronement of Emperor Naurhito, Princess Mako released a statement through the IHA addressing the state of her relationship: “It is still difficult to announce something specific at this time, but we will consult with our families in order to proceed with the marriage,” calling the decision to marry a “necessary choice.”
A few days later, her father, Crown Prince Fumihito, also addressed the situation during remarks made to celebrate his 55th birthday. He expressed clear reluctance about his daughter’s marriage, noting, “If that is what they really want, then I think that is something I need to respect as a parent,” but then adding, “I think it’s not the case that many people approve and are happy about it.” In a further attempt to smooth things over, Komuro released yet another statement in April 2021, expressing his intention to pay back all of the money that has caused such controversy.
Princess Mako has been an important ambassador for Japan and the imperial family since coming of age in October 2011. She has traveled the world, making numerous solo appearances as a diplomat in foreign countries. Above, she poses with the President of Peru at the Palace of Government in Lima in the summer of 2019. Other visits have taken her to El Salvador and Honduras, Paraguay, Bolivia, Hungary, Bhutan, and Brazil.
Her marriage has also once again raised questions about the future of the monarchy in Japan. Women cannot inherit the Japanese throne, but the family is rapidly running out of male heirs. Emperor Naruhito has no sons, so his brother, Fumihito, is currently the heir to the throne. Fumihito has one son, Prince Hisahito. (He’s Princess Mako’s younger brother.) After him, the only remaining male member of the imperial family is Prince Hitachi, the emperor’s 85-year-old uncle. That’s it. All other members of the family are female, and princesses who marry commoners (their only marriage option, as Japan hasn’t had an aristocracy since World War II) lose their position in the imperial family. It all means that the very existence of the imperial family is getting more and more precarious, but it also means that Prince Hisahito may one day inherit the Chrysanthemum throne and have no other family members to support him or take on royal duties.
Because of this, lawmakers in Japan regularly discuss the possibility of making changes. Allowing female members of the family to inherit the throne has not been seriously considered, but there are rumblings that princesses may be allowed to marry and still remain in the family, carrying out royal duties. So far, none of the proposals will affect the upcoming marriage of Princess Mako and Kei Komuro. On Friday, October 1, the Imperial Household Agency announced that the marriage will indeed be going forward. Komuro, who recently graduated from Fordham and took the bar exam, has flown from New York back to Japan (with a ponytail hairstyle that has been even more cause for comment among the Japanese public).
Mako will hand back her parure of diamond jewelry, including her tiara, when she marries Komuro on October 26. She has also elected not to receive the usual dowry given by the Japanese government to imperial brides—a sum of 150 million yen (in the neighborhood of $1.3 million USD). Reports indicate that the decision not to take the money has been something that Mako has been planning for years, dating back to at least 2014. She is also opting out of the traditional wedding ceremonies for imperial princesses. (Kyodo News reports that Mako’s father may have been the one who decided not to allow his daughter to go through the usual ceremonies, noting, “A close friend of the crown prince said not allowing the rites to take place is ‘almost equal to disowning Princess Mako’ for him.”)
Instead, after registering their marriage in Tokyo on October 26, the couple will hold a press conference. Mako will also make several significant stops alone: she will visit the Imperial Palace Sanctuaries, and she will meet with her uncle and aunt, Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, and her grandparents, Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emeritus Michiko. Naruhito and Masako have already issued a statement of support through a courtier, noting that they “wish that [the couple] will have a happy life in the future.” (Naruhito and Masako know all too well how damaging the pressures of imperial life can be for a woman of the family.)
And so, after more than four years, Princess Mako of Akishino will finally be allowed to marry the man of her choosing. After the wedding, the couple plans to settle in New York, where Komuro has been working at a Manhattan law firm, Lowenstein Sandler, while awaiting his bar exam results. Some have speculated that Mako will continue her research work in America. In an article published recently by the New York Times, statements made by a Japanese princess from another generation suggested that the change of locale might be very helpful for Mako as she begins her new life. In 1965, Mako’s great-aunt, Takako Shimazu, revealed that she had found great peace living with her husband in Washington, D.C.: “I’m happier than when I lived in Japan. As a citizen, there is no mental pressure. I was able to live without garnering people’s attention, quietly.”