Japanese Imperial Rules: Is Marrying A Commoner the Only Way Out For Women?

Japanese Imperial Rules: Is Marrying A Commoner the Only Way Out For Women?

Princess Mako, a granddaughter of Japan’s Emperor Akihito, is set to marry her college sweetheart, Kei Komuro. Since Komuro is a commoner, Mako will lose her royal title and become a commoner herself. This has reignited the debate on women’s status and succession laws in Japan which currently favor males.

When a Japanese princess marries a commoner man, she loses her status and position within the Imperial family. She’s given a dowry and is never mentioned again, but when a commoner woman marries a Japanese prince, they are elevated to their husband’s royal rank. It’s an imbalance, to say the least, but given the treatment we’ve seen with Japanese Crown Princess Masako and other ladies, that title and lifestyle is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Mako’s paternal aunt, Sayako (Princess Nori) lost her title when she married a commoner in 2005. She was known simply as Mrs. Sayako Kuroda thereafter. She is not even mentioned as a member of the family on the Imperial family’s official website despite being the only daughter of the emperor.

The new Mrs. Kuroda didn’t seem too unhappy about it, though. As she embarked on married life, her parting words were about her feelings of “loneliness” and “unease” as a princess. She also took a shot at the Imperial Household Agency, the organization that tightly regulates the Imperial family’s life. Speaking out for her mother, Empress Michiko, Sayako stated that “Her Majesty collapsed due to unbearable fatigue and distress and lost her power of speech” after “being exposed to a great deal of criticism that had no ground in fact.”

It’s strange that life for Imperial women is so difficult. Japan can count eight Empresses among its rulers from as early as the 6th century until the 1600s, but after the Meiji Restoration in the 1800s, the monarchy became a male-only landscape designed to preserve the mystique and lineage of the Japanese royal line. It was dictated by the Imperial Household Agency and, as we have seen throughout the years, this has not been good for the well-being of Japanese royal women. Empress Michiko has suffered and her daughter-in-law, Crown Princess Masako, has fared no better. The multilingual former diplomat gained her status upon her marriage to Crown Prince Naruhito, but she lost her independence and her spirit. Masako’s severe depression forced her to withdraw from the public eye, and was carefully managed by the strict and secretive Imperial Household Agency.

Masako’s difficulties were underscored when she could not bear a child for several years after her marriage to Naruhito. At long last, they were blessed with a baby girl whom they named Aiko. Her birth in 2001 threw the line of succession into question. The Crown Princess was unlikely to have more children after Aiko, and Naruhito’s brother Akishino had Princess Mako and Princess Kako as his heirs. Without a male in line for the future, Japan held its collective breath to see if the IHA and the Japanese government would allow an amendment to the succession laws.

Then a surprise – Prince Akishino announced that his wife was pregnant. On September 6, 2006, Princess Kiko gave birth to Prince Hisahito. The little prince was over a decade younger than his sisters and the first boy since Akishino’s birth in 1965.

Crown Princess Masako’s distress over her inability to produce a son became so intense that her husband publicly complained to the press, unheard of for the royal family and least of all a Crown Prince.

“Princess Masako, giving up her job as a diplomat to enter the Imperial Household, was greatly distressed that she was not allowed to make overseas visits for a long time,” the crown prince said. “There were developments that denied Princess Masako’s career as well as her personality.”

Sadly, Naruhito and Masako’s daughter Aiko is said to be suffering from stress and has missed months of school as a result. It seems that the cycle may continue.

Or will it?

Emperor Akihito, in delicate health at age 84, will step down soon. This is the first time a Japanese Emperor has abdicated in 200 years. Naruhito will ascend the throne and when he does, will he try to force a change in succession laws? It is my belief that he will at least try to expand Masako’s freedom in her role as empress, given his statement about protecting her and criticizing the Imperial Household Agency.

The couple also have the support of fellow royals. In April 2013, Queen Maxima of the Netherlands personally phoned Princess Masako and insisted she attend to the Dutch inauguration of King Willem-Alexander. Happily, Masako attended with Naruhito to the delight of many Japanese and many royal watchers. Prior to this, the former Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands hosted the Crown Prince and Princess and grew close to them.

With this monumental change in leadership, as well as fellow royals rooting for them, will Naruhito and Masako usher in a new era in the Japanese Royal Family? I can’t wait to find out. I wish them the best for the future. There has to be a way for the Japanese royal women to thrive and to eventually reign. Otherwise, it’s time to marry a commoner and escape the world of the Imperial Household Agency.

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