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, too. She will be given a dowry and never mentioned again. Sounds cold.
Unsurprisingly, this has reignited the debate on women’s status and royal succession laws in Japan which currently favor males.
While it sounds bad, a Japanese princess being dropped from all mention of royal life may not be so bad after all. While much of Japan is modern, the Imperial Household Agency, the organization that governs the royal family, is not. Leaving that behind may be a boon.
Princess Mako’s engagement may present her with a world of opportunity that she would not have had otherwise on her own. Her life as a princess is likely tightly controlled with strict observance of protocol. The women are lesser than the men, and must keep to the background. This is not mere social observance of protocol like the current European royal courts. This is life under an iron fist.
If Mako is nervous – and I don’t blame her – she can look to her paternal aunt, Sayako (formerly Princess Nori) who also married a commoner.
Sayako lost her title when she married a commoner in 2005. She was known simply as Mrs. Sayako Kuroda thereafter. She is never 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. 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.”
So when a Japanese princess marries a commoner man, she loses her status and her family. Sounds unfortunate. When a commoner woman marries a Japanese prince, they are elevated to their husband’s royal rank. Becoming a Japanese princess seems like it should probably be better, right? You get a title with tiaras and gowns while waving merrily from a palace balcony.
If Sayako’s testimony on her mother the Empress is anything to go by, then think again.
Enter Crown Princess Masako, a commoner who was a multilingual diplomat educated at Harvard University. She married Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993, but instead of being able to use her background as a representative of Japan, Masako was grounded. She found it hard to adjust to palace life ever since and has suffered stress-related illnesses for decades with only rare public appearances. When Masako does attend an event, royal watchers rejoice.
Naruhito took a public stance for his wife in 2004, hinting that the blame lay with the backwards attitude of the Imperial Household Agency smothering Masako:
“It is true there were moves to negate Masako’s career and her personality, which was influenced by that career,” Naruhito said.
Masako was a modern woman with a career, which apparently rankled with the old order, but much of the princess’s stress stemmed from that old chestnut over male primogeniture. She struggled to get pregnant in the early years of her marriage, and when she finally succeeded, she bore a girl named Aiko. Despite the lack of males in the family, the Imperial Household agency and many government officials STILL fought the idea of a woman on the royal Chrysanthemum throne. However, it seemed there was no choice but for this institution to accept an empress. Then, an announcement.
Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko, Naruhito’s brother and sister-in-law, announced a pregnancy of their own. They already had two preteen daughters, but the thought of being able to put a son on the throne was obviously too much to resist. Prince Hisahito, Japan’s new rising son, was born in 2006, a mere three years after Naruhito’s daughter Aiko.
Masako was made to feel that her main function – a mother to an heir – was a failure. With no professional outlet and her wonderful daughter frowned upon, is it any wonder why the Crown Princess has been stressed and joyless in her role all these years?
Her mother-in-law, Empress Michiko, did face those same difficulties. She holds the distinction of being the very first commoner to wed a Japanese royal. She married Akihito when he was Crown Prince and heir to Emperor Hirohito. Michiko also suffered stress as a young princess adjusting to imperial court life. Her life was probably only slightly better than Masako’s by virtue of producing two sons and was not a career woman who presented a challenge to the ancient traditions of the IHA. By being a commoner, that was bad enough.
Little has been done to try and change the IHA, but with Naruhito speaking out publicly in recent years – and the fact that he will soon become emperor when his father abdicates – the old order may find that things are going to be a little different from now on.
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.