The first few days of Mako Komuro’s married life (Her Imperial Highness Mako Princess Akishino) are said to have been spent at Oakwood Residence in Aoyama. This impressive serviced apartment building is located a short walk from the tree-lined mansion where I grew up.
Physically, the distance between them is less than 800 meters. Emotionally, constitutionally and in the hustle and bustle of rolling public opinion that can’t be beat, you might be over the moon, too. Mako, niece of the current Emperor of Japan, plans to live in the United States. She gained a form of freedom, but at the cost of herself surely, her younger sister and perhaps the rest of the country’s dwindling imperial family would likely bear it.
The event that took Mako on this trip was her wedding at the registry office in a suite last Tuesday to Kei Komuro, a man who is actually exiled abroad for three years after their engagement in 2017 and forced to watch from afar while his future bride is shocked by the scrutiny. Media. His mother’s finances are fickle and the public debate over his “worthiness”.
Komuro’s brave, albeit somewhat difficult, maneuver at the post-marriage press conference was to declare his love for the former princess whom he voluntarily led into the ranks of commoners like himself. Some may have seen sincerity in these words, some defiance, and some calculation. In the end, it was clear that Mako was a loving, ceremonial marriage of an ambitious, hard-working lawyer she met and fell in love with at a private Christian university. It was an act of such an established convention that, surely, only psychopaths could view it as a disgrace.
Many Japanese, when surveyed, expressed some form of disapproval. As with countries such as the United Kingdom, Japan, as a bystander and stakeholder in imperial matters, suffers from a mild form of confusion. The problem stems from the indigestible mix of reverence for a national institution, a thirst for rare morsels of royal scandal, the snarls, and the royal prerogative of the taxpayers who fund it all.
In the case of Japan, the recipe is further complicated by the bureaucrats of the Imperial Palace Agency, whose assertion of duty often appears to impose tithes on the mental health of those bound by the duty of service. When Mako’s PTSD was announced in October, she represented the third generation of Imperial family women affected by the demands of palace life. Her grandmother, Empress Emeritus Michiko, temporarily lost the power of speech, while her aunt, the current Empress Masako, was treated for depression.
For several decades, the strategy of most members of the Japanese imperial family, particularly the now-retired honorary Emperor Akihito, has been to project a general tone of semi-apologetic humility and gratitude. For Mako, now 30, who has been the focus of the public since birth, the muscle memory is strong even though it has been tempered by years of study abroad. When she and Komuro appeared at their 12-minute press conference last week, she bowed, on average, once every 48 seconds.
But somehow, despite everything that happened, the couple gave a painful exit speech. Even reading from Bayan, Mako took on a defiant and independent tone, revealing that Komuro had studied in the United States at her request (not his choice) and describing their marriage as a “necessary decision for us to live.” This was neatly talked about, but strikingly in his message.
The phrase, in turn, contained criticism of the Japanese media and its assertion of the right to a “peaceful life”. She didn’t directly say that the past few years had seen strained relations with her father, but the phrase “we did our best,” breathed a sigh of relief for a younger generation exhausted from fighting the old.
Her mother sowed the seeds of Mako’s ability to take such a small position. Under Crown Princess Kiko, Mako and her younger sister Kaku grew up somewhat outside the traditional constraints of the royal family’s lineage. Both studied at the International Christian University, known for its free international culture, rather than the elite Gakushuin School, which nearly all members of the imperial family attended. Takuya Miyata, a former palace chef who now runs a meat shop and restaurant, remembers the two beaming sisters when they showed up in his kitchen holding hands to ask him what he was making. “From my point of view, they were no different from the mother and children of an ordinary family,” he said.
However, Mako’s performance at the press conference indicated the massive distortions that arose under her. In 2019 when her sister Kaku was asked about the delay in Mako’s marriage, the popular princess suddenly found herself under criticism when she suggested respecting her sister’s feelings as an “individual”. This small request and its use of the word “individual” went beyond the imperial family’s role as a symbol of the state.
The sisters obviously protect each other. When Mako said goodbye to her immediate family and 30 years of her life as royalty, he solemnly bowed to her sister. There was a pause before the two women embraced, producing one of the warmest moments in the Japanese imperial family’s post-war history. It remains to be seen whether Mako leaves a good or bad model to escape.