Mako Komuro, the quietly defiant former princess marries for love

The first few days of married life for Mako Komuro (née Her Imperial Highness Princess Mako of Akishino) were reportedly spent at the Oakwood Residence in Aoyama. This swish block of serviced apartments is a short stroll from the tree-encircled palace in which she grew up.

Physically, the distance between them is less than 800 metres. Emotionally, constitutionally and in the rolling, unwinnable scrum of public opinion, she might as well be on the Moon. Mako, the niece of Japan’s current emperor, plans to live in the US. She has gained a form of freedom, but at a cost certainly to herself, potentially to her younger sister and possibly to the rest of the country’s dwindling imperial family.

The event that took Mako on this journey was her ward registry-office wedding last Tuesday to Kei Komuro, a man in effect banished abroad for three years after their 2017 engagement and forced to watch from afar as his future bride was traumatised by media scrutiny of his mother’s chequered finances and public debate over his “worthiness”. 

Komuro’s brave, if slightly icky, opening gambit in the postnuptial press conference was to declare his love for the ex-princess he had just led willingly into the ranks of common people like him. Some may have seen sincerity in those words, some defiance, some calculation. In the end, Mako’s was an evidently loving, ceremony-free marriage to a hard-working, aspiring lawyer whom she met and fell in love with at a private Christian university. It was a deed of such stolid conventionality that, surely, only the deranged could view it as an act of disrepute.

Many Japanese, when polled, did express some form of disapproval. In common with countries such as the UK, Japan, as spectator of and stakeholder in imperial matters, suffers a mild form of derangement. The problem arises from the indigestible mix of reverence for a national institution, a hunger for rare morsels of royal scandal and the snarling, proprietary righteousness of the taxpayers financing it all.

In Japan’s case, the recipe is further complicated by the bureaucrats of the Imperial Household Agency, whose assertion of duty so often seems to exact a tithe of mental health from those they are duty-bound to serve. When Mako’s post-traumatic stress disorder was announced in October, she represented the third generation of imperial family women to have been afflicted by the demands of palace life. Her grandmother, empress emerita Michiko, temporarily lost the power of speech, while her aunt, the current empress Masako, was treated for depression.

For some decades, the strategy of most Japanese imperial family members, in particular the now-retired emperor emeritus Akihito, has been to project a public tone of near-apologetic humility and gratitude. For Mako, now 30, who has been in the public eye since birth, the muscle memory is strong although it has been tempered by years studying overseas. When she and Komuro appeared for their 12-minute press conference last week, she bowed on average once every 48 seconds.

But somehow, despite everything that has happened, the couple pulled off a punchy exit speech. Even reading from a statement, Mako struck a defiant and independent tone, revealing that Komuro had studied in the US at her urging (rather than his choice) and describing their marriage as “a necessary decision in order for us to live”. This was delicately spoken, but strikingly blunt in its message.

Contained in her turn of phrase was a criticism of the Japanese media, and her assertion of the right to “a peaceful life”. She did not directly say that the past few years have strained relations with her father, but the line “we’ve done our best”, had the unambiguous sigh of a younger generation exhausted by battling the old.

The seeds of Mako’s ability to take this small stand were sown by her mother. Under Crown Princess Kiko, Mako, and her younger sister Kako, were raised somewhat outside the traditional constraints imposed on royal offspring. They both studied at International Christian University, known for its freewheeling, international culture, instead of the elite Gakushuin school that almost all imperial family members have attended. Takuya Miyata, a former palace chef who now operates a meat shop and restaurant, remembers the two cheerful sisters as they appeared at his kitchen holding hands to ask what he was making. “In my view, they weren’t any different from the mother and children of a normal family,” he said.

Still, Mako’s performance at the press conference hinted at the enormous abnormalities under which she grew up. In 2019 when her sister Kako was asked about the delay in Mako’s marriage, the popular princess suddenly found herself under fire when she suggested that her sister’s feelings be respected “as an individual”. This tiny request, and its use of the word “individual” overstepped the confines of the imperial family’s role as symbol of the state.

It is clear that the sisters are protective of one another. As Mako bade farewell to her immediate family and 30 years of life as a royal, she bowed formally to her sister. There was a momentary pause before the two women hugged, producing one of the warmest moments in postwar Japanese imperial family history. It remains to be seen whether Mako was leaving a good or bad template for escape.

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