Princess Mako and the Future of the Imperial Household

Nagai Takako [Profile]

[2017.06.14] Read in: 日本語 | العربية | Русский |

Word of Princess Mako’s impending engagement, followed by news of her successful trip to Bhutan, came like a breath of fresh air at a time when Emperor Akihito’s wish to abdicate has dominated media coverage of the imperial family. At the same time, the princess's transition embodies the quandary facing the shrinking imperial household, which loses a precious member each time a woman marries out of the family.

Recent news coverage of Princess Mako of Akishino, the 25-year-old granddaughter of Emperor Akihito, has given imperial-family watchers cause to celebrate. The media frenzy began in May, with the sudden revelation of her impending engagement, and continued into June with coverage of her visit to Bhutan, where she arrived on the first of the month at the invitation of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

In a rapidly changing world, Japan’s imperial household is admired as the embodiment of Japanese history and culture. During her weeklong stay in Bhutan, Princess Mako seemed conscious of this role, donning traditional kimono for many of her appearances. For the Royal Bhutan Flower Exhibition, a highlight of her visit, she chose an exquisite silk furisode kimono (named for its long, swinging sleeves) featuring a yūzen resist-dyed cloud pattern accented with gold leaf and gold embroidery. Clouds, which are traditionally regarded as the dwelling place of gods and dragons, are an auspicious motif in Japanese decorative art. The obi sash, adorned with flowers and phoenixes (another symbol of good fortune) completed the outfit for a festive yet elegant look utterly appropriate to the occasion.

Bittersweet News

Princess Mako is the eldest daughter of Prince Akishino (the second son of the emperor and empress) and his consort Princess Kiko. In Japanese, she is accorded the title of naishinnō, applied to an emperor’s daughters and granddaughters in the male line. Princess Mako is fluent in English, having studied art history at the University of Edinburgh and earned her degree in museum studies from the University of Leicester. While in Bhutan, she communicated confidently in English, performing the role of cultural ambassador (an important function of the Japanese monarchy) with aplomb.

Alas, the recent trip to Bhutan could be Princess Mako’s last official overseas visit as a member of the imperial family. Her engagement to Komuro Kei, a former classmate from International Christian University in Tokyo, is expected to be made official sometime over the next few months. Under the Imperial House Law as it now stands, Princess Mako must relinquish her imperial status when she marries.

Princess Mako on her way to an audience with the king and queen of Bhutan on June 2. (© Jiji)

The Imperial Family’s Dilemma

Princess Mako and Komuro are said to have made one another’s acquaintance five years ago in a discussion group for university students interested in study abroad. Komuro proposed about a year later, but their relationship was not made public until this past May. In the interim, the princess pursued her studies and took a position as affiliate researcher at the University Museum of the University of Tokyo, all the while dispatching her official duties as a member of the imperial household. Komuro continued his studies and took a job at a law firm.

Naturally, the couple’s impending engagement and marriage are cause for celebration. At the same time, the recent announcement has thrown into sharp relief the dilemma facing the rapidly aging and shrinking imperial household.

The Japanese imperial family today comprises just 19 individuals (including the 83-year-old emperor), all but eight of whom are middle-aged or elderly. Of the eight imperials in their 30s or younger, seven are female. Under current law, only males descended from the male line are eligible to succeed to the throne, and princesses born into the imperial family relinquish their titles and become commoners when they marry out of the family (the only real marriage option nowadays). If all seven of the imperial family’s young female members choose to wed, the only youthful imperial remaining will be Princess Mako’s younger brother, 10-year-old Prince Hisahito—who could eventually be forced to shoulder the duties of the monarchy single-handedly. The long-term implications for the imperial succession are worrisome.

Conservative Resistance to Reform

For some time now, the Imperial Household Agency has been trying to impress on the government the need to reform the Imperial House Law in order to avert a crisis. In 2012, when the Democratic Party of Japan was at the helm, the government applied itself with some urgency to the task. The idea was to retain the principle of male succession (on which many conservatives insist) but allow naishinnō like Princess Mako to remain members of the imperial household after marriage, establishing their own collateral branches, as princes do. According to a senior official working in the Imperial Household Agency at the time, the emperor and empress wanted their granddaughters to remain in the family to assist Prince Hisahito, the future emperor on whom the fate of the monarchy rests.

In this context, the emperor and empress seemed to place especially high hopes in Princess Mako. Immediately after Prince Hisahito’s birth in 2005, Princess Mako, then 16, began accompanying her parents to official functions with far greater frequency. The emperor and empress were clearly proud of their granddaughter’s dedication to her duties as well as her devotion to her studies.

However, when the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in late 2012, led by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, plans to amend the Imperial House Law and alter the princesses’ status were put on the back burner. Abe and his conservative base oppose such a reform, fearing that it could open the way to female succession.

Then, in August 2016, the aging Emperor Akihito released a rare video message, broadcast on television, in which he stressed the mounting challenges he faced performing his duties as symbol of the state. Responding to the emperor’s unspoken plea, the government took up the question of abdication, for which the law made no provision. During the deliberations, the opposition again raised the possibility of female-led imperial branches but ran into stiff resistance. Finally, on June 9 this year, the National Diet passed special legislation that will permit Emperor Akihito to step down in favor of his heir, Crown Prince Naruhito (age 57). Attached to that legislation is a resolution calling for renewed deliberation of “such [reforms] as the establishment of female-led branches of the imperial family.” At the conservatives’ insistence, the wording of the resolution was left vague, with no timetable set for deliberation.

In this way, Princess Mako’s marriage has become closely intertwined with the political debate over the imperial succession. Is this valued member of the imperial family destined to lead the life of a commoner, cut off from the monarchy? Or will the nation’s political leaders open the door to new possibilities in the interest of securing the future of the imperial institution? The nation is watching closely.

(Originally written and published in Japanese on June 9, 2017. Banner photo: Princess Mako attends the Royal Bhutan Flower Exhibition accompanied by the king and queen of Bhutan on June 4, 2017. © Jiji.)

  • [2017.06.14]

Journalist and editor. Worked on the editorial staff of several national magazines before joining the weekly Shūkan Asahi, where she covers the imperial family. Author of and contributor to numerous pieces concerning the imperial household and other aspects of postwar Japanese society.

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