For many months, Japan saw a modern version of Romeo and Juliet unfold, starring Japan’s Princess Mako, 30, and her long-term boyfriend and fiancé, Kei Komuro, 30. It was 2017 when Princess Mako, the eldest daughter of Crown Prince Fumihito, announced her engagement to Kei Komuro, a commoner and a graduate of Japan’s International Christian University at which the couple met. Although the marriage of a Princess to a commoner signals the departure of the female royal from the imperial household, Japan was in a celebratory mood when the engagement was first announced. However, this was short-lived, as scandals surrounding the fiancé’s family background and mother’s financial debts heightened nationwide public disapproval of the marriage. The couple’s plans were officially put on hold as Mr. Komuro’s image and his aptness as the husband of a Japanese Princess declined, and arrangements were further delayed as Mr. Komuro went abroad to study at Fordham University to pursue a law degree in 2018. In the face of public skepticism and media attacks, it seemed like the royal marriage would not have a fairy tale ending. However, earlier this month, the pair announced that they would formally tie the knot on Oct. 26, 2021, after 3 long years of being at the center of public scrutiny.
Princess Mako is the niece of the current Japanese emperor, Emperor Naruhito, who ascended the throne after the former emperor (and now emperor emeritus), Akihito, abdicated the throne in 2019 citing old age and declining health. The Princess is one of the few remaining active members of the current Japanese imperial family, which include Emperor Naruhito and his wife Empress Masako, their daughter Princess Aiko, the Emperor’s brother Crown Prince Fumihito and his wife Crown Princess Kiko, and their 3 children, Princess Mako, Princess Kako, and Prince Hisahito. The former emperor and empress, Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko, are publicly retired, making the number of active royals eight.
Japan’s imperial family is the world’s oldest continuous monarchy. The first recorded ruler was Emperor Jimmu, legendarily known as a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu in the Shinto religion, whose accession dates back to 600 BC. Today, Japan is a nation that remains centered around the post-war Japanese Constitution that was first drafted in 1946 and adopted in 1947. Addressed in this Constitution—the supreme laws of the state—is the Imperial Household Law that outlines laws surrounding the Japanese Imperial Household. Specifically, Article 1 of Chapter 1 of the Constitution states: “The Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial Lineage.” In other words, female members of the royal family are to be stripped of their titles once they marry a commoner. Ever since adopting the Constitutional structure, Japan has thus never had a female royal succeed her father as empress. Princess Mako is no exception, so in line with the Constitution, she will soon be giving up her royal title. Following her marriage, the number of active Japanese royals will be reduced to seven.
Since Princess Mako’s engagement was first announced, female royals’ succession of the throne resurfaced as a topic of conversation both in government and in public. The Japanese parliament had long engaged in debates regarding female successors and changing the current Constitutional laws to reflect a more progressive society. The first wave of discussion was almost 2 decades ago when it became apparent that the current emperor, Emperor Naruhito, would not have a male heir to the throne. When his daughter, Princess Aiko, was born in 2001, the public began talking of the possibilities of changing the laws to allow Princess Aiko to inherit the title of “empress” for the first time in Japanese imperial history. The Japanese were welcoming of this change. Since 1978, a national poll by The Asahi Shimbun has consistently shown that public support for changing the Constitution and welcoming a female successor was more than 80%. Past Prime Ministers have also expressed their intent of revising the Constitution, yet they were met with opposition from conservative lawmakers that supported the ancient Japanese traditional system. Amidst the controversy that Japan was being far too backward in recognizing gender equality, Prince Hisahito (now 2nd in line to the throne) was born to Crown Prince Fumihito (1st in line to the throne) and Crown Princess Kiko in 2006. The birth of a male royal subsided the public debates and no changes were made to the Constitution.
Years later, the announcement of Princess Mako’s marriage and departure from royalty cast light on the shrinking size of the Japanese imperial family and the unsustainable nature of the Imperial Household Law, forcing the country into debates on revising the Constitution once more. Polls conducted in 2020 showed that 49% of Japanese approved of a female emperor, 36% were inclined towards approval, and only 13% disapproved or leaned towards disapproval; 79% of the public also approved of having a future emperor or empress that inherits royal blood from his or her maternal side. Why, then, is there no change?
The answer is conservatism that is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and politics. Elements of conservatism can be observed in many areas of Japan, especially when it comes to gender inequality. In 2021, Japan was ranked 120th among 156 countries in the gender gap rankings and was the lowest-ranked among the G7 nations. Traditionalism is clearly evident in Japanese society in terms of gender, but it is a problem especially when talking about the Imperial House. In addition to the issues surrounding the conservative nature of the Imperial Household Law, Japan is the only modern nation that continues to use “emperor” to address the head of the royal family. While the latter may strictly be symbolic of a traditional term that upholds Japanese history and culture, a comparison of Japan’s royal family to that of Britain’s, which allows female succession, offers a clear insight into the conservatism that remains ingrained in Japan.
Princess Mako’s marriage should be a wake-up call for Japan. With only 17 individuals with royal titles left—including the retired Emperor Emeritus and Empress Emerita—and the Imperial Household Law still in effect, the Imperial House will only continue to lose its structure. For a country that is “striving” to promote and improve gender equality, it is nothing but hypocritical that Japan’s very foundations remain conservative in nature. The failure to embrace female successors brings into question whether the country can truly call itself “progressive” and manifests how women are still socially inferior to men. If not even constitutional revision can be instigated, how and when will Japan diverge from traditionalism and towards modernity?