The world’s oldest monarchy is running out of royals

Japan will maintain tradition in the imperial household even if it means the end of the monarchy.

After a four-year postponement, Princess Mako, the niece of 61-year-old Emperor Naruhito, is marrying her longtime boyfriend, Kei Komuro. And because Japan’s imperial law strips women of their royal status after marriage, the princess will exit the family, leaving behind just 12 women and five men.

In addition, following controversy over their engagement, Mako turned down a ¥152.5 million ($1.3 million) dowry that has traditionally been awarded to women in the royal family who’ve married, making her the first to do so since World War II.

“It’s a radical departure from what is expected from women of the imperial family,” said Shihoko Goto, Deputy Director for Geoeconomics at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank, and an Asian affairs specialist. “She is prepared to make financial sacrifices and uproot herself from the comfort, safety and privileges of her life to pursue her own path.”

There were 67 members of Japan’s royal family after World War II. After Princess Mako leaves, there will be just 17, and only three heirs to the throne among them: The emperor’s 85-year-old uncle, Prince Hitachi; his brother, Crown Prince Akishino, age 55; and his nephew and Princess Mako’s brother, Hisahito, age 15. Japan is among a handful of modern monarchies — including Saudi Arabia, Oman and Morocco — that limits succession to men.

Princess Mako’s wedding has highlighted previous calls to allow women to be part of the line of succession, as a way to shore up the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy, and to bring it in line with more modern ideas about gender equality.

It’s an overwhelmingly popular idea, according to a Kyodo News poll taken in March and April. Of respondents, 85% said they were in favor of a female emperor, and almost as many — 79% — said they’d support letting the empress pass the throne on to her own children.

Ironically, the imperial family can’t do anything about it. The role of the monarchy, including its line of succession, is governed by Japanese law. In the past two decades, several top political officials have considered changing the rules, to no avail.

In 2006, proposed legislation to allow female heirs to be in line to the throne was shelved after the birth of Prince Hisahito, the first male child in almost four decades. In 2012, then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda considered allowing princesses to create their own royal branches and keep their status when they marry, an effort that stalled when he was replaced by Shinzo Abe.

Prince Akishino, Princess Kiko and Princess Mako wave to well-wishers during the imperial family's annual New Year's greeting at the Imperial Palace in January 2018. | AFP-JIJI
Prince Akishino, Princess Kiko and Princess Mako wave to well-wishers during the imperial family’s annual New Year’s greeting at the Imperial Palace in January 2018. | AFP-JIJI

More recently, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga launched an expert panel to look into the matter, an inquiry that petered out when he failed to run for the ruling party’s leadership election. His successor, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, opposes passing down the throne through an empress.

While the number of royals has declined, it cost Japanese taxpayers ¥25 billion ($219 million) this year in food, education, personal expenses and the salaries of 1,080 staff including chauffeurs, gardeners and archivists of imperial records. They also send funds to disaster relief efforts. The British Royal Family, in comparison, incurred about £50 million ($69 million) in expenses in 2019-20, plus an additional £30 million for renovations to Buckingham Palace.

On Tuesday, Mako and Komuro submitted a marriage filing to the local government, which was followed by a news conference. Japanese royal weddings rarely capture attention overseas, and Princess Mako’s low-key event is a missed opportunity for projecting soft power, said Goto.

“This wedding won’t have the kind of consumer spending impact that the marriages of Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle did in Britain,” she said.

But it may boost the economy in other ways. Royal marriages in Japan have been linked to an uptick in marriages and births, a long-sought goal in a country with an graying population. After the 1990 marriage of Crown Prince Akishino, the number of marriages rose 3.7% from five years earlier, compared to a 0.4% drop the year earlier, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Economics. It peaked at 9.8% in 1993 when the current emperor’s wedding was held.

The number of births follow a similar trend.

“We do not expect Princess Mako’s marriage to have a big impact on the macro economy,” says Yuki Masujima, a Senior Economist with Bloomberg Economics. “But it could have positive impacts on consumer sentiment and the marriage rate, after a sharp drop due to the COVID crisis.”

After the wedding, the newlyweds plan to live in the U.S., without financial support from the imperial family or the Japanese government. Komuro has reportedly secured a job with a Manhattan law firm, while Princess Mako — who has a master’s degree in art museum studies — has not announced her plans. It may prove a welcome reprieve after years of tabloid scrutiny.

Earlier this month, the Imperial Household Agency said that the princess had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of online abuse directed at the couple and their families.

“She has been experiencing a persistent fear that her life is going to be destroyed, which makes her pessimistic and makes it difficult for her to feel happy,” the statement said.

Princess Mako and Kei Komuro hold a news conference in Tokyo in September 2017 to announce their plan to marry. | POOL / AFP-JIJI
Princess Mako and Kei Komuro hold a news conference in Tokyo in September 2017 to announce their plan to marry. | POOL / AFP-JIJI

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