Japanese princess to gain a husband but lose her royalty

Princess Mako’s engagement revives debate on women in imperial family

Royal wedding: passersby in Tokyo watch a report that Princess Mako, the granddaughter of Japan’s emperor, is to marry Kei Komuro. Photograph: Hitoshi Takano/Kyodo News via AP

Royal wedding: passersby in Tokyo watch a report that Princess Mako, the granddaughter of Japan’s emperor, is to marry Kei Komuro. Photograph: Hitoshi Takano/Kyodo News via AP

 

A royal engagement typically unleashes breathless headlines and frenzied efforts by the press to learn of the wedding details. All that is happening in Japan, where Princess Mako, the eldest grandchild of Emperor Akihito, will soon be engaged to her college boyfriend.

But news of the impending engagement, which broke on Tuesday night, is also raising fresh questions about the status of women in the imperial family. Under the Imperial Household Law, which governs the succession of emperors in Japan’s monarchy – the world’s oldest – women are not allowed to reign on the throne. And women born into the royal family must officially leave it once they marry. So when the princess, a 25-year-old doctoral student at International Christian University in Tokyo, marries Kei Komuro, also 25, and an aspiring lawyer, she will become a commoner, narrowing the prospective pool of heirs to the throne. As Japan considers whether to reform the imperial law to accommodate the current emperor’s request to abdicate before he dies, many Japanese have suggested it is time to revise the 70-year-old law to allow women to ascend to the throne and to allow royal daughters to bear heirs.

Succession crisis

With so few males left in the imperial family – there are only five, including the current emperor – Japan’s monarchy is facing a looming succession crisis. The public overwhelmingly supports changing the law not only to allow the emperor to give up the throne but also to allow female successors. In a poll by Kyodo News this month 86 percent of those surveyed said they were in favour of allowing a woman to reign. And close to two-thirds said that sons – or daughters – born of royal women should also be allowed to ascend to the throne.

Under the current law, even if the princess, the eldest daughter of Prince Akishino, the younger brother of Crown Prince Naruhito, were allowed to remain within the imperial family after she marries, her children – even any sons – would not be in line to the throne. That is because the law requires that the line of succession pass only through the men of the family.

Japanese royal wedding: Emperor Akihito (seated, third left) and Empress Michiko (seated, fourth left), with Crown Prince Naruhito (seated, second left), his wife, Crown Princess Masako (seated, left), their daughter, Princess Aiko (top second left), Prince Akishino (seated second right), his wife, Princess Kiko (seated right), their daughters, Princess Mako (top left) and Princess Kako (top right), and their son, Prince Hisahito (top second right). Photograph: Imperial Household Agency of Japan via Reuters
Japanese royal wedding: Emperor Akihito (seated, third left) and Empress Michiko (seated, fourth left), with Crown Prince Naruhito (seated, second left), his wife, Crown Princess Masako (seated, left), their daughter, Princess Aiko (top second left), Prince Akishino (seated second right), his wife, Princess Kiko (seated right), their daughters, Princess Mako (top left) and Princess Kako (top right), and their son, Prince Hisahito (top second right). Photograph: Imperial Household Agency of Japan via Reuters

On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet is expected to introduce a one-time bill to allow Akihito, who is 83, to give up the throne, opening the way for 57-year-old Naruhito to take over before his father dies. The legislation, which will need to be approved by the parliament, does not address female succession or whether the children of royal women will be allowed to ascend to the throne. After Naruhito, his immediate successor would be his younger brother, 51-year-old Akishino, as Naruhito’s only child is a daughter, 15-year-old Princess Aiko. Akishino would be followed by his son, 10-year-old Prince Hisahito, the younger brother of Mako. Hisahito is the only boy of his generation in the imperial family.

Twelve years ago Mako’s aunt, Princess Sayako, who is now 48, and the only daughter of Akihito, married a commoner and left the imperial household. In doing so she gave up a royal allowance, although she gained the right to vote – and pay taxes. She never had children.

Mako, who has a master’s degree from the University of Leicester, in England, will also gain those rights when she marries Komuro. She has been dating him since 2012, according to media reports, and her parents have already approved the engagement, which will be officially announced soon.

Conservative opposition

Conservative supporters of Abe are steadfastly opposed to allowing women – or even sons of female family members – on the throne. Yet their insistence on male lineage is threatening the future of the royal bloodline. The opposition Democratic Party has called for a revision that would allow women to take the throne or to stay in the family after marriage. In remarks to reporters on Wednesday Renho Murata, the Democratic leader, said her party was “urging the government, based on a consensus of the public, to set a deadline to study establishing female imperial branches”.

Analysts said that Abe’s silence on women in the imperial household was particularly striking given his professed support for women’s equality. “Mr Abe has tried to showboat as somebody who embraces ‘womenomics’ and promotes empowerment of women,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “But here is a chance for him to step up, and instead he is avoiding making a decision that would benefit the imperial institution. He feels that this is a step too far, so clearly there is a glass ceiling at least as far as the imperial household is concerned.” – (New York Times)