Philip Patrick

Will Mako and Kei be the Japanese Harry and Meghan?

Will Mako and Kei be the Japanese Harry and Meghan?
Kei Komuro and Princess Mako (photo: Getty)
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A young royal, seen as a potential future star, falls in love with a commoner and chooses to leave the gilded cage and a life of dutiful service to marry and live a ‘normal’ life in America. The match is controversial for various reasons, not least the royal’s mental health and the non-royal’s family problems; but, after a certain amount of reflection, the marriage goes ahead. The couple settles into a new life stateside, and…

Sound familiar? The tale of Princess Mako, the 29-year-old niece of Japanese emperor Naruhito, and her fiancé Kei Komuro is a sort of miniaturised inverted Japanese version of the Meghan and Harry story, albeit with a few twists. One difference is that Mako and Kei will not have a stylish wedding, with no carriage and not even a ceremony. The event, scheduled for October 26, will be so low key and perfunctory that, just like a Japanese execution, the public will not know any of the details until after it has happened.

Few in Japan doubt that Princess Mako is enamoured of Kei Komuro but there is considerable speculation that there is also an ‘I’m a Japanese royal get me out of here’ element to Mako’s decision to leave. I once interviewed the Princess, and this theory matched the pleasant, perfectly ordinary but prematurely jaded young woman I met. The princess, clearly irritated by the beady-eyed chaperone watching her every move, seemed suffused with ennui, as she endured my scripted questions – another dreary ritual in a life replete with them.

A high boredom threshold is a necessity for any royal perhaps, but especially a Japanese one. Sitting ‘seiza’ style for hours on end in exquisite but uncomfortable kimonos as a priest incants ancient incomprehensible Japanese at a shrine ceremony, or accompanying the emperor on trips to smallholdings to bless the rice crop, or greeting the latest cohort of centenarians at the palace, are examples of the daily routine. The Japanese royals are firmly tethered: they have no money of their own and are closely monitored (and perhaps controlled) by an army of civil servants. Ordinary mortals, when allowed to approach, are not even supposed to make eye contact. Who could blame a modern young woman for wanting to escape that suffocating limbo?

Quite a few it seems, with the opprobrium heightened by Princess Mako’s choice of partner. Kei Komura was an unexceptional law student with less than favourable career prospects when he proposed in 2017. Kei, or more specifically his family, just didn’t pass muster. An initial financial scandal (an unpaid loan to his mother) caused serious disquiet and led to a slew of critical stories in the press. Their marriage plans were paused in 2018 and young Kei was dispatched (or perhaps banished) to New York to continue his legal studies.

Additional skeletons have since tumbled out of the Komura family closet. Kei’s father apparently committed suicide and disturbing tales of three other recent deaths in the family prompted a black joke about his potential biopic being titled ‘Four funerals and a wedding’. The financial issue remains unresolved and the royal family appears unpersuaded about the match. Mako’s mother Kiko has publicly acknowledged continuing ‘differences of opinion’ with her daughter suggesting the family have reluctantly accepted the marriage, but do not approve.

And nor do the Japanese public. Despite the soon-to-be former princess turning down the traditional gift of money from the state (of around £1 million) it is generally assumed that ways will be found to assist her and Kei in New York should his fledgling legal career fail to take flight. She is unlikely to end up waiting tables in a diner. All this has led to accusations that the couple are having their cake and eating it. Mako has declared she is suffering from PTSD on account of it all.

The mounting criticism has prompted the couple to announce they will hold some sort of a press conference or interview to explain themselves. It will not be a sensational Oprah-esque breast cleaning exercise, but is more likely to be a tightly scripted Q&A with soft questions from carefully selected journalists. It might not even be that though – perhaps just a simply worded statement about the length of a haiku and then a hasty exit.

Unlike the Sussexes, that will probably be the last we hear of Mako and Kei. There is a small possibility, if a new law is enacted, that Mako could return to official duties despite being excommunicated, but this is not considered likely. The couple are expected to fade into the background, and ‘their truth’; whatever that is, remain their own preserve. There will be no magazine covers, Netflix documentaries, or disobliging comments. They are unlikely to do anything to further upset the fabled harmony (‘wa’) of Japanese society.

They have upset the harmony of society though, and what is seems to boil down to is this: while many are sympathetic to Mako’s desire to leave the royal family, most seem disappointed that she is actually doing so.

Japanese royals are not ambassadors or tourist attractions. Nor are they an inspiration for the entertainment industry (a Japanese version of The Crown is unthinkable, and would be unwatchable).Their purpose is to embody the nation and serve as exemplars, elevating the national ethic of endurance (‘gaman’) and self-sacrifice to a majestic plane. To break free is akin to a worker taking up their full holiday entitlement: it can be done, theoretically, but it just isn’t.

And this reveals a key difference between the Japanese and the British monarchies: The main charge against Harry was disloyalty to his immediate family; with Mako it is a certain selfishness in respect to hers. But her family means the entire Japanese nation.

Written byPhilip Patrick

Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a Tokyo university and contributing writer at the Japan Times

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