Japan's Princess Mako and Kei Komuro were planning the perfect royal wedding, until a financial scandal almost shattered the fairytale

By Lucia Stein and Lucy Sweeney

9 Oct 2021

When Japan's Princess Mako announced she was planning to marry a commoner, it had all the hallmarks of a classic fairytale.

An old imperial law in Japan stipulates that female members are stripped of their title in the event they marry a commoner.

For Princess Mako, choosing Kei Komuro meant giving up her imperial status and all the trappings that came with it to pursue a future outside the confines of her role.

But her fairytale took a strange turn a few months after the news of the engagement, when reports emerged that Mr Komuro's mother was at the centre of a financial scandal.

The wedding was postponed, without a new date set. The couple apologised for "causing great trouble and further burden to those who have willingly supported us".

Months, and then years passed, and some began to wonder if the couple would ever make it to the altar. That was until last week, when the Imperial Household Agency — the official mouthpiece of Japan's imperial family — confirmed the pair would marry at the end of the month.

The nuptials mark the end of a long wait for the young couple, but will take place against a backdrop of tabloid obsession and a cloud of uncertainty over the imperial line's lasting legacy.

The princess and the commoner

Princess Mako and Kei Komuro reportedly met at a restaurant while studying at Tokyo's International Christian University in 2012.

She was drawn to Mr Komuro's '"smiles'"and "seriousness", while he admired the Princess's "confidence".

"It is difficult to sum it up in a single word, but Mr Komuro is someone who always warmly encourages me," the Princess said at a press conference in 2017.

As the niece of Emperor Naruhito and the eldest child of his younger brother Akishino, Princess Mako's role in Japan is largely ceremonial. She carries out the duties of her position, while also working at a museum at the University of Tokyo.

Princess Mako has always known she would have to leave the imperial household behind to start a family of her own. But her decision has captured a nation.

Reporters flocked to the firm where Mr Komuro worked when it first emerged the couple were planning to marry in 2017.

The 30-year-old, once referred to as "Prince of the Sea" thanks to an appearance in a local beach tourism campaign, has described himself as a "simple man" with career aspirations and hopes to start a family.

But the young couple's popularity soon soured over the would-be groom's connection to a dispute over a mysterious sum of money.

A financial scandal and a wedding scuppered

In February 2018, whispers of a financial scandal emerged: Japanese tabloids reported that Mr Komuro's mother owed 4 million yen ($50,000) to a former fiance, some of which had allegedly funded Kei's education.

Weeks later, the Imperial Household Agency announced the royal wedding was on hold due to "lack of preparation" and scheduling issues.

The Princess, then aged 26, gave a remorseful statement explaining the pair still wanted to get married, but felt they'd rushed into things too quickly.

But speculation kicked into overdrive, and the press continued to hound Princess Mako and her fiance over the real reason for the postponed nuptials and the truth about the Komuro family's sticky financial situation.

Both Mr Komuro and the imperial household stayed silent on the issue, and within months he had moved to New York to pursue a law degree.

After a nudge from his future father-in-law, Crown Prince Akishino, Mr Komuro moved to resolve the dispute, publishing a 28-page document in April this year attempting to explain the situation and "correct as much wrong information as possible".

While he and his mother Kayo Komuro concede the former partner did pay for some living expenses during the relationship, they disagree that the money was a loan and claim Kei paid his own way at university through scholarships.

Mr Komuro considered paying the former fiance to settle the dispute, but the damage was done. The scandal had tarnished the delicate public image of the imperial family.

How a ponytail drove Japan's media into a frenzy

Today, even the most mundane aspects of the Princess and her soon-to-be-husband's lives are under the microscope.

Just last month, a Japanese TV crew spotted Kei on the streets of New York, sporting a new hairdo. Photos of his sleek ponytail — from just about every angle imaginable — flooded the internet and set tabloid magazines and talk shows back home abuzz.

Television hosts debated whether such a hairstyle was befitting of an imperial spouse.

"It's ridiculous, but at the same time, it ... didn't shock me at all. The minute he showed up with that ponytail, I'm like, 'oh, they're going to have a field day'. And that's exactly what they did," said Thomas Baudinette, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Macquarie University.

Dr Baudinette says the media panic over Mr Komuro's ponytail reflects the conservative nature of Japanese society, which holds a "rigid understanding of what successful masculinity" looks like.

"Something as simple as the way [Mr Komuro] chooses to wear his hair is viewed as part and parcel of this broader concern with masculinity in Japan," he said.

It's also a sign of how intense tabloid interest around the couple has been picked up by mainstream media and online communities in Japan, with 'ponytail' trending on Twitter soon after the photos emerged.

Amid the storm of criticism, the Imperial Household Agency is planning to forgo the usual rites associated with imperial family members' weddings for Princess Mako.

That includes not hosting an official engagement ceremony, called "Nosai no Gi," and a "Choken no Gi" event to officially meet with the Emperor and Empress prior to marriage.

Yet it appears the couple still face an uphill battle in winning over a wary public, as interest in their personal lives continues to grow.

The cost of fame for Japan's imperial women

For Princess Mako, the relentless attention has taken its toll.

Announcing the couple's new wedding date in October, the Imperial Household Agency also revealed the Princess had been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).

Psychiatrist Tsuyoshi Akiyama, who diagnosed Princess Mako, told the press conference she had been "subject to prolonged and repetitive instances of what she felt as slander against her and her family as well as her future husband and his family, and she had been unable to escape from it", according to Japanese daily news outlet Mainichi.

It prompted comparisons with her aunt, Empress Masako, who for the past decade has lived with a stress-related illness that the palace describes as an "adjustment disorder".

In a controversial 2006 book about Masako's life, Australian investigative journalist Ben Hill detailed her struggle to adjust to the demands of imperial life and the intense pressure to produce a male heir for the dwindling monarchy.

"Masako has become a prisoner of the institution she tried to reform, her health broken by the demands placed upon her," he wrote.

In short, what she went through "[made] Princess Diana's ordeal look like a picnic".

Masako's mother-in-law Michiko also suffered early in her marriage to the former emperor, Akihito.

Overbearing bureaucracy and rumoured bullying by royal staff and Emperor Akihito's mother reportedly drove Michiko to the brink of a nervous breakdown.

According to Dr Baudinette, the experiences of women in the imperial family speak to broader issues in Japan around the intense pressure placed on young women to have children and the stigma around mental illness.

Japan's imperial line is all down to the teenage heir

Now, the future of Japan's imperial system weighs on the shoulders of just three male heirs, including Princess Mako's 15-year-old brother, Prince Hisahito.

There is considerable pressure on Hisahito, whose very birth was seen as a miracle, coming 41 years after the last male heir.

As the young prince grows up, the royal circle around him is shrinking.

A non-binding resolution passed in 2017 to allow for the Japanese Emperor's abdication asked the government to consider how to ensure stable succession. Surveys show a majority of citizens are in favour of allowing a woman to ascend to the throne.

But so far, these plans have stalled in the face of intense opposition from right-wing politicians, who are wary of any moves they see as potentially putting the imperial family under threat.

At the recent election for the leadership of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Fumio Kishida defeated political "maverick" Taro Kono, who walked back his stance on male-only succession during the campaign.

With all but one branch of Japan's imperial family removed as part of the Imperial Household Law in 1942, princesses have no choice but to marry a non-royal.

Most recently, Princess Ayako (Mako's second cousin once removed) gave up her title to be married in 2018, following in her older sister Noriko's footsteps.

The two daughters of Prince Takamodo (former Emperor Akihito's cousin) both received the customary payment of 106.75 million yen ($1.3 million) from the Japanese government to see them through their post-royal life.

But that's something Princess Mako has decided to go without amid intense scrutiny over her partner's family's financial dealings. She will be the first member of the royal family to do so since World War II.

Will a royal wedding help win back the public's favour?

With the sound of wedding bells approaching, opinion on the couple remains divided in Japan.

Many still say the marriage should be scrapped even as others argue the pair should be free to wed.

Dr Baudinette believes the intense interest surrounding the Princess and her partner has been fuelled by tabloid obsession.

"For young people and particularly young women in Japan, the story of a young woman wanting to marry the man that she loves and then [having to give up her title] … it's really struck a nerve," Dr Baudinette said.

With more women than men in the imperial line, Princess Mako is unlikely to be the last family member to make a difficult choice.

But some have begun to wonder whether it will be those outside the imperial line, the commoners who may one day find themselves in love with a member of the imperial line, that may face a more impossible position.

Defeated LDP candidate Mr Kono pondered in August:

"Are there really any women who would choose to join the [next generation of the] imperial family when they see Empress Masako and Crown Princess Kiko [wife of Crown Prince Akishino]?"