On a cool autumn day, in a palace sequestered behind silver birches and surrounded by a large moat, Japan’s Princess Mako began preparing for her long-awaited wedding.
Four lonely years had passed since she announced her engagement to her college sweetheart, Kei Komuro, and in that time the first flush of public jubilation had turned into criticism, bullying and scandal. The couple was separated for three whole years, and the marriage delayed time and again.
But the beautiful young royal never wavered in her devotion to the man she loves, and after many nights of distress and longing, she was finally going to become his wife and relinquish her royal title.
As she arranged her shiny black hair into a simple chignon, her face was set in an expression of determination.
“To me he is irreplaceable,” she would tell the world. “Our marriage is a necessary step for us to be able to protect our hearts in a cherishing way. We, the two of us, will start our new life. I guess there will be different types of difficulties, but we want to live together by working together.”
The “difficulties” she refers to include the savage public reaction to her romance, egged on by the tabloid press, a mouthpiece for the conservatives who guard the reputation of Japan’s monarchy.
Commentators have likened the media storm to the controversy that engulfed Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Mako’s beloved was deemed “unworthy” after the media published details of a financial dispute involving his mother, putting immense pressure on the bride.
That Princess Mako stared down the criticism is a testament to her courage, her loyalty and her love for the young lawyer who stole her heart, says Japan correspondent Julian Ryall.
“She would have come under a huge amount of pressure both from the imperial household and from her parents – her father in particular – who would be keen to avoid any whiff of scandal,” he says.
Imperial House Law decrees that any princess who weds a commoner must give up her title, and since there are no eligible men with royal blood, a married princess must leave royal life behind. Princess Mako has always known this, but she would not have expected the process to be so brutal.
As a princess bride and the Emperor’s niece, she was entitled to certain royal trappings. But she sacrificed them to deny her critics further ammunition.
When she and Kei married on October 26, her bridal outfit was not the silk and gold threaded jūnihitoe that royal brides traditionally wear, but a pale green knee-length dress and matching jacket, paired with white shoes that can only be described as sensible. She left the Akasaka Palace complex alone, bowing politely to her parents. Her younger sister Kako broke protocol by embracing Mako in a hug.
A modest brigade of citizens lined Tokyo’s streets with Japanese flags and posters of Mako’s pretty face, but her car didn’t pass them, and it is probably just as well. Angry red placards carried messages like: Do not pollute the imperial house, and Stop this cursed marriage! It wasn’t a parade. It was a protest.
“Leading up to the wedding, conservatives were saying awful things,” says Julian. “One said ‘I hope she gets divorced and has to come back and spend her life as a shrine maiden’. The suggestion is she should be unhappy. She abandoned the family and has to be put back on the correct path.”
That afternoon, Princess Mako and Kei filed their marriage documents in a staid registry office and then addressed the press in a hotel conference room that had all the romance of a bank lobby. She was reserved, but resolute.
“I want to continue joining forces with Kei, and walking together side by side,” she said. “Our loyalty to each other is thanks to our devotion to one another and the presence of all those who supported us.”
It is possible that behind closed doors another member of the Royal Family may have been cheering Mako on in her dash to freedom. In all likelihood Empress Masako thinks her niece is better out of the imperial compound than in.
Once a commoner herself, The Empress was ruinously attacked for trying to hang onto some of her independence after she married into the family in 1993.
As journalist Ben Hills put it in Princess Masako, Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne, “What she will go through over the long years ahead will make Princess Diana’s ordeal look like a picnic.”
In Japan, a royal marriage is as transformative as the kiss that turns the fairytale frog into a prince. A princess is made into a private citizen with the flick of a pen. A commoner can become an empress. Though this requires rather more than a pen stroke, including a ceremony in which two virgins rub her belly with rice bran to ensure fertility.
When Masako Owada married her beau, the then Crown Prince Naruhito, he was the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and had been having trouble securing a wife. At 33, he was the oldest unmarried prince in the dynasty’s history and because of his tightly controlled life, most likely a doutei (virgin). He had met Masako at a palace reception for Spain’s Infanta Elena, Duchess of Lugo, when he was 26 and instantly fallen in love, but it had taken him seven years to persuade her to marry him.
By then he was suffering from regular nightmares that he would be Japan’s last emperor. When she finally did say yes, Masako’s statement was more one of resignation than excitement.
“If I can be of support to you, I would like to humbly accept,” she said. His reply was similarly cautious. “I will do everything in my power to protect you.”
Observers predicted the union would end in disaster. Masako was a rising star in the foreign ministry, with degrees from Harvard and Oxford and an impressive command of five languages, yet she was giving up her hard-earned success to be locked up in a palace and produce children.
“Her every move will be monitored. Her every word will be scripted. Her only role in life will be to play the part of demure and deferential consort, her only task to produce a son and heir,” wrote Ben, likening her gilded prison to “a luxurious safari park, in which the royal couple is the pampered last breeding pair of an endangered species.”
No sooner had the betrothal been announced than the criticism began. Masako was educated in Russia and the United States, which was a black mark against her. Traditionalists fretted she was not Japanese enough, “not sufficiently deferential and too willing to speak her mind”.
Her mother-in-law, Michiko, The Empress Emerita, was also born a commoner and had suffered a nervous breakdown because of the strain and taunts from envious and catty elites. Masako faced the same fate but there was no escape. Divorce was unthinkable.
The Imperial Family rules over a kingdom of contradictions.
Japan is a powerful G7 nation but at the heart of Tokyo’s glass skyscrapers and neon streets is the seat of the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world. The Chrysanthemum Throne can trace an unbroken line back to the first emperor, Jimmu, who is believed to be descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu.
The institution draws its power from this divine link, but the tradition it clings to also threatens to destroy it.
As of today, there are only 17 living members of the Japanese Imperial Family and only four males. As women cannot ascend to the throne, this puts them in a precarious position. Mako’s father, the Emperor’s brother, is the current heir but it’s likely her 15-year-old brother, Hisahito, will be next to rule.
Other than an elderly uncle, there are no other heirs.
The fear of something happening to one of the precious royals is part of the reason they are so tightly controlled. In the 1990s, the pilloried Masako was frequently likened to Princess Diana, but the oppressive protocols in Japan were and are far more arcane and restrictive than the British.
“Most Japanese look at the Imperial Family as almost a possession of the Japanese people – not free and independent people,” Julian says. “They don’t really do royal like the British family do. They’re really very cloistered.”
The situation is particularly restrictive for the women.
Empress Masako’s daughter, Princess Toshi, 20, is known as the loneliest princess.
She is an only child who lives in the palace compound with nobody her own age and faces a grim choice. If she does wed, she will almost certainly make herself a target for the hateful tabloids, for what suitor could be good enough for the daughter of the Emperor? If she does not marry, she must become a chaste shrine maiden.
“It is an insane tradition,” says Julian. “The majority of the public [around 80 per cent according to a recent survey] would be very happy with an empress, but the country is run by old conservative men. They have no desire to change the status quo.” Women are not even allowed to witness the coronation.
“Every couple of years we have a new commission set up with the task of solving the crisis of a shrinking Imperial Family. The government stacks it with conservatives, so the final answer is always the same.”
To avoid being forced to allow a woman to sit on the throne, politicians have come up with other ways to restock the family with “vintage imperial blood”.
One proposal would allow older members of the family to adopt a son from the descendants of former aristocrats. The Emperor’s uncle, Prince Hitachi, could potentially do this, but he’ll have to move quickly as he is 85 years old.
It’s also been suggested that princesses should be allowed to retain their title and position after they marry, but this is not a popular proposal because any sons would not carry the male Y chromosome inherited from the mythical Jimmu.
This is the medieval construct Princess Mako sought to escape when she refused to be bullied into giving up the man she loves.
“In some ways, she broke the mould,” Julian says.
Mako’s public persona is one of quiet obedience but there have always been hints of her free-spirited personality. Photos of her in her traditional sailor-style school uniform caused a riot on social media and earned her legions of fans who now fawn over her style and beauty. In 2011 she adopted an alias and travelled to areas devastated by the earthquake and tsunami to help the recovery. Later she fought to do her postgraduate studies overseas.
“She clearly wanted to go and do something and live another life,” says Julian. “In many ways, she got a taste for freedom while living this incognito life in the UK. She could go to bars and restaurants and be herself which was something she couldn’t possibly do here. It would have been extremely hard, when she came back, to fit into the role of the princess of Japan again.”
The public’s vocal rejection of her choice of husband wouldn’t have endeared a life of royal service to Mako. She’s always been a dutiful servant of the Emperor, but her love for Kei is deep and sincere.
She’s spoken of their time together at International Christian College, where her attention was captured by his “bright smile that seemed like the sun”. If she’d ever questioned whether she’d marry, falling in love with Kei made it clear to her that what she truly wanted was to have “a warm and comfortable household” and “a family full of smiles”.
For a brief moment, the people of Japan rejoiced for her before the tabloids began digging around.
They had always regarded Kei as having “a slightly dodgy” background. He was raised by a single mother; his father committed suicide. When one journalist aired allegations Kei’s mother was in debt to her former fiancé, the outcry was enough to derail Mako and Kei’s wedding plans.
The scorn was initially directed solely at Kei, but when Mako stood by him, she became an object of derision too. The social media commentary was ferocious.
“They were saying she’s a leech and that she has no right to marry this man,” says Julian. It got so bad Mako was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ve been scared, feeling sadness and pain whenever one-sided rumours turn into groundless stories,” she said.
When princesses leave the Chrysanthemum Kingdom, they are usually sent off with a farewell gift of 14 million yen (about $1.6 million), but Mako turned down the cash. She didn’t want to be seen to be taking public money.
The newlyweds have now left Japan to begin the quiet life they have longed for together in New York. But Mako’s integrity may cause trouble down the line.
Kei recently failed the New York bar exam, much to the delight of the tabloids. He can retake the exam in February but in the meantime, he may not earn as much income as the couple had banked on. Mako still needs a security detail and the question of who will pay for this is a touchy issue in Japan.
She is expected to get a job in a New York gallery and settle into married life. That doesn’t mean she and Kei will be left in peace.
“They’ll still be fair game for a good while yet,” says Julian. “Every time they go out for a meal there will probably be a story in it for the Japanese tabloids.”
Regardless of what lies ahead, Mako is sure life with Kei is her best chance for happiness. Even though nobody in their home country celebrated their union, it was clear from their tender words for each other that they were as happy as they could possibly be.
“I would like to make a warm family life with Mako,” Kei said at the drab press conference after their wedding. “I would like to do everything in my power to support her. During happy times and even those that are not, I would like to stand by her, and be an invaluable part of her existence.
“I love Mako. I live only once, and I want to spend it with someone I love.”