Global media coverage of the so-called “royal wedding” of Japanese Princess Mako is lagging behind. Mako’s spartan civil ceremony, bare of pomp and circumstance, marks a turn in a reverse story from Princess Mako to commoner Mrs. Mako Komuro. She took her husband’s family name and stature. Rather than give birth to the Japanese imperial family, she lost her daughter. Thus, the creation of Mrs. Mako Komuro is the opposite of a royal wedding, in which the royal marriage was killed. Or, to be more precise, the law governing Mako’s marriage killed the royal woman.
Mako’s spartan civil ceremony, bare of pomp and circumstance, marks a turn in a reverse story from Princess Mako to commoner Mrs. Mako Komuro.
Mako’s fate was determined long before her birth, but not by immortal Japanese customs. In fact, it was the legal reforms that began under the US military occupation after World War II that closed the door to Mako and other imperial women’s claims to life property.
Japan’s post-war constitution guarantees Gender equality and equal rights for husband and wife. But explicit constitutional guarantees of gender equality and within marriage do not apply to the Japanese imperial family, which is governed by a unique set of laws. Imperial Family Law, in force since 1947, decides that the daughters of the Empire, like Mako, are not qualified to take the throne. It also states that on marriage to husbands outside the imperial family, daughters, mothers, and widows are demoted to that of their husbands.
Meanwhile, marriage within the imperial family is impossible, as it entails marrying a brother or an uncle. However, the tiny group of marryable men of royal standing is a direct result of generations of separation from the family tree as the mako branches and all the descendants of the imperial daughters.
To make matters worse the imperial family’s problem, with the former princess marrying her longtime lover Kei Komuro, Japan’s royal family has shrunk to an unprecedented level. On the morning of Mako’s wedding, the Japanese imperial family had 18 members. That evening, the number was 17. If Princess Kaku, Mako’s younger sister, chooses to marry, it will be number 16. That’s assuming no older relatives, such as 85-year-old Prince Hitachi, have died, draining ranks further.
Although the imperial family was rich in women, it was almost bereft of men of childbearing age. This family is so small and its rules of membership so strict that if Mako and Kaku’s younger brother, 15-year-old Hisahito, fails to produce a male heir, the Japanese royal dynasty will die with him.
Hypothetically, Kaku could remain unmarried and a princess. She could even scandalize her country by choosing to single motherhood. An unmarried royal mother would give birth to children without a legitimate father, and thus, there was no legal family other than the imperial house. Even in this unlikely situation, Princess Mother Kaku was unable to produce heirs to what would one day be her brother’s throne. Imperial family law recognizes only male heirs of male lineage. Women born into the imperial family are legally unable to give birth to them.
Hypothetically, Kaku could remain unmarried and a princess. She could even scandalize her country by choosing to single motherhood.
Imperial family law is determined by the Japanese government, not by the imperial family itself. In other words, the man sitting on the throne cannot choose his heir. Emperor Naruhito might prefer to pass on his title and duties to his daughter, the 19-year-old Princess Aiko, or even to a son he might one day bear, or for his wife, rather than Hisahito, his nephew. But his preference makes no difference. It was possible, in past centuries, when the imperial succession was more fluid. She followed her husband’s wife to sit on the throne of Japan, mother handed the throne to her daughter and so forth. But modern law forbids women from the succession.
Japan’s Imperial Family Law dates back to 1947 – the same year Japan adopted a constitution that prohibited sex discrimination and promised equality in marriage. Just two years after defeat in World War II, Japan was undergoing sweeping democratic reforms under American occupation. Oddly enough, the American occupiers did not insist that the Imperial Family Code conform to the constitution they helped enforce. This exception in favor of patriarchy may lead to the elimination of An imperial institution that the American occupiers set out to preserve.
Most Japanese support a more comprehensive view of the imperial house. About 80% support placing a woman on the throne. Nearly many support to keep the grandchildren of the princesses in the line of succession. But defenders of the status quo position the current law of succession as an inviolable “Japanese tradition.” This, despite the fact that the all-male imperial lineage is clearly a recent phenomenon with American fingerprints all over it.
In the absence of American cooperation, the distinction that forms the core of Imperial Family Law would not have appeared in the books. The American occupiers, mostly men in uniform, traded gender inequality in the Japanese Imperial House for cooperation from the governors in other matters. The Japanese Imperial Line, touted as the world’s oldest, is fading under the mitigating effects of everyday sexism – everyday sexism as a form of global currency.
Anyone wishing for a banzai, that is, a long life and many generations, for the royal family of Japan must wish for a new political system. For decades, Japan’s ruling conservatives have blocked legal reform that would breathe new life into the imperial family and longevity by treating its female members as equals. Japanese conservatives hold eclectic historical amnesia and rifle-like paternalistic bias to the head of the imperial family. There is no upside to obstructing reform, except to preserve the most prominent symbol of patriarchy in Japan – even at the cost of the collapse of that patriarchy.
But many Japanese who support the imperial family with their tax dollars and hearts have already come forward, embracing a return to the ancient and future days when women could take the throne and hand it over to their children. And if letting the taxpayers decide the future is a very radical proposition for the conservative Japanese government, it might instead allow the imperial family to decide, as other Japanese families do, who will take over the family business when senior members retire or die. Such a change may be coming for a long time. But time is running out.
In the end, Ms. Mako Komuro may be better off than the general public. Having gone from princess to citizen and wife, Mako has more rights and freedoms than before. It is less under the control of the conservative, male-dominated, older government of Japan.
We can only wish her and Mr. Komuro mazel tov and banzai. Welcome to New York.