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Princess Mako’s Marriage Highlights Japan’s Outdated Monarchy

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Princess Mako of Japan married commoner and law school graduate Kei Komouro on Oct. 26, a controversial decision that inspired protests and widespread criticism throughout the country. Japan’s monarchy has been plagued with patriarchy and was in much need of someone to challenge such an outdated and unequal system.

Mako’s marriage symbolizes an active resistance to Japanese cultural expectations. The marriage was forged without any rituals, defying Japanese imperial customs on multiple counts — first in that there was no large traditional ceremony, and second in that Mako refused the $1.3 million payment that females receive after losing royal status through marrying a commoner.

Earlier this year, Mako was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing three years of separation from her fiance, financial controversy and intense media scrutiny. A person’s right to marry whomever they want should never be a freedom called into question, and it most certainly should not be condemned or result in subjection to societal ostracization. 

Despite Japan’s criticism having a detrimental impact on Mako’s mental health, her strength and defiance is evident in her decision to continue with her marriage plans. She stated that the marriage “was a necessary choice in order to live while carefully protecting [her and Komouro’s] own hearts.”

Mako is up against centuries of ingrained gender social norms and imperial traditions of one of the oldest monarchies in the world. While Japan’s postwar 1947 constitution guarantees equality of between sexes and equal rights within marriage, the Imperial House of Law, approved the same year, legally exempts this principle when applied to the imperial throne. The legislation unjustly states that only men can succeed the throne and have their children recognized as heirs. Although Japan’s patriarchy always remained present throughout history, the Imperial House of Law set that system into stone within the imperial family. 

As a result of the Imperial House of Law, Japan’s royal family now faces a major issue that further underscores the monarchy’s destined obsolescence; the royal family is decreasing in size because women cannot succeed to the throne and lose their royal status when marrying a commoner. Regardless of whether or not Mako married Komouro or someone of royal blood, Mako was always denied the right to pass down her royalty in the first place. Following Mako’s marriage, the royal family is now composed of eight women and five men, only one of which, Mako’s 15-year-old brother Prince Hisahito, can inherit the throne. The family line will die with Hisahito if he doesn’t produce a male heir. 

Japan needs a new political regime, one that promotes gender equality and lives up to its constitution. In a Kyodo News poll conducted in March and April of this year, 80% of Japanese citizens supported a law reform allowing either reigning empresses or an emperor descending from royal women. Despite the significant public support, Japanese conservatives continue to block the legal reform that would treat imperial women as equals. Blocking the reform does not save the imperial family from becoming obsolete — the only thing it accomplishes is upholding the patriarchy.

In the coming weeks, Mako and Komouro plan to move to the U.S. to start a life separate from Japan and the royal family. Mako’s marriage not only represents her strength to defy royal family traditions for the person she loves but it also puts a spotlight on the long-lived patriarchy within Japan, calling into action a more inclusive reform to their outdated monarchy.

Erika Cao is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at caoea@uci.edu.