When they announced their unofficial engagement four years ago, they were presented as a perfect match: the young princess and the sleek trainee lawyer, for whom she was willing to sacrifice her imperial status.
The sound of wedding bells is now within earshot, after the Imperial Household Agency announced on Friday that Princess Mako, the Emperor’s niece of Japan, will marry her non-royal fiance, Kei Komuro, on the 26th. October.
But rather than bringing the country together to celebrate, their nuptials will take place against a backdrop of scandal, tabloid intrusion and public disapproval of the type usually associated with British royalty.
Japan celebrated when, in May 2017, Mako and Komuro, contemporaries of Tokyo International Christian University, said they planned to get engaged later in the year and get married in November 2018.
But in February 2018, the household agency said the wedding was postponed for two years after Komuro’s mother was involved in a financial dispute over 4million yen (£ 26,700) she received from her former fiance, part of which has been used. pay for his son’s studies.
The revelation has sparked a media frenzy and waves of public stigma that will haunt the couple, both 29, until their wedding day and beyond.
“Weekly magazines and daytime TV shows are talking about it frantically because it helps their sales and audience figures,” said Kaori Hayashi, a professor at the University of Tokyo specializing in media studies and journalism. , adding that the tabloids had declared the season open on Komuro. and his mother. “They are particularly critical of the Komuros as they are not fully protected by the Imperial Household agency.”
Komuro’s attempt to explain the dispute publicly – amid a disagreement over whether the money was a gift or a loan – failed to impress a skeptical audience, while his offer to return the sum to her mother’s former fiancé would not have been successful.
Komuro, who recently returned to Japan with a law degree from Fordham University in New York City, has become easy prey for tabloids and conservative commentators.
In addition to sparking speculation about an impending announcement on the timing of their wedding, his arrival at Narita Airport in Tokyo, where he was greeted by more than 150 reporters, sparked comments on tabloids and social media. on everything from her body language to her choice of hairstyle. , a ponytail that he had grown while in the United States.
Even mainstream newspapers, usually without intervention, have felt compelled to devote space to the scandal that refuses to get out of the couple’s relationship.
After confirming that they were planning to start a new life in the United States, the couple made inevitable comparisons to Harry and Meghan, though Japanese media treatment of Mako and Komuro paled next to the vitriol regularly piled up on the Sussexes by their British counterparts.
The scandal surrounding their relationship means it will be a royal wedding like no other. Mako, who like other princesses who marry commoners will have to leave the imperial family, has said she will forgo a payment of $ 1million (£ 742,000) traditionally given to women who renounce their royal status.
This decision, unprecedented in the post-war period, is seen as an attempt to avoid even more public criticism, since the payment is financed by the taxpayer.
The marriage itself will be stripped of the ritual usually exhibited when a member of the imperial family marries.
The couple will not have a formal engagement ceremony and will forgo a formal reunion with Mako’s uncle, Emperor Naruhito, before the wedding. Instead, they’ll register their marriage at a government office before moving to New York City, where Komuro found a job at a prominent law firm.
But the couple are expected to continue to gain media attention from across the Pacific. Just before his recent visit to Japan, his first return trip in three years, Komuro was reportedly chased through the streets of New York by Japanese journalists.
Komuro and Mako, who can never be a reigning Empress due to Japan’s male succession law, will leave behind a deeply divided Japanese audience. In a poll by the Mainichi newspaper, 38% of those polled supported the marriage, while 35% opposed it and 26% expressed no interest. Aera, a weekly magazine, found that only 5% of those polled wanted to celebrate the wedding, while 91% said they were not in the mood to share the couple’s joy.
“Even the tiniest details – like her hair – have become fodder for daytime television,” said Akinori Takamori, an Imperial Family expert who is a lecturer at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, and suggested that the scrutiny of Komuro’s family by the media amounted to a violation of human rights.
“It is not desirable that the people be divided on this issue when the imperial family should be a symbol of unity for the country.”
Mako’s parents have shown little support. Earlier this month, her mother, Crown Princess Kiko, said she would respect her daughter’s feelings “as much as possible”, adding: “While there were questions I could empathize with, there were also areas where our opinions differed. “
Akishino, who is the first to the throne, said last December that he “approves” of marriage, “if marriage is what they really want.”