TOKYO — At first glance, it’s a classic royal tale: A princess falls in love with a commoner and decides to buck imperial traditions by giving up her royal title to marry her college sweetheart.
Japan is ruled by the longest-running hereditary dynasty in the world. But the royal family, which holds no political power and performs ceremonial duties, lives largely out of the public eye.
Yet this couple’s saga has drawn an unusual amount of palace intrigue and vitriol. By Japan’s standards, the drama rivals the sensational royal exit by Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Mako is set to become only the third female member of the Japanese royal family to abdicate her title to marry a commoner — only male members are allowed to marry outside the family. And facing intense public scrutiny, she is poised to become the first person to forgo nearly $1.35 million in taxpayer money offered in return for giving up the title. She is currently a researcher at the museum of the University of Tokyo.
Komuro landed in Tokyo on Monday to prepare for the wedding, making his first appearance in Japan since he left for law school in New York shortly after the couple’s 2017 engagement.
It turns out his hair has grown a lot since then. And many in Japan, where uniformity in hairstyles is seen as a sign of respect for social norms, are not happy about it.
Photos and videos of him went viral. He inspired TikTok impersonators mocking his look. Millions of people viewed clips of him, criticizing the hairstyle. A local sports outlet on Tuesday carried the headline “Ponytail Returns,” with photos of his new hairdo from various angles and even a drawing of his ponytail.
Great front page in today's Nikkan Sports, with the headline "Kei Komuro comes back with a ponytail". Crime of the century, with the evidence presented from multiple angles. I bet he was wearing dress shoes with no socks as well. pic.twitter.com/njcMxwW4pB— Andrew McKirdy (@Andrew_McKirdy) September 28, 2021
The drama dates to 2017, when Mako, the niece of Japanese Emperor Naruhito, announced her engagement to her longtime boyfriend to broad public support.
But the public quickly soured on him when tabloid newspapers reported on a financial dispute involving Komuro’s mother, who owed her former fiance over 4 million yen ($36,000) in financial support, including the money she spent on Komuro’s education.
The Imperial Household Agency, which handles matters of the imperial family, then announced their marriage would be postponed while he attended law school.
As the financial dispute grew uglier, the public became increasingly skeptical of Komuro. His impending marriage to Mako became a political headache.
Royal families are, by nature, hierarchical and insular. As the dynastic symbols of their country, these families maintain an exclusive line of succession to the throne that has spawned cutthroat internal fights and curiosity worldwide. The impending exit by Mako has pointed to renewed concerns about the dwindling number of imperial family members and questions about whether the current imperial succession and marriage rules may be too strict, Kyodo News reported.
In 2020, Princess Mako announced she would move forward with the marriage and implored the public to support her decision: “We are irreplaceable to each other — someone to rely on during both happy and unhappy times. So a marriage is a necessary choice for us to live while cherishing and protecting our feelings.”
But public criticism intensified, and Komuro issued a 28-page statement seeking to correct the record about his mother’s financial status. It didn’t go over well.
Earlier this year, Komuro graduated from law school and was hired at a law firm. This week, he returned to Japan to marry Mako after a two-week quarantine. Afterward, the couple plans to live in the United States, local media reported.
The public pressure has led the Imperial Household Agency to decide against a traditional engagement ceremony for its member to meet with the emperor and empress before they get married.
Mako will also not accept the taxpayer lump sum that is meant to be a symbol of dignity for a former member of the family. After leaving the dynasty, Mako can’t return even if her marriage ends in a divorce.
As Komuro headed to quarantine at his mother’s house in Yokohama, a city south of Tokyo, the public’s intrigue and criticism went into overdrive, nearly to the point of cyberbullying.
In addition to his hair, many critiqued his body language — for example, keeping his hands in his pockets or ignoring questions from the press.
An online survey conducted Sept. 22 to 28 by AERAdot, run by major news outlet Asahi Shimbun, asked 2,051 respondents whether they would celebrate or congratulate the couple. Just 5 percent said yes, and 91 percent said no.