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Kei Komuro, the boyfriend of Japanese Princess Mako, at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York before his flight to Japan ahead of the couple’s wedding. Photo: AFP

Japan’s media frenzy over Princess Mako’s fiancé Kei Komuro has shades of Harry and Meghan

  • Lights, cameras, helicopters: the return of Kei Komuro from his law studies in the United States has set off a media circus ahead of his marriage to Princess Mako, who is giving up her royal title to live with him in America
  • As the tabloids, briefly diverted by the groom-to-be’s haircut, peddle innuendo about his family’s finances and claims about a royal crisis, some see uncomfortable parallels with the UK’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
Kei Komuro walked through the sliding doors at Narita Airport in Monday and straight back into the media circus that he has largely managed to avoid in the three years since he relocated to New York. And the shouted questions, the flashes of countless cameras, the press pack tailgating his car from the airport – by helicopter as well as on the streets of Tokyo – is certain to have cemented his conviction that he is right to move back to the United States just as soon as he completes his on-off-on again marriage to Princess Kako.
For as long as he stays in Tokyo, however, Komuro, his mother, her former partner, the princess, her parents Prince and Princess Akishino, and the wider Imperial Family are going to be the target of relentless media coverage.

When Komuro said nothing to the waiting media at Narita Airport, reporters were forced to make the most of what they could see – which resulted in a flurry of words and pictures fixated on his ponytail. Nikkan Sports blared “Kei Komuro comes back with a ponytail” and ran three images of the headline-inducing haircut. Aera quoted a neighbour of his mother, with whom he will be spending the next 14 days in quarantine, as saying he “supported” Komuro as he had always been polite when he was younger, but added: “You have changed your hairstyle – I want you to cut the ponytail off.”

Kei Komuro, the boyfriend of Japan’s Princess Mako, and the offending ponytail. Photo: AFP

The scrutiny began when the couple first announced their engagement in September 2017. It hit fever pitch when it was revealed that Komuro’s mother owed a former boyfriend 4 million yen (US$35,959) allegedly borrowed to cover his university fees, and reached a crescendo when the Imperial Household Agency announced in February 2018 that the wedding was being delayed.

Coverage faded when Komuro moved to New York to complete his law studies at Fordham University, but now 29 years old and with a job at a leading law firm in the city, he has returned to Japan to keep his promise of marriage to the princess, who under Imperial Household Law will formally lose her title and become a commoner when they wed. And now the media frenzy has ramped up once again.

And while the mainstream reporting is typically fairly restrained and bland, in part because the Imperial Household Agency hovers menacingly over any media organisation that wants guaranteed access to official events and pronouncements from the palace, the tabloid media here is not subject to nearly as much pressure to toe the line on royal tales.

The tabloids’ primary motivation is clicks on their websites or purchases of their print editions, so the more lurid the headline, the more eyeballs it is going to attract. And less than 24 hours after Komuro had touched down, the down-market media was living up to its reputation.

Kei Komuro and Japanese Princess Mako in Komuro’s pre-ponytail days. Photo: Kyodo

Bungei Shunju declared the wedding to be “the biggest crisis to strike the Imperial Family in 100 years”; JB Press speculated that it might be a contravention of the constitution; while Sports Web counselled that if the marriage ended in divorce, then there were no provisions in law to permit the princess to return to the Imperial Family and once again receive financial support.

The suggestion is that it would bring national shame on the monarchy and the nation if the former princess was reduced to working to support herself as a divorcee.

An unnamed member of the alumni organisation for Gakushuin Girls’ School, where the princess studied, lamented to Aera that Mako had not reached out to her for advice and accused Komuro of failing to act “with dignity”.

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Speculation is also swirling around the question of money, with the princess indicating that she will turn down the traditional lump-sum payment of 15.2 million yen (US$1.38 million) upon leaving the imperial family and becoming a commoner. Tokyo Sport claimed that there were no legal precedents for the money being refused so it might have to be provided.

The tabloid then claimed, without citing a source, that the former princess was “planning to donate the entire amount to charity.”

To further muddy the waters, it then added that the Komuro family – which has become the target of the tabloids precisely because of a financial dispute – could pressure the princess to accept the money and keep it for themselves.

To add yet another layer of innuendo over the entire affair, the paper also revealed that the former partner of Komuro’s mother – whom she still apparently owes 4 million yen – was recently injured in an industrial accident and may be seeking a cut of the money. Again, no evidence was offered to support the suggestion.


Japan running out of royal heirs

Japan running out of royal heirs

Right to know?

Shiro Saito, a journalist on a Tokyo-based tabloid who has covered numerous imperial family stories, said taxpayers’ money was at stake and the public had a right to know how and where it was being spent.

“The princess may turn that money down, but who is going to pay for their security when they move to the US, even if they are no longer a part of the Imperial Family?” he said. “Japan may have to ask the US government to provide security, but they will also have to pay for it, and that will have to come from Japanese taxpayers.

“I sense that people here are not happy with how this has all happened,” he said. “Komuro needs to return the money that was in dispute and he needs to be more apologetic about the whole saga. The Imperial Family is Japan’s national family and something like this is embarrassing.”

Saito said parallels with the British royal family were attracting attention, referring to how Prince Harry and Meghan Markle left London for Los Angeles after troubling times.

“People are pointing to the similarities of both couples almost being expelled from their royal families and moving to the US,” he said.

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Makoto Watanabe, a professor of media and communications at Hokkaido Bunkyo University in Sapporo, said the Japanese public was fascinated by the financial wrangling being played out in the media – but was also desperate for more details on the princess’ motivation for going ahead with the marriage.

“People have a lot of questions about the money – for example, who paid for Komuro’s law school in New York? Was that the Japanese taxpayer? We don’t know,” he said.

“But this is also the first time that a member of the imperial family has refused to accept the traditional payment after marrying a commoner and then moved abroad. It’s a series of firsts that has got people speculating.

“People are asking whether she really loves him and wants to be with him in the US, or whether it is more that she is fed up with her life here in Tokyo, the restrictions on the monarchy here and everything that they are expected to do.

“So is it all about love? Or more a question of freedom? Or both?” he asked. “People are interested in what the princess would say to those questions, but I doubt we will ever get to ask them.”