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Japan’s Princess Mako is set to relinquish her royal title after her marriage. File photo: AFP

Japan’s Princess Mako’s low-key wedding is unlike lavish royal unions Asia has seen, from Malaysia to Brunei

  • The controversy over her wedding is a far cry from the frenzy over other royal unions, such as Charles and Diana’s and that of Malaysia’s Kelantan sultan to a Russian beauty queen
  • Asia’s continued fascination with royal lives comes from ‘a mixture of nostalgia, nationalism and celebrity worship’, and their mostly apolitical roles, observers say

Japan’s Princess Mako will on Tuesday register her marriage to her university sweetheart Kei Komuro, a 30-year-old commoner, without any of the traditional, festive rites.

The princess, also 30, will then relinquish her title, as is customary for women who marry outside the Imperial Family. She has declined a payment of some US$1.35 million from taxpayers usually given to women who leave the royal family, and is expected to move into a Tokyo condominium after which she will leave for the US to start a new life in New York City with her husband.
In the run-up to the marriage, the Japanese public and tabloid media have weighed in negatively on the union due to a financial controversy involving Komuro’s family. The relentless criticism on social media has led to the princess suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Japan’s Princess Mako is getting married – so where’s the excitement?

It’s a far cry from the fairy tale setting of other royal weddings that have gripped the public imagination across Asia.

In 1981, when then-Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, married Lady Diana Spencer, the media worldwide went into overdrive. In Hong Kong, which was still a colony, the occasion was declared a public holiday and the city celebrated with parties, commemorative stamps and Union Flags.

Thirty years later in April 2011, when Prince William, the son of the late Diana and Charles, the Prince of Wales, married Catherine Middleton in April 2011 it took the world by storm with its immense coverage, similar to the wedding of William’s brother, Harry, to US actress Meghan Markle in 2018.

Even Russia’s first “royal wedding” – featuring a descendant of the Russian imperial throne, held by the Romanov family whose dynasty was toppled by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution toppled the Romanov monarchy – was talked about on social media.

The Grand Duke George Mikhailovich Romanov married his Italian bride Rebecca Virginia Bettarini at Saint Isaac’s cathedral with more than 1,500 guests including Europe’s aristocrats; Liechtenstein’s Prince Rudolph and Princess Tilsm and the former king and queen of Bulgaria.


First ‘royal’ wedding in Russia since the 1917 revolution draws aristocrats from across Europe

First ‘royal’ wedding in Russia since the 1917 revolution draws aristocrats from across Europe

Asia’s royals

In East and Southeast Asia, six countries are still led by monarchs reigning as the heads of state, with limited or ultimate powers.

Japan, with 1,500 years of history and royal lineages, lays claim to the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy, similar to nations such as Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Brunei and Bhutan.

In Cambodia, King Norodom Sihamoni acts as a symbolic figurehead but others are absolute monarchs like Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.


Malaysia’s Agong (king) has the power to appoint high-ranking officer holders like the prime minister and is also the head of Islam in the nation.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, but the institution has faced calls for reforms since the 2016 death of King Vajiralongkorn’s father, King Bhumibol, amid a growing pro-democracy movement.

In Indonesia, the city of Yogyakarta in Central Java is governed as a sultanate by ruler Hamengku Buwono X. While the country is led by political rulers, there are numerous small kingdoms that are increasingly trying to revive their public roles.


Thai king reinstates titles for once-disgraced royal consort

Thai king reinstates titles for once-disgraced royal consort

The influence and power of Asia’s royals continue to make them objects of fascination for regular people. Weddings in particular are closely watched.

In May 2019, King Vajiralongkorn stunned the Thai public when he married the deputy chief of his personal guard just days before his coronation.

With photos of the ceremony featured in global media, Thai television channels broadcast the footage of the ceremony, which included the king pouring sacred water over the new queen’s head, throughout the evening.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan and his wife, Queen Jetsun Pema. File photo: His Majesty’s Secretariat / AFP

An Instagram post by Bhutan’s charismatic King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck announcing the wedding of his half-sister to Queen Jetsun Pema’s younger brother last year in October garnered more than 22,000 likes.

Princess Tunku Tun Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah, the only daughter of the powerful Johor sultan, married Dutchman Dennis Muhammad Abdullah in a lavish wedding in 2017.

The streets of the southern Malaysian state were redecorated with the state flags and the public watched the “sitting-in-state” ceremony held at the royal palace, Istana Besar, on a big screen erected in the main city square of Johor Bahru, its capital.

Sultan Muhammad V and Oksana Voevodina. Photo: Instagram
The following year, Sultan Muhamad V from Kelantan reportedly married Russian former beauty queen Oksana Voevodina in what was named “Wedding of the Year” at the Barvikha Concert Hall in Moscow.

Photos of the event were leaked and it was reported that stage performers, acrobats, magicians and popular singers graced the stage, entertaining a closed group of guests.

The reaction back in Malaysia, however, was less enthusiastic as Sultan Muhammad was still serving as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia.

Russian ex-wife of Malaysian royal posts photo of baby she says is their son

The Agong is also known as the Supreme Head of the Federation, formally elected to a five-year term by and from the nine rulers of Malay states as part of a rotation system with the nine sultanates of Malaysia.

Sultan Muhammad abdicated the throne on January 6, 2019. He divorced Voevodina months later in June amid widespread speculation about why the relationship ended.

In November 2019, Voevodina said she had given birth to a baby, named Ismail Leon, she said was the couple’s son.

Long before the Malaysian royals graced the front pages of local and international newspapers, Brunei’s Princess Majeedah Nuurul Bulqiah celebrated her wedding to Khairul Khalil for two weeks in 2007.

The marriage for the daughter of the Sultan of Brunei was not modest in any way, when the oil-rich country fired cannons to mark the occasion and the couple was driven around in a gold-coloured Roll Royce, as streets were lined with thousands of people waiting to get a glimpse of the princess.

From palace to hotel: how India’s royals are striving to stay relevant

Professor Dennis Altman, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Australia’s La Trobe University, said although many nations had abolished their monarchies, such as China and Russia, around 40 countries in the world still had reigning monarchies.

The fascination with the rulers from the past never dies, added Altman, the author of the book, God Save the Queen: the strange persistence of monarchies.

“Stories about royal families are popular everywhere. I think this is due to a mixture of nostalgia, nationalism and celebrity worship,” he said. “The lives and tragedies of royal families are a constant presence in our lives and many people identify with them.”

Altman said that there were different models of power across Asia, and monarchs in countries such as Brunei and Thailand still possessed considerable political power.

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Of 46 nations that currently have reigning monarchies, most exist in a constitutional system, with the monarch having minimal authority and the halls of power concentrated within an elected government.

Saad Salman, an observer who runs the Royal Watcher website, said the monarchy represented a mystic link to culture and history; in a world where children grow up reading fairy tales, contemporary royal families embody many people’s fantasies.

Salman said although many modern monarchs do not have much actual authority, they were able to provide checks and balances in government.

“Their apolitical role gives them greater admiration than the decisiveness of electoral politics, and thus many people identify with a neutral stance embodied by most monarchs,” he told This Week In Asia.