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Tabloids in Japan unafraid to question Imperial scandals

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

The domestic press is more deferential to Japan’s Imperial family than the British press is to its royal family. To secure access, Japan’s mainstream media must play by the rules of the Imperial Household Agency, which controls said access and watches the resulting coverage closely.

The weeklies and tabloids have no direct access to the royal family, at least not through the Imperial Household Agency, and so they write whatever they want. For the most part, they don’t go as far as the British tabloid press does in covering their royals, but they’ve been known to report on scandals in the palace. At the moment, they’re fired up about Kei Komuro, the law firm employee who wants to marry Princess Mako, the elder daughter of Prince Akishino, the second son of Emperor Akihito. The couple announced their intentions last September and it was assumed they would be married sometime this year but then, in December, Shukan Josei started reporting that Komuro’s widowed mother owed money to a former boyfriend. The story was picked up by other weeklies and then the major media, the result of which has been a full-blown scandal that now incorporates sideshows about the Komuros’ religious beliefs and the deaths of Kei’s father and grandfather, both allegedly by suicide.

On Feb. 6, the Imperial Household Agency announced that the formal engagement ceremony for Mako and Komuro had been postponed until 2020, raising eyebrows across the board and prompting high-fives in the editorial offices of the weeklies. Then Josei Seven ran a scoop about Komuro going to the United States to gain an American law degree, a process that would entail three years of study. More rumors flew, the gist of which was that the Imperial Household Agency and, more specifically, Mako’s father and grandmother, Empress Michiko, wanted the couple to break up. The weeklies implied that the Imperial Household Agency may have cooked up the study-abroad scheme to separate the couple so that their affections would cool over time. Eventually, the Imperial Household Agency announced that Komuro would attend Fordham University in New York from August. More high-fives and raised eyebrows.

These developments are regularly updated by Hiroyuki Shinoda in his column about the weeklies in Tokyo Shimbun and other publications that toe the Imperial Household Agency line when it comes to royal coverage. When Shinoda wanted to express disgust with the weeklies’ treatment of Komuro he referred to a New York Times article that said the tabloids were persecuting Komuro. The New York Times also talked about the Imperial Household Agency’s demand that Fordham remove from its home page a statement saying Komuro was the fiancee of Princess Mako, since no formal engagement ceremony had taken place. The university apologized and did as it was told.

Shinoda called the Imperial Household Agency’s demand abnormal, and cited Shukan Josei as one of the instigators of Komuro-bashing, since the weekly relied on anonymous negative comments about the marriage sent to the Imperial Household Agency — comments that, according to Shinoda, were prompted by the very magazine that later reported them.

Just as Shinoda was given license to write critically about Komuro’s situation by The New York Times’ coverage, most major media on Aug. 8 repeated the rumors about objections to Komuro from within the palace by simply reviewing weekly magazine coverage. The Asahi Shimbun took their word that news about “financial problems … prompted (Mako’s) parents to take the unusual step of demanding answers from the family of Kei Komuro.” The royal family is said to be worried about public opinion and the rituals that must be carried out prior to a royal wedding, even if, according to law, Mako will be leaving the royal family after the nuptials.

Another media person who has come out publicly against this narrative is Masahiko Motoki, a former editor-in-chief of Shukan Gendai. In the online version of the financial magazine President, Motoki complained about the coverage. Referencing sentimental pop songs, he predicts that in the end “love will win” and the couple will get married despite the fact that “society can be cruel.”

Motoki takes issue with the reporting of the debt scandal. The only “source” of information about the money owed to the former boyfriend is the boyfriend himself, who remains anonymous. Komuro and his mother have declined to speak on the record about it. Explaining that weeklies present both sides of a story even if the sources are nameless, Motoki finds it suspicious that the original revelation was based on one man’s uncorroborated version. Similarly, all subsequent quotes about dissatisfactions within the royal family come from anonymous acquaintances of the principals.

It also appears that Komuro’s intentions to seek a law degree in the United States were prompted by his employer, which offered to pay the attendant fees. In fact, he applied for a slot at Fordham before the Imperial Household Agency’s February announcement about the engagement, which was postponed because of the fuss surrounding the present Emperor’s abdication next year. In Motoki’s version, Komuro is a hard-working young man who wants to build a career and start a family.

Compare the coverage of Mako’s situation to that of Princess Ayako, the daughter of the late Prince Takamado. She recently announced her intention to marry commoner Kei Moriya. There’s no problem with their union because it was arranged by Ayako’s mother, Princess Hisako, but afterward it’s open season.

Hisako also arranged the marriage of Ayako’s older sister to a Shinto priest that the weeklies believe is now on the rocks. Coincidentally, the husband of the Emperor’s daughter, Sayako, who left the royal family when she wed, was recently spotted by a weekly eating at a chain restaurant by himself, sparking rumors that their marriage isn’t going smoothly either. That one was supposedly arranged by Prince Akishino.

Mako and Komuro have been sweethearts since they met in university. No important person introduced them, so in their case even the romance is fair game in the eyes of the media, regardless of affiliation.