When Kei Komuro, the boyfriend of Princess Mako, was accosted by a Japanese TV crew on the streets of New York last week, a resulting headline made a show of the fact that he was sporting a ponytail.

“Kei Komuro spotted in New York, his long hair tied back,” a Fuji News Network (FNN) article read.

It was the first time in a while that the embattled aspiring lawyer had been caught on camera.

With one hand in his pocket and earphones on, Komuro was filmed striding past a reporter who kept bombarding him with questions, ignoring her all the way. His overall demeanor struck many in Japan as different from the smiling, affable boyfriend of Princess Mako that they remembered from 2017, when he happily announced his intention to marry her.

But it was his new hairstyle that proved to be the biggest source of controversy.

The FNN footage sparked a media frenzy zeroing in on his ponytail: Talk shows spent a significant portion of time critiquing it, and article after article was centered around speculation and commentary about why his previously neat and tidy hair had grown so long, whether it’s acceptable for a man about to marry a member of the imperial family and what it says about Komuro’s current state of mind. Social media was abuzz, too.

And so it was little wonder that when he finally flew back to Japan on Monday after over three years in New York, leading tabloids ran giant headlines poking fun at his hairstyle.

Nikkan Sports, for one, dubbed his return “Ponite kikoku" (“Ponytail arrival”) on its front page, while other tabloids mocked his hairdo as chonmage — a traditional topknot haircut worn by samurai — and ronge, Japanese slang for long hair, in their headlines.

Kei Komuro, boyfriend of Princess Mako, arrives at Narita Airport on Monday. | KYODO
Kei Komuro, boyfriend of Princess Mako, arrives at Narita Airport on Monday. | KYODO

The brouhaha also fed into brewing frustration among the Japanese public with the 29-year-old, who has already faced disapproval due to revelations that his mother was enmeshed in a financial dispute with her former fiance. The money trouble has delayed Komuro’s marriage with the princess by nearly four years.

For Kasumi Abe, a New York-based freelance journalist, the Japanese media’s dissection of Komuro’s hairstyle struck her as odd, and almost antithetical to New York’s embrace of diverse ethnicities and appearances, including physiques and haircuts.

“Here, I don’t think I come across many headlines making fun of someone’s appearance,” Abe said.

The journalist said she believes that at the root of the uproar in Japan is the view that “someone in a position to marry Princess Mako should be refined enough to have his hair cut short, as a Japanese.”

Such thinking, she said, may be no surprise given how many Japanese people grew up being told during their formative years that unorthodox hairstyles were to be avoided, with codes of conduct at middle and high schools often dictating the permissible length, color and style of students’ hair.

These draconian school rules, known as kōsoku, have been in place for decades and still are in many schools, sometimes even leading to students being forced to dye their naturally brown hair black in order to conform.

So when Komuro came out with the ponytail, the media “pounced on it and added fuel to the public anger,” Abe said.

Michihiro Okumura, a professor of media studies at Tokyo City University and a former editor at Yahoo Japan, said the media fixation on Komuro’s ponytail appears to have been partly driven by a desire to boost ratings and sales, based on the assumption that there is a public appetite for criticism of his unconventional hairstyle.

“But going after profits by ridiculing someone’s appearance is neither journalism nor a form of entertainment," he said. "To me, it looked like the media was simply getting a kick out of it — that’s tantamount to bullying, I think.”

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