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Is Princess Mako’s college sweetheart — who officially becomes her husband on Tuesday — worthy of her? It’s no secret that the couple has had difficulty winning the Japanese public’s blessing, and a large part of the country has already formed their own, polarized opinions.

Why is this royal wedding — or at this stage, this simple registration of a marriage to make it official — coming under such criticism? Financial issues surrounding the mother of the groom appear to be the main reason. But the Imperial Household Agency’s media strategy may have made matters worse.

The marriage of Princess Mako and Kei Komuro, 30, now delayed for four years, has from the start been overshadowed by the financial disputes involving Komuro’s family, giving the impression that he is out for money, not for love.

The former fiance of Komuro’s mother claims that she owes him over ¥4 million, which includes money spent on Komuro’s education. The man claims he lent Komuro’s mother the money, while she claims it was a gift.

A survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun showed that 38% of the respondents supported the relationship, while 35% said they were against it.

“I don’t think the Imperial Household Agency had any strategy (on how to respond to criticism of the princess’s boyfriend),” said Yohei Mori, a professor specializing in mass communication at Seijo University in Tokyo.

In the era of social media, where any news spreads quickly, silence is not necessarily golden, he said.

“The Imperial Household Agency’s approach does not fit with the times,” added the former journalist, who has covered topics related to the imperial family and is an author of several books on related topics.

As an example, Mori points to the 24-page statement released by Komuro in April at the reported urging of the Imperial Household Agency. In the statement, he elaborated on the situation and vowed to “correct erroneous information as much as possible,” referring to news reports about the disagreement between his mother and her ex-fiance.

But the statement ended up being counterproductive, Mori said, adding that Komuro could have thanked his mother’s ex-fiance instead, saying that he would never forget what the man had done for him.

“The statement was lengthy and the legal language he used was too complex, so it’s hard to gather what message he was trying to convey,” said Mori, adding that the “excessive commentaries that followed also did a disservice to the couple.”

In fact, attention on the issue has since been amplified. For example, Mori points to a recent TV news show in which the anchors debated Komuro’s financial situation, speculating on his decisions and the mindset behind them.

Similar media coverage on Komuro has spurred a feeling of unease — even causing people to rally against their marriage in the streets.

Princess Mako and her boyfriend Kei Komuro at a news conference in 2017 | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI
Princess Mako and her boyfriend Kei Komuro at a news conference in 2017 | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI

But Princess Mako is not the first royal family member to be the target of excessive media scrutiny: Empress Masako and Empress Emerita Michiko were victims of malicious attacks, as well.

“Everyone knows they aren’t going to be the ones to reign, hence they are more often victims of attacks from society,” said Hideya Kawanishi, an associate professor at Nagoya University who specializes in Japanese history and the imperial family system.

When Empress Masako was crown princess, she was first attacked by tabloids for not bearing a child, and was later criticized for prioritizing overseas trips as part of her official duties instead, Kawanishi explained.

Her first pregnancy was announced in December 1999, but she miscarried. She also withstood unceasing pressure to produce a male heir. The empress gave birth to her only child, Princess Aiko, in December 2001.

Empress Masako, a Harvard University alumna who served as a career diplomat before marrying her husband, Emperor Naruhito, has for years been treated for a stress-induced illness.

Empress Emerita Michiko was for years also a target of tabloid criticism.

In 1993, weekly magazines ran a series of articles with headlines declaring that the natural woods on the grounds of the Imperial Palace had been razed at the empress’s request. In an unprecedented move, she expressed her own sentiments in response.

“I believe that I must lend my ear to criticisms of all sorts as a means of self-reflection,” the Empress said. “I hope you will forgive me if I have not been considerate enough or if my words have hurt anyone in any way…. Our society must not be one that does not allow criticism, but I do not want it to be a society that allows criticisms that are not based on fact and are repeated.”

Under the stress of unprecedented criticism from the media, Empress Emerita Michiko, who was empress at the time, lost her voice and only began to whisper words after several months.

Princess Mako and her boyfriend Kei Komuro at a news conference in 2017 | KYODO
Princess Mako and her boyfriend Kei Komuro at a news conference in 2017 | KYODO

There are parallels to the situation of Princess Mako. In early October, the Imperial Household Agency revealed that she had been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder due to years of what it described as public “slander.”

But Kawanishi points out the difference between past responses and the current cases. Normally, the Imperial Household Agency disputes unjust reports published by weekly magazines or other tabloids on its website. But in the case of Komuro, it remained silent on the premise that it is a private matter concerning him.

The agency only rebuked claims in one report posted Dec. 24, 2020, by weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, which suggested the imperial family had given an ultimatum to the Komuro family based on instructions from Empress Emerita Michiko.

Mori from Seijo University points out that the Imperial Household Agency should have sent a clear message that the royal family did not perceive the financial troubles involving Komuro’s family to be an obstacle to the couple’s marriage.

During a news conference last year, the princess’s father, Crown Prince Akishino, spoke of the couple’s marriage plan. According to Mori, the crown prince sent conflicting messages, which gave many in the country the impression that the boyfriend did not fit into the royal family.

“The father said he approved of the marriage,” said Mori, “But it was unnecessary — and conflicting — for him to say that the two would not hold an official Nosai no Gi betrothal ceremony… I think that was the biggest mistake.”

The Imperial Household Agency currently has no advisory body that could instruct it on how to respond to public distrust, Mori noted.

“The agency most likely hasn’t thought thoroughly about what message to convey” in response to the criticism of the princess’s boyfriend, said Mori. “In the era of social media, the previous strategy of sharing information through selected media outlets is out-of-date.

“The agency needs to come up with a new public relations strategy.”

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