Why Japan’s royal lovers in exile are different from Meghan and Harry

Princess Mako’s love story is crying out for the Hollywood treatment. It’s a wildly romantic fairytale-in-reverse: a princess gives up her spot in the oldest monarchy on earth to marry her university sweetheart and swaps a palace in Japan for a one-bedroom apartment in New York City.

We know tantalisingly little about Mako’s journey from princess to commoner catching the bus with her husband Kei Komuro – paparazzi pictures taken in the summer of 2023 show the couple doing just that – but tell me you wouldn’t watch a film that told that story.

When she held a stilted press conference to announce her marriage and abdication in October 2021 and became the first female quitting the Japanese royal family to turn down a pomp-filled wedding and the customary £1m farewell payment, the international press was quick to dub Mako and Komuro “the Japanese Meghan and Harry”.

As the country’s emperor and empress embark on their long-delayed state visit to the UK, the tale underscores the similar challenges facing the two monarchies.

The Imperial House of Japan and the House of Windsor are starkly different institutions and yet the difficulties they face in the modern world are strangely similar – emphasised by their royal members who captured global attention when they fled their monarchical constraints for a transatlantic life of freedom.

ABUJA, NIGERIA - MAY 11: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex visit Nigeria Unconquered, a charity organisation that works in collaboration with the Invictus Games Foundation, at a reception at Officers??? Mess on May 11, 2024 in Abuja, Nigeria. (Photo by Andrew Esiebo/Getty Images for The Archewell Foundation)
Unlike Meghan and Harry, Mako and Komuro have maintained a low profile since moving to the US (Photo: Andrew Esiebo/Getty Images for The Archewell Foundation)

Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako arrived in the UK on Saturday and attended an event at Japan House in London on Sunday ahead of the official visit Tuesday to Thursday, which will include a state banquet hosted by the King and a carriage parade along the Mall.

It is the first state visit of modern times to take place during an election campaign, and the first Japanese state visit to the UK since 1998, with a 2020 trip cancelled because of the pandemic.

While it seems unlikely that Naruhito and King Charles will swap notes on their errant royal relatives, there are obvious echoes.

Japanese journalists dug into Komuro’s family background just as British reporters investigated Meghan Markle’s relatives. They discovered that Komuro’s mother had allegedly taken a £28,000 loan from a former fiance which she had not repaid (Komuro insisted it was a gift and not a loan, but pledged to pay it back regardless).

For their part, UK journalists learnt that Markle’s father was willing to compromise himself and his daughter in return for cold hard cash.

Markle and Komuro also faced similar – and often ridiculous – press scrutiny. While Markle received criticism for the way she touched her pregnant tummy and wearing a sundress with a split, Komuro was blasted for pulling his hair into a ponytail and donning pinstripe suits.

Like Markle, Mako said that the media onslaught had triggered mental health issues. And of course, both couples chose to build their new lives as ex-royals in America.

But that’s where the similarities end and, for my money, Mako’s story of ditching the trappings of monarchy for love with a commoner is far more romantic than Meghan and Harry’s tale for one key reason: restraint.

After a single press conference in which Mako commented on her decision to get married and therefore leave the Imperial House of Japan – “For me, Kei is irreplaceable – marriage was a necessary choice for us” – we have heard no more. No Oprah Winfrey interview, documentary or autobiography, just a few photographs of the couple looking ordinary and loving in the Big Apple.

Japan’s royal family is fighting for its very survival. Under Japanese law, female family members forfeit their imperial status when they marry commoners – so Mako didn’t really “choose” to leave the fold so much as she was forced to.

With no Japanese princes to marry, this leaves the remaining princesses with few options. Only a male child descended from a male emperor can ascend to the throne and so, considering there are only four male members of Emperor Naruhito’s 17-person family, the future of the dynasty looks far from secure.

Although polls indicate public support for a change in law that would allow a woman to be crowned reigning empress, such legislation is vehemently opposed by powerful conservative politicians. To make matters worse, the family is running out of personnel to perform the obligatory royal duties of ribbon-cutting and exhibition-opening.

The future doesn’t look quite as perilous for the British royals but there are similar ominous clouds on the horizon. Two key players are currently on the road to recovery from serious illness. It was difficult not to notice how sparse the crowd looked on the balcony at Trooping the Colour in June compared to the mob of previous years.

As Japanese royal watchers worry that imperial women who cannot walk freely through the streets of Tokyo, vote or express a political opinion may increasingly – like Mako – opt for life outside the palace gates, so Britain’s royals must fear that Harry’s exodus has set a precedent.

Both countries are grappling with the age-old concern that as times change, the monarchy is at risk of looking anachronistic and out-of-step with the nation it rules.