The story of Japan’s Princess Ayako and her husband is one straight out of a fairytale. Like any good fairytale, however, it involves high stakes and a painful sacrifice. The princess opted to marry the man she loved, but as a member of the oldest unbroken monarchy in the world, that wasn’t easy. And her decision drew comment from all over the world.
Princess Ayako is a member of the Japanese imperial family, the youngest daughter of Norihito, Prince Takamado and Hisako, Princess Takamado. She was born into wealth and prestige, attending the finest schools and traveling the world. However, life as a royal comes with rules and regulations.
And the Japanese imperial family is governed by some fairly strict rules. One such rule is that a princess cannot ascend to the throne – only a prince can. This stipulation means that the Japanese crown is likely to pass one day to 12-year-old Prince Hisahito. If, however, the young prince does not have a son of his own, then the family will some day in the future face a crisis of lineage.
This stands in contrast to Britain, which houses perhaps the world’s most famous royal family. For a long time, male heirs were vastly preferred within the British royal family. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II was the eldest child of her family, but if she had had a younger brother, he, as a male, would have automatically been ahead of her in line to the crown. However, the rules have since been change.
In 2011 – the same year Prince William and Kate Middleton were married – the governments of the Commonwealth nations agreed to change the law of primogeniture. This meant that whatever the gender of William and Kate’s first child, he or she would be placed in line to the throne. As it turned out, their firstborn was a boy, but had he been female it would have made no difference.
Britain was actually behind when it came to adopting absolute primogeniture. Sweden has had the rule since 1980, and the Netherlands since 1983. Indeed, many other countries today abide by an absolute primogeniture, but could Japan ever follow suit? It’s all up to the country’s politicians, but so far a rule change looks unlikely.
Yet laws related to Japanese royalty have been changed in the past. In fact, in 2017 the Japanese Government passed a bill which will allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate from the throne. He now plans to do so in 2019 – in what will be the first abdication in over 200 years. This, on its own terms, has had the country talking, but the bill has also ignited debate in Japan as to whether the law preventing female ascension should also be amended.
And in the year following this, there came more significant royal news. Princess Ayako had become engaged. But not to a fellow royal – instead, she was marrying a commoner called Kei Moriya. A shipping company worker, Moriya had been introduced to Ayako by her mother, Princess Takamado.
If Princess Ayako was to marry this man, however, she would have to submit to another royal rule. When princesses of Japan marry commoners, they are forced to give up their royal title and status. This has been the case since 1947, yet princes may marry whomever they choose without giving anything up.
But despite the fact she would have to relinquish her title, there was no question in the mind of Princess Ayako. At the Meiji Shrine on October 29, 2018, she married Kei Moriya. And even though she was no longer a royal, crowds of fans turned up to catch a glimpse of her.
For her wedding, Ayako wore a yellow kimono embellished in flowers and leaves, and also carried a traditional Japanese fan. Her groom wore a more westernized outfit – pin-striped trousers, a morning coat and a hat. The hat was actually handed down to him through Ayako’s sadly deceased father, who died in 2002.
Ayako and Moriya spoke to the press after the ceremony. “I’m filled with joy to marry and to have so many people visit us at the Meiji Shrine and congratulate us,” the bride told media officials. “I am very happy that we held the wedding at this Meiji Shrine, where my great grandfather Meiji Emperor is worshipped. I feel so happy.”
Moriya said that his new wife looked “beautiful” and talked about their plans for the future. “I would like to support her firmly and, hand in hand, build a happy family with lots of laughter,” he said. And although Ayako is not a royal anymore, she has plenty of money to build that family with. Upon renouncing her title, she received a healthy sum to aid in her future.
“I am awed by how blessed I am,” Ayako told the press. “I will leave the imperial family today, but I will remain unchanged in my support for his majesty and her majesty.” And unusually for someone who has left the royal family, Ayako will remain in her post as the honorary president of two organizations, the Canada-Japan Society and the Japan Sea Cadet Federation.
Ayako isn’t the first princess to choose marriage over her title. Her sister, Princess Noriko, did the same in 2014 when she wed Kunimaro Senge. She too wore a yellow kimono with flower printing for her wedding – Ayako, it would seem, chose to emulate her.
Plans for a third Japanese princess’ wedding are also on the horizon. Princess Mako, the oldest grandchild of Emperor Akihito, announced in September 2017 that she was engaged to Kei Komuro, a paralegal she met at university. The marriage was set for 2018, but earlier in the year it was suddenly delayed.
In August, the couple said in a statement that they needed time to “think about marriage more deeply” and to prepare. “We have come to realize the lack of time to make sufficient preparations for various events leading up to our marriage this autumn and our life afterward,” Mako said. “We believe that we have rushed various things too much.”
But attitudes have since turned against Komuro, after it transpired that his mother was in dire financial straits. And when his law school called him the “fiancé of Princess Mako of Japan,” the imperial family’s spokespeople got involved. Komuro “does not have the status of being engaged and therefore is not a fiancé,” one of them told reporters.
It remains to be seen if the wedding will go ahead, though there are indications that the groom is not popular. “The negative coverage of Princess Mako’s fiancé and his mother seems unfairly aggressive,” English professor Mihoko Suzuki told The New York Times. She added that she thought the couple had been “victimized by the scandal-mongering tabloid press.”
But no matter what happens, there are big changes coming for the Japanese royal family. Emperor Akihito will officially abdicate in April 2019, making way for his son. And after that, there may be more discussion as to the role of women in Japanese royal tradition. Potentially, there could even be a change in the marriage laws. For the meantime, however, Ayako seems very happy indeed to have married for love.