SNA (Tokyo) — I wear two hats. My day job is teaching social security and labor law at a university. I also serve as executive president of a labor union. In this installment of the column, I will discuss my recent musings about welfare and the Imperial household.
I’m sure right now you are thinking WT and maybe F.
No two terms could have less to do with one another. Right?
Japan has the Emperor, but he is no longer the transcendent god incarnate wielding the absolute power of the nation state that he was before the Pacific War. Today, the Constitution of Japan assures us that the Emperor is no more than a symbol with zero political authority.
Article 1. The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.
Two years ago, the Emperor abdicated for the first time in the history of modern Japan. He was succeeded by his eldest son Naruhito, who now sits upon the throne. Naruhito’s empress was born Masako Owada. She was a busy diplomat when she met and married the then Crown Prince. Their marriage was, of course, major news, and joining the household put unimaginable pressure on her.
The current Imperial system prohibits a female empress from ascending the chrysanthemum throne, so the worst she endured was pressure to bear an heir as soon as maternally possible. After long-term infertility treatment and suffering a miscarriage, she finally managed a stable pregnancy. But the imperial family was disappointed by the birth of a baby girl, Aiko. In the social climate of the time, Masako fell into a long spell of maladjustment and depression.
With the advent of the Reiwa Era in May 2019, the newly coronated Empress Masako seemed to beam with joy, as if emerging from a long tunnel.
The protagonist of my story today, as well as of the subject of a media maelstrom over the past few years, is neither the reigning Emperor nor the Empress, but rather the family of Crown Prince Akishino, the emperor’s younger brother. More specifically, it is his eldest daughter and the emperor’s niece, Princess Mako.
She is 28. Three years ago, at age 25, she announced her engagement to commoner Kei Komuro, her former college classmate. At first, the Japanese media lit up in celebration. But then dark clouds moved in as news surfaced of Kei’s mother’s money troubles. Kayo Komuro had received ¥4 million (US$38,400) from a man she had been dating. She claims the money was a gift and that it was spent on daily expenses and her son Kei’s tuition, but the man said it was just a loan. Kayo Komuro refused to repay the money, saying there had never been any discussion of repayment because it was a gift.
Who is telling the truth? Who knows? The media have covered Kayo’s family history of tragedy, including the suicide of Kei’s father and grandfather as well as photos of his bad-boy college antics. There was him flipping the bird at a party; cosplaying arm-in-arm with young women; and generally being a college kid. The public celebratory mood about the upcoming union stopped on a one yen coin, then it transformed into outright hostility and opposition.
The public outcry forced a delay in the nuptials as Kei went off to law school in the United States. He is now in his junior year. Recently, Mako went public, saying her feelings for him have not changed despite the trouble. “Marrying Kei Komuro is the only way for us to go on living true to our hearts.”
If she did not belong to the Imperial household, it would be a matter between only the two of them. But she does belong, like it or not.
Unlike prewar Japan, the Constitution of Japan guarantees freedom of speech, including freedom to criticize the Imperial household and even the Emperor. Yet the media as well as ordinary people have always used the highest level of honorifics to refer to the royal family, using the -sama suffix even for small children such as Prince Hisahito of Akishino. Mako was Mako-sama even when criticized. Even the language used to describe members of this family had set them apart from ordinary folks.
But the current teapot tempest has changed everything. A quick Yahoo! Japan search of Mako results in:
Mako, you are selfish.
Mako, knock it off!
Of course, the main target of the people’s anger is Kei Komuro and his mother. This is not because they are commoners, but rather anger at financial shadiness and an apparently cavalier attitude toward the prestige and honor of the Imperial household. Now, public anger is re-training its ire on Mako for forging ahead with the marriage and thumbing her nose at this powerful public opposition.
Some 85% of Japanese citizens have a favorable view of the eight Empresses regnant from Japanese history (going back to the beginning of Empress Suiko’s reign in 593), while 79% support matrilineal succession, according to an April poll by Kyodo News. Part of what is behind this openness to female reigns lies popular disgust with the recent trouble surrounding Princess Mako’s wedding plans.
This disgust turns many off to the idea of anyone in Crown Prince Akishino’s family taking the throne. Currently, Akishino is the heir apparent, but most Japanese see Princess Aiko as a much more suitable successor. Even some rightwingers have forgotten their former unbending insistence on male-only succession and have suddenly become advocates of allowing female heiresses to succeed the throne.
The current prohibition on female Emperors is stipulated in a law issued in 1889 alongside the new Meiji Constitution, but now the public is beginning to question that rule. I have never seen so many citizens show such devotion to an issue related to Japan’s Imperial system.
What does all this royal intrigue have to do with welfare? The fierce opposition to this marriage comes from a desire for the human beings in the Imperial family to be upstanding characters worthy of our respect. What is heating up in the Japanese portion of the internet is the issue of money. The following comments capture general public sentiment:
-Mako is free to marry whoever she pleases. What irks me is they will be using our tax money. We citizens work every day to pay our taxes despite growing job insecurity due to corona. It is inexcusable that our taxes will be used on someone who doesn’t give a shit about her Imperial family duties; and on someone who doesn’t deserve to be related to the Imperial family, let alone to become the son-in-law of our next Emperor.
-You are choosing a marriage without the people’s blessing, so don’t use our hard-earned tax money or the Imperial family name. Before going off and marrying Kei Komuro, you should give up the entire ¥150 million dowry and become an ordinary married couple. Then, nobody would oppose it.
-Tell us that the right to marry who you choose is guaranteed in the Constitution after you start fulfilling your obligation to pay taxes, as also stipulated in the Constitution. Asserting your rights while failing in your obligations is too selfish.
The dowry referred to above is a special payment to princesses who must leave the Imperial household to marry a commoner. It is stipulated in the Imperial Household Economy Law and technically goes to the princess herself, not the future groom. We taxpayers shoulder the cost of that dowry, which was set up to help maintain the dignity of a member of the Imperial household after she leaves. And there’s the rub for most folks.
The Imperial Household Agency explains the meaning of the dowry as follows: “Those in the imperial household must devote themselves to public activities, making it difficult to train for vocational skills that would enable them to work in the private sector. They own no real estate or other property, so it cannot be considered a lot of money for someone who goes out into society.”
But for ordinary people, a couple in their twenties getting ¥150 million (US$1.4 million) goes well beyond what would be reasonable. Until Mako, no previous princess had ever been subjected to such broad condemnation for leaving the fold for a marriage of choice. They were always immediately congratulated, and nobody called for withholding the dowry.
My area of specialization within Japan’s social security laws is welfare. The current public outcry took me by surprise, as much of the language used to criticize the princess mimics that used to bash welfare recipients, including the trope about “hard-earned tax money.”
Welfare differs from the rest of the social security system in the stigma often attached. It is considered shameful to receive welfare. Recipients must be lazy. In the face of such stigma, many people refrain to apply for welfare even when they cannot make ends meet. Sure, some may receive welfare fraudulently, but that is true for other safety net systems in Japan.
The media blows a small number of welfare fraud cases into a huge crisis, to the point where it seems that all welfare recipients are frauds. Here, too, people bemoan that their “hard-earned tax money” should not be used for lazy welfare recipients.
I was shocked to hear this terminology now being used against the princess, but it also got me to thinking: It is as if heaven and earth have changed places. The rhetoric is escalating so much perhaps because the majority are really suffering. The pandemic is destroying jobs, driving wages down, and yet we all must bear the heavy tax burden. So, when people hear about Princess Mako and Kei Komuro, the first thought that comes to their lips is their own economic suffering.
I have no dog in this fight, but I think it would be outrageous to try to prevent Mako from marrying whom she wants just because she is a royal. I also think it is problematic that Komuro has gone off to the United States but made no public statement of his intentions. The fact that they will receive the dowry differentiates their marriage from ordinary ones. In that sense alone, it is perhaps a public, not private matter. Komuro should tell us how he feels.
On December 10, Imperial Household Agency Grand Steward Yasuhiko Nishimura stated clearly, albeit obliquely, the duties of Princess Mako’s 29-year-old betrothed: “It is extremely important that whomever should take accountability [on this matter] takes accountability.” We all understand to whom he was referring.
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