A week before their wedding, Japan's Princess Mako and her university sweetheart Kei Komuro have finally reunited three years after they last saw each other in person.
Komuro, 30, had been in New York completing his law studies, returning to Japan late last month — with a much discussed ponytail — amid a media frenzy to serve quarantine, ahead of the marriage ceremony on Oct 26.
He is thought to have explained to the princess parents, Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko, the situation regarding an unresolved financial dispute involving his mother.
That controversy led to a delay in his marriage to Princess Mako, which was first announced in Sept 1,2017 and set for the following year.
But after the tabloids went into overdrive reporting on how Komuro's mother owed a former boyfriend 4 million yen (S$47,100) that she allegedly borrowed to cover his university fees, the Imperial Household Agency hastily announced the wedding was being put off indefinitely.
Its plan to avoid any hint of a scandal only served to provoke the local downmarket media to new heights of thinly sourced reports and innuendo.
About 40 members of the press were waiting for Komuro outside his mother's house in Yokohama, 30km from Tokyo, on Monday (Oct 18) morning.
He bowed to the assembled media — who made much of the fact that he no longer had the ponytail that caused such debate when he first arrived back in Japan — before getting in a car and being driven to Akasaka Estate, home to Crown Prince Akishino and his family .
Princess Mako's fiance Kei Komuro arrives in Japan from US for marriage
Prince Akishino is the younger brother of Emperor Naruhito and first in line as heir to the throne. While there were no firm details about Komuro's conversation with the royals, it may well have been strained, given that the talk is that the dispute his mother is involved in has not been completely resolved.
This has also fuelled public unease over the marriage, even though the relationship between the couple has withstood the test of time and distance.
They first met in 2012 as students.
On Saturday, several hundred demonstrators marched through central Tokyo protesting against the upcoming union. Media coverage of the march showed people - most of whom appeared to be middle-aged women — chanting slogans against Komuro and brandishing signs and the Japanese flag.
Another demonstration in Tokyo protesting Princess Mako’s marriage to Kei Komuro— Selina Wang (@selinawangtv) October 16, 2021
They claim he isn’t good enough for the Princess & needs to explain the rumors about his family
For them, the marriage is tarnishing the royal family
Their wedding is Oct 26, after 3 yr delay pic.twitter.com/pz7HFh0GE7
One read, "Do not pollute Imperial Household with the Cursed Marriage."
Another sign said "Stop cursed marriage" and others were even more blunt, such as "No Komuro," with the princess' future husband's name written in red, a cultural taboo in Japanese and considered a warning of death.
More placards warned Komuro would take advantage of the marriage for his own ends or that the marriage would violate the constitution as Article 88 of Japan's supreme law prohibits the use of imperial influence in civil affairs.
It is not clear whether that article might be applicable if the princess is no longer a direct member of the family but her parents and siblings are.
After the marriage, the princess will no longer be considered a member of the royal family, under the terms of Japanese law, and will instead be a commoner.
She will move out of the Akasaka Estate on the same day her marriage is registered and it is expected that the couple will return to the US when their paperwork has been settled.
‘Last rite as a royal’
On Monday, the princess attended what would be her last rite as a member of the imperial family. She went to Kashikodokoro, a shrine dedicated to the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu, and on Tuesday will make a private visit to the Imperial Palace Sanctuaries, which include Kashikodokoro and enshrine the family's ancestors, Kyodo News reported.
She is expected to meet Emperor Naruhito and Empress Michiko on Friday to report on her marriage plans and her grandparents, former Emperor Akihito and former Empress Michiko, on Monday.
Her father, the crown prince, has maintained that traditional wedding ceremonies cannot be held due to public opposition to the marriage.
After registering their marriage on October 26, the couple are expected to hold a press conference for the first time in four years since the controversy broke. Whereas royal weddings tend to be cause for celebration in most countries, comments on news websites in Japan still appear to be mainly negative.
A message on Yahoo! accused the princess of "damaging the trust of the people" by going ahead with the wedding.
And a story on the Daily Sports website attracted the comment, "Even if he has cut his hair, the image of this man is the worst in history. Are you really going to get married without explaining about any suspicions to the public?"
Others are more sympathetic. "I feel very sorry for them," said housewife Ayako Ueda, who lives near Tokyo.
"A wedding is always a stressful occasion and this is just making everything worse for everyone involved. I think most Japanese would say they are two young people who are in love and should be left alone to lead their lives."
The Imperial Household Agency has confirmed that the couple have taken the unprecedented step of turning down the lump sum of 15.2 million yen traditionally provided to a female member of the family who is marrying and becoming a commoner.
However, even that effort to reduce public concern that the pair will be a drag on the nation's finances appears to have backfired, with some media pointing out that there are no legal precedents for such a decision and others suggesting Komuro will not be able to take care of his new bride on the salary of a junior lawyer in New York.
"I agree the media coverage has maybe been a bit too strong, but that reflects what Japanese people are thinking about the marriage," said Emi Izawa, a 20-year-old student from Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo.
"We have seen the princess grow up and I think everyone just wants what is best for her," she added. "I'm not saying that everyone believes all the stories we see in the media, but there is clearly a problem with money in the Komuro family and what happens if we find out about something else bad in the future?"
Izawa said the wedding should be a happy occasion "but with all that has happened I do not think that is possible now."
The last major imperial wedding in Japan was in 1993, when the then-Crown Prince Naruhito married Masako Owada, a commoner.
The couple have since become emperor and empress, although the pressure heaped upon the princess to produce a son and heir caused her to suffer what the palace described as an 'adjustment disorder.'
Princess Mako has also been affected by the pressures of life in the glare of the media and the palace confirmed that she has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the frenzied coverage.
"When I go on social media, I can see video clips or images that mock Komuro and that must be hurtful to the princess," admitted student Izawa.
"I don't think people want to upset her but I do believe it would be best if this was all settled soon and people start to forget about it all and let them start a new life together."
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.