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Japan's Princess Mako marries a commoner and loses her royal status

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A Japanese princess married a nonroyal, regular guy today in a wedding delayed by controversy. The wedding raises questions about the role of women in the world's oldest continuous monarchy. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Princess Mako is the daughter of the crown prince. The groom, Kei Komuro, returned from the U.S. this fall after getting his law degree from Fordham University Law School. Their wedding has been delayed by a controversy involving a financial dispute between Komuro's mother and her former fiancee. The pair skipped a formal ceremony and just registered the marriage at a government office. They then read prepared statements to the press, hitting back at their critics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAKO KOMURO: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "I felt fearful, pained and sad that incorrect information was taken as truth," she said, "and that these baseless stories spread." By law, women who marry commoners must leave the Japanese royal family. Japan is one of the few remaining monarchies in the world where women can't inherit the throne. Portland State University historian Ken Ruoff says that doesn't look good, especially as the royal household has dwindled to just 17 members.

KEN RUOFF: I think, unfortunately, it says a lot about the stickiness of patriarchy in Japan that the national symbol is still limited to males.

KUHN: Others argue that the former princess's rejection of any public role offended some citizens. Takeshi Hara, a political scientist at the Open University of Japan, says Emperor Emeritus Akihito and his wife, who abdicated in 2019, carved out a niche for themselves as symbolic representatives of the people. They prayed for their peace and happiness and comforted them in times of disaster.

TAKESHI HARA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "They established something like a model of how royal family members should behave," he said. "And it's become a heavy burden for the next generation." Mako's exit from royalty is often compared to the U.K.'s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Ken Ruoff says other royals who are not direct heirs to the throne may be making similar calculations.

RUOFF: When you think about the cost benefits - all that they have to give up, and yet they're never going to sit on the throne - it just doesn't seem worth it.

KUHN: The pair now plan to relocate to New York. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.