Under crisp blue skies, about 1,000 well-wishers turned out at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo Monday to catch a glimpse of Japan’s Princess Ayako and her groom Kei Moriya on their wedding day.
As the smiling couple entered the shrine, the crowd shouted their congratulations with the Japanese word “Banzai” — meaning an auspicious wish for long life. Close family members and friends welcomed the bride and groom as they made their way to the ceremony hall.
Princess Ayako was dressed in a light yellow-colored uchiki kimono embroidered with pink flowers and green leaves and a deep purple hakama — wide-legged pleated trousers that fall to the ankles. She also carried a fan made of Japanese cypress, called a hiougi. Moriya wore a western-style black morning coat, gray pin-striped trousers and a silk hat that belonged to Ayako’s late father, Prince Takamodo.
Ayako’s kimono is similar in style and design to that worn by her sister Princess Noriko when she married Kunimaro Senge in 2014.
The 28-year-old Princess Ayako is the youngest child of Princess Hisako and the late Prince Takamodo, cousin of Emperor Akihito. According to Japan’s imperial law, female members of the royal family forfeit their titles, status and allowance if they choose to marry someone who does not have royal or aristocratic family ties. The same rule does not apply to male members of the royal family.
On marrying 32-year-old Moriya — an employee of shipping company Nippon Yusen KK — the princess will renounce her royal status and take a lump sum of $950,000 (Ksh96.7 million) from the Japanese government for living expenses.
Before the ceremony began, Ayako changed her kimono into a more formal Shinto-style robe. She wore a red kouchiki, a “small cloak” with long, wide sleeves, and a long divided brown skirt called a naga-bakama.
The ceremony itself was a private affair, attended only by close family members. Inside, the couple would have performed several rituals that mark a Shinto-style wedding, including exchanging nuptial sake cups and presenting a sacred Tamagushi branch as an offering. The newlyweds would have also exchanged marriage vows and rings.
After final prayers, the couple emerged from the shrine as husband and wife. Moriya said he thought his new wife looked “beautiful,” as they took questions from reporters. “I would like to support her firmly and, hand in hand, build a happy family with lots of laughter,” he said.
“I am awed by how blessed I am,” Ayako said. From a young age, Ayako said she was taught that being born into the imperial family meant her duty was to support the emperor and empress. “I will leave the imperial family today, but I will remain unchanged in my support for his majesty and her majesty,” she said.
The shrine where the ceremony took place is of huge symbolic importance. Opened in 1920, the Meiji Shrine is dedicated to the deified souls of Ayako’s great-great grandfather Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken.
“I am very happy that we held the wedding at this Meiji Shrine where my great grandfather Meiji Emperor is worshiped,” Ayako said. “I feel so happy.”
Ayoko’s marriage and resignation from royal duties comes at a trying time for the world’s oldest monarchy. The country’s much-loved Emperor Akihitio announced that he will abdicate on April 30, 2019, passing the Chrysanthemum Throne to his son Crown Prince Naruhito. Imperial law states that the throne must be passed to male heirs, and as Naruhito has only one son, the 12-year-old Prince Hisahito could be left with the sole responsibility of carrying on the royal line.
Akihitio’s abdication and the forthcoming marriage of his granddaughter Princess Mako reignited debate about the role women play in Japan’s monarchy and whether imperial law should change to allow women to inherit the throne.
“It is a sensible option and necessary in terms of managing risk but the elite conservatives that govern have resisted strongly despite robust public support for female succession,” said Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan and author of upcoming book Japan.
Unlike in the United Kingdom, where Queen Elizabeth approved changes to the royal line of succession and gave equal rights to sons and daughters of British monarchs to inherit the throne, officials in Japan have ruled out a similar move.
An abdication law that allows Akihitio to resign was passed without a proposed resolution that potentially questions whether women who marry outside the family have to rescind their royal rights.
“Apparently they take no inspiration from Queen Elizabeth … and instead take refuge behind fatuous patriarchal justifications for not doing so,” Kingston said. “The law will change only if it absolutely must.”