Japan’s Princess Aiko, who celebrates her 21st birthday on December 1, does not live the ‘fairytale’ life expected of an Emperor’s daughter. The young royal is known as the ‘loneliest Princess’ and faces a heartbreaking decision – to risk national scandal by marrying a commoner or become a chaste shrine maiden.
Princess Aiko is the only child of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. Known imperially as Princess Toshi, the 20-year-old is unable to ascend the throne due to the laws of succession in Japan that prevent inheritance by or through women. Aiko lives alongside her parents at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo — the main residence of the Emperor — and was homeschooled for a substantial portion of her education. The Princess endured a difficult childhood and, when she did study at school, was said to have been bullied. She now lives isolated from anyone her own age, earning her the nickname of the ‘world’s loneliest Princess’.
Now, as an unmarried female royal, the Princess faces restrictive traditions when it comes to finding her suitor, as women are only permitted to marry members of nobility. But, given there are none left in Japan, Aiko is left in an exceedingly difficult position.
The Princess must decide whether to marry a commoner or become a chaste shrine maiden, a role that would see the Princess take various rites of purity and chastity, undergo various forms of physical and mental training and ultimately work in a Shinto shrine.
Marrying a commoner would mean the Princess would be stripped of her royal titles and privileges, a move that has seen recent controversy, as in 2021, when the Emperor’s niece married her college boyfriend and became an ordinary citizen.
Mako Komuro, the eldest daughter of Fumihito, who is first in line to the Chrysanthemum throne, married Kei Komuro. She then lost the title of Princess and caused a scandal in Japan.
Tabloid newspapers published material portraying Kei as a shady character, taking a particularly harsh view of the marriage between the longtime sweethearts. Social media also saw fierce backlash against the wedding, eventually resulting in Mako being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Julian Ryall, the Telegraph’s Japan correspondent, explained how the lead-up to the nuptials was an extraordinarily difficult time for Mako. Speaking to Now to Love in December last year, he said: “Leading up to the wedding, conservatives were saying awful things.
“One said: ‘I hope she gets divorced and has to come back and spend her life as a shrine maiden’. The suggestion is she should be unhappy. She abandoned the family and has to be put back on the correct path.”
As the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world, the House of Yamato’s rigid rules span thousands of years. According to the traditional account, the country was founded by Emperor Jimmu in 660 BC, but he is now understood to be a legendary figure believed to have been a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.
In the centuries that have followed, Japan’s Imperial Family has sought to pass on the genes of their ancestors and maintain the divine link.
Considering the current family comes from a highly-educated and well-travelled line, the harsh rules seem at odds with the modern monarchy. For instance, Emperor Naruhito was educated at Oxford University and his wife Empress Masako is a Harvard alumni and former diplomat.
The rules now leave the family in a precarious position. The 1947 Imperial Household Law dictates no female member of the household can become monarch. Currently, there are just 17 living members of the Imperial Family and only four of them are men.
Next in line to the throne are Crown Prince Fumihito, 56, and his 15-year-old son Prince Hisahito. Emperor Naruhito’s elderly uncle and brother of the former Emperor Akihito who abdicated, 86-year-old Prince Hitachi, is third-in-line to the throne.
There is concern that if something were to happen to one of the royal men, a succession crisis would loom within the long-standing monarchy. However, there is some possibility that the stiff laws might one day change.
The succession laws in the UK changed to allow women equal right to the throne, meaning the Prince and Princess of Wales’ eldest child, regardless of their gender, precedes its siblings. The change was officially made in April 2013, just a few months before the birth of Prince George.
Support for a break from ancient tradition is growing in Japan: polls suggest 84 percent of people back allowing women to become emperors.
Christopher Harding, a senior lecturer in Asian history at Edinburgh University, claims the highly-educated Emperor and Empress could be set to challenge tradition. He told The Guardian in 2021: “You have an emperor and empress who were both educated abroad, speak English, and have a track record of dealing pretty robustly with the Imperial Household Agency – often the ‘bad guy’ in terms of excessive traditionalism in the imperial family.
“Clearly there is great public support for reigning empresses, and maybe at some point, someone in the agency or government will come to regard it as an easy PR win.