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He’s supposed to marry a Japanese princess. Just don’t call him her fiancé.
[TOKYO] Ordinarily, Fordham University Law School in New York does not publicise an incoming student who is about to matriculate.
But Kei Komuro is no ordinary student. He is the fiancé of Princess Mako, the eldest grandchild of Japan's Emperor Akihito, head of the world's oldest monarchy.
Or is he?
On Thursday, in response to a request by Japan's Imperial Household Agency, which oversees the ceremonial functions and protocols of the royal family, Fordham removed a phrase from a news release that had trumpeted Mr Komuro, a paralegal in Tokyo, as the "fiancé of Princess Mako of Japan".
As demonstrated by the recent wedding of Prince Harry of Britain and Meghan Markle, a biracial, divorced American, any commoner who marries into a royal family is subjected to intense scrutiny.
The relationship of Mr Komuro and Princess Mako, a 26-year-old doctoral student at International Christian University in Tokyo, where the couple first met as undergraduates, was at first celebrated when the pair came out publicly in May of last year.
But public opinion curdled late last year when several tabloid magazines reported that Mr Komuro's mother had borrowed 4 million yen (S$48,916), from an ex-boyfriend and then failed to repay it.
Shortly after the reports surfaced, the Imperial Household Agency announced that Mr Komuro and the princess, the niece of Crown Prince Naruhito, who will ascend to the throne when his father abdicates next spring, would postpone their wedding, originally scheduled for this fall, to 2020. That has fuelled speculation that the relationship may be on the rocks.
The agency, which closely guards every tradition associated with the royal family, also indefinitely delayed a formal royal engagement ceremony, known as Nosai no Gi, for the princess and Mr Komuro.
So when Fordham, in announcing that Mr Komuro would embark on a master's degree in law on a full scholarship in August, described him as the princess' fiancé, the designation ruffled the Imperial Household Agency.
Mr Komuro "does not have the status of being engaged and therefore is not a fiancé," an agency spokesman told reporters this week in Tokyo.
In a statement, Fordham Law said it had decided to amend the news release after consulting with both the agency and Mr Komuro.
"Out of respect for the long traditions and practices of the Imperial Household Agency, we decided to remove the word ‘fiancé' from the announcement because the betrothal ceremony has not yet been held," it said.
Japanese tabloids speculated that either the Imperial Household Agency had nudged Mr Komuro out of the country or that he had decided to flee to the United States to escape continuous prying by the news media. Commentators on social media were swift to criticise Mr Komuro's motives.
On Twitter, @momimojiko suggested that Mr Komuro had used his connection to Princess Mako to gain admission and a scholarship from Fordham and its prestigious law school.
"He will betray us again and again in the future," @momimojiko wrote. "The engagement should be canceled immediately, like tomorrow."
Another Twitter user, @marimo555555, addressed the princess directly. "Mako, why don't you drop him quickly? Wake up. Rather than waiting for him for three years, it's better to split up from him and ask your mother to introduce you to a good man."
The harsh criticism of Mr Komuro, whose father was a municipal official who died when Mr Komuro was quite young, stems from the strong Japanese cultural sense of the importance of a family line.
"Japanese people still put importance on family when talking about marriage," said Yukiya Chikashige, a reporter for a women's magazine, Josei Jishin, who frequently writes about the royal family. Ms Chikashige said that critics had questioned why Mr Komuro's mother needed to borrow money and whether he would earn enough to support the princess after the marriage.
For now, the couple have not suggested that the marriage is in jeopardy. When the wedding was postponed, the princess issued a statement saying that the couple "came to recognise the lack of time to make sufficient preparations".
If the wedding had gone ahead as originally scheduled, it would have come just months before Emperor Akihito's planned abdication next April. The 84-year-old monarch will be the first Japanese emperor in more than 200 years to leave the throne while still alive.
Ironically, if Princess Mako does marry Mr Komuro, a commoner, the imperial law states that she will have to leave the royal family, becoming a commoner herself.
Mihoko Suzuki, an English professor at the University of Miami who has written about monarchies in Europe, suggested that both the Imperial Household Agency and the Japanese public were being far too tough on the couple.
Comparing them to Prince Harry and Ms Markle, now known as the Duchess of Sussex, Ms Suzuki pointed out that Ms Markle's father had been subjected to relentless and unflattering attention from the British news media.
"But I don't think anyone has suggested or would suggest that she and Prince Harry should not have married," Ms Suzuki said. "By contrast, the negative coverage of Princess Mako's fiancé and his mother seems unfairly aggressive."
She added that the couple had been "victimised by the scandal-mongering tabloid press, and the Imperial Household Agency is reacting to the avalanche of negative press — apparently since last fall — by walking back on the engagement. It really shines a light on the contradiction in Japan between its imperial tradition and democracy."
Before there was the whiff of scandal, the Japanese public seemed to warm to Princess Mako's choice of her college sweetheart, with swoony coverage of the couple describing how they had met and their dating habits.
Some analysts said the couple could help modernise the Japanese royal family and increase Japan's soft power as the country prepares for a deluge of tourists and media coverage for the 2020 Olympic Games.
"To have this next generation — that couple — what a difference they would make to the brand image of Japan," said Nancy Snow, a professor of diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
For now, the couple is consigned to a long wait. Fordham said that Mr Komuro would start on a one-year master's programme but "hopes to continue for two more years" toward a full law degree.
"It is going to be a tough three years for Mr Komuro as well as Princess Mako," said Makoto Watanabe, professor of politics and international relations at Hokkaido Bunkyo University. "His love, her love and their love to each other are challenged in many ways."
In one hint that the princess may be preparing for a long-distance relationship, the Imperial Household Agency's schedule of her trip this week to Brazil showed a stopover on the way home — in New York.