Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi
Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi

A Wagamama Bride No More: Mako Heads to New York to Begin Married Life

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There’s an expression in Japanese—kawaisou—and when used for a newly deposed princess, it can sound pretty harsh.

Kawaisou means “pitiable,” and from a Tokyo Imperial Household perspective, walking away from the frills of Japan’s royal family is being billed by the press as unimaginable, an outrage, something that only an ingrate who is recklessly head over heels in love would do.

But Princess Mako has thought out her decision to marry Kei Komura, a graduate of the same prestigious private university she attended, International Christian University, where they met and fell in love after meeting up in an orientation program for students interested in studying abroad.

So, Mako was itching to get out of Japan before she met Kei. The Japanese press has become more paparazzi-like in their tactics, insinuating their cameras and their unasked opinions into every aspect of Japanese Imperial Family life.

And, in truth, the press can’t be blamed for trying to coax out any semblance of normalcy, emotional expression, and personality in a family long famous for perky smiles, blank eyes, practiced hand waves, and a level of modesty to a fault in their bland, buttoned-up dresses and drab, muted pastel suits.

Princess Mako may have lost her royal credentials but in New York City, where she’s heading, there’s the next best thing for her to look forward to—a thriving art scene, and one in which she is well qualified to play a significant part. She will be a sought-after head-turner at Manhattan’s swank exhibition openings related to Japanese culture. The Metropolitan Museum, Japan Society, and the Nippon Club have good reason to reach out to her and put her years of education in art history and arts administration in the UK to good use.

Mako, now that she’s shed her royal status, can start adding new titles, like board member and chairperson of her favorite causes—as many New York socialites do.

With her engaging smile, and svelte figure, shedding the dowdy Imperial Household look, and getting a few wardrobe tips from Vogue’s Anna Wintour, if not a magazine cover story, will go far to help Mako reinvent herself, sending a message to over 30,000 Japanese residents of New York City’s five boroughs, and beyond, that universal proverb rooted in Torah – change your place, change your luck.  New York City, with 36% of its residents foreign-born, is proof of that too.

For the last three years, while Mako’s husband was pursuing a degree at Fordham University School of Law and working on his credentials to practice law in New York State, the princess was hardly staring out the palace window. She worked at The University Art Museum, affiliated with Japan’s prestigious arts school, Tokyo University of the Arts (known as Geidai in Japanese). Geidai occupies a modern building on the fringe of Ueno Park, the tree-forested campus for many of the greatest art museums of Tokyo. The University Art Museum houses 30,000 works from its greatest alumni, who often have gone on to illustrious careers as exhibitors and teachers at the university.

There will be no shortage of art world contacts reaching out to Mako. She is likely to put her arts background to recommend little outstanding Japanese artists—still unknown in the West—and help spotlight them in New York solo and group shows.

She might even consider stopping by the arts administration program at Columbia University Teacher’s College, where there are more than a handful of Japanese alumni, and deliver a talk on a topic of her choice. I, for one, would love to know what is the exact relationship these days between the Japanese mass media and the top museum exhibitions in Tokyo. It’s well-known that exclusive rights to art exhibition promotion sell newspapers and boost television ratings.

If the Japan Society, the leading venue for Japanese exhibitions in New York City since 1971, reaches out to Mako, she will be able to offer exciting suggestions for future exhibitions, and I’d even like to fantasize that any request to use her family connections to loan the family jewels or coronation robes could happen.

There’s an expression in Japanese – wagamama – which means selfish. A wagamama bride of Mako’s stature would be thinking only of her own self-satisfaction and not the vast public good. In New York, Mako will happily be distancing herself from hearing murmurs of wagamama. The Japanese mass media may have picked up on Prince Akashino’s displeasure over his elder daughter’s choice to marry a commoner, but the New York press will be much more interesting in what she makes of her new life far from the birdcage of her Imperial Household family. With Prince Akashino’s brother being Emperor Naruhito, and head of the Shinto religion, the family is most likely irked that Mako didn’t settle for a Shinto priest with vast shrine holdings, and a noble pedigree that stretches back generations. The press could have picked up on the fact that heirs to Shinto dynasties are slim pickings these days when they clucked incessantly about Mako marrying out.

It would be no wonder if Mako threw a pair of running shoes into her suitcase before taking off for New York City to change her luck. I can only hope that she finds her voice, relishes her independence out of the harsh Japanese media spotlight, and that New Yorkers welcome Mako as a cultural ambassador with great promise. New York City will surely be graced and gifted by Mako’s presence.

Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi received her MFA in arts administration from Columbia University before taking off for Tokyo to research blockbuster art exhibitions in Japanese department stores. A resident of Tokyo for thirty years, she recently published her memoir, The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan. 

About the Author
Born in Montreal and raised in New York City, Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi moved to Tokyo to work for The Japan Times after receiving her MFA from Columbia University. She lived in Japan for 30 years, creating an art business, raising a family, and writing extensively about Japan and her growing Jewish identity. In 2017, she moved to Israel with her two children and made aliya soon after. Excerpts and themes from her true life story, The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan, have appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Tablet, The Jewish Forward, Chabad.org, Lubavitch International Magazine, The Japan Times, Kyoto Journal, and Asian Jewish Life Magazine.
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