A wedding is supposed to be a happy—almost deliriously happy—affair. Two people in love pledging to honor and cherish one another until death parts them. It is heady stuff, standing before God and man to make a promise that will profoundly affect the rest of one’s earthly existence. Movies often end with at-the-altar kissing scenes because it is difficult for most of us to think of many moments in life that scale the heights of happiness and possibility quite like weddings do.
Weddings in Japan these days frequently follow the Western model, complete with big frilly white dress, tuxedo for the groom, and a “preacher” (typically a paid actor) who runs through the vows and the ring exchange and so forth in a rented “church” replete with stained-glass windows as backdrop for the photos later on. These are what are known as ren’ai kekkon, or “love marriages,” wherein two crazy-in-love young people make an individual declaration—flanked of course by family and friends—of their loving devotion to one another.
Japanese weddings used to be quite different. The ceremony customarily would be Shintō, with the bride and groom dressed much less ostentatiously than they would be in the West, and the general atmosphere being one of somber circumspection and formalized exchanges rather than exuberant displays of cut-loose bliss. There was also present at many weddings the nakōdo, or go-between, the person who had arranged the wedding, not just between the bride and groom, but between their respective families. A ren’ai kekkon is basically a wedding put together without going through the offices of a go-between.
Love marriages in Japan were an inversion of the old custom, because the nakōdo in many ways had been even more important than the husband and wife. The nakōdo represented society’s interest in a stable home and amity between extended families. When trouble arose in post-nuptial paradise, as it always will, the go-between would be on call to hear each side out and gingerly bring all parties back into one accord. It was an absolutely central element in Japanese life, and one of the unheralded secrets of how Japan once managed to keep divorce rates low despite all the usual reasons for unhappy spouses to go their separate ways. Through the nakōdo, Japanese society as a whole managed its investment in a given marriage, and by extension in marriage as an institution.
Watching the brouhaha surrounding two very different families recently in the public eye, it strikes me that the go-between might be an institution well worth rediscovering. If everyone took as much interest in the long-term happiness of a betrothed couple as the two youngsters did in their own immediate joy, we might dispel the individualist hedonism that is tearing so many modern families to pieces.
One of these is the royal family of Great Britain, in particular, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. The couple’s rather spoiled-seeming antics—and open defiance of the Queen of England, one of the most respected public figures in the world—have made them the unwitting poster children for self-absorbed millennials. The other famous family getting endless media attention these days is that of the Crown Prince of Japan. Like Queen Elizabeth, Prince Fumihito and Princess Kiko are the very picture of decorum and tact. They have three children, Princess Mako (the eldest at 29), Princess Kako (25), and Prince Hisahito (14), who, after his father, is next in line for the Chrysanthemum Throne.
The British royal family has long had its tragedies and follies (and, with Prince Andrew, possible crimes) splashed across the front pages of newspapers worldwide. When Prince Harry—whose mother’s death and father’s dalliances were tabloid fodder during his youth—took up with the Hollywood actress Meghan Markle, many among the Windsors are said to have counseled caution. As it turned out, that hesitancy was warranted. A maverick couple, Meghan and Harry have made grand spectacles of themselves, parading around the world, disrespecting the Queen (and Meghan’s father) while falling prey to pranksters, and seeking out public relations help for their battered image. Surely Harry’s older brother Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, both of whom allegedly urged Harry to take things slow with the starlet, have watched in agonized impotence while their worst fears were realized. Another royal reputation in tatters.
The Japanese Imperial Household, although subject to much the same rumor-mongering in the Japanese press as the British family receives in the tabloids, has largely steered clear of controversy in the postwar period. Until, that is, Princess Mako fell in love with a commoner named Kei Komuro. It quickly came out in the news that the mother of Princess Mako’s love interest appeared to be groaning under a mountain of debt. The bulk of it was money she had received from a former fiancé, and the word in the papers was that the man was demanding repayment. Was young Mr. Komuro angling for some kind of royal inheritance—or to capitalize on the fame he would win by marrying Princess Mako—to help ease his mother’s financial difficulties?
Prince Fumihito and Princess Kiko were not enthusiastic about finding out. In a very royal kind of way, it was made known that when it came to any kind of serious relationship with Mr. Komuro, let alone the question of marriage, Princess Mako’s family did not approve. The wedding between the princess and the young gallant was postponed once, and then postponed again amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Questions swirled in the press—and certainly in the minds of the members of the Imperial Household—about what would become of goodhearted Princess Mako if she were to marry a man with a rather sketchy background and no solid prospects, and from a family infamous for money troubles. The entire engagement hung in limbo as the Imperial Household tried to sort out what to do.
Eventually, however, Prince Fumihito relented. In a statement he declared that he “approved” of the wedding between his daughter and her beau, even though he was well aware that many in the public did not. In his remarks, Prince Fumihito referred to Japan’s constitution, which guarantees that marriage is to be based on “mutual consent.” Consent is, of course, important. No one should be forced to marry. Examples abound of people whose consent is not required for a wedding ceremony, such as women in Uighur villages made to marry Chinese men or child brides sold into slave-marriages in India. In respecting his daughter’s wishes, Prince Fumihito was magnanimously recognizing the autonomy of his eldest child. (There is a note of sadness in all of this, because the law demands that if Princess Mako marries a commoner she must leave the Imperial Household and strike out on her own.)
While consent is a necessary condition of marriage, it is not the only condition of it. Princess Mako and Mr. Komuro obviously consent to marry each other. They have told the world such, and when they look at one another at press conferences they get flustered and go doe-eyed. They’re clearly in love. But what about the wisdom of the Prince? An imperial household may look like a diorama of perfection, but pick up any palace history to read about the intrigue, plotting, and whisper campaigns that virtually define what it means to be an aristocrat, especially one in line for a throne. Prince Fumihito is a man who has lived in this pressure-cooker world his entire life. He has met the dignitaries of the world and has learned how things work. If he has his suspicions about his daughter’s suitor, then his voice ought to count, too.
This may sound cruel. Looking back at my own life, I can say that it sounds like a very good idea. Oh, the headaches and heartbreaks that could have been avoided had I listened to love advice when I was eighteen, or twenty-eight, and knew everything. If the well-being of society counted as much as did the giddiness of youth, then many other such heartbreaks and headaches might also be foregone. Maybe Harry and Meghan could have been kept from mucking up one another’s lives. Maybe the lovely Princess Mako and the iffy Kei Komuro might still be saved from a crushing blow down the line. In both cases, I would have been inclined to let a go-between get to work and suss out whether two kids were made for each other, or made to make one another miserable.
It would be contradictory to claim happiness for a young married couple who have eloped to Gretna Green while their respective mothers and fathers weep and rage. One of the lies of modernity is that we can be happy even while we cause suffering. Experience teaches—has taught me, at least—that this is an impossibility. A go-between who could translate society’s and families’ misgivings into gentle words of dissuasion from impending disaster would be worth whatever price he or she charged for their services.