In the autumn of 2021, a Japanese princess, Mako-sama, moved to Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. Hell’s Kitchen, if you can believe it, is Mako-sama’s honeymoon destination. She shares an apartment there with her new husband, the uncouth commoner Komuro Kei, whom Mako-sama met while both were undergrads at International Christian University in Tokyo.
At the moment of her marriage, in accordance with postwar Japanese law, Mako-sama’s name was removed from the Imperial Household registry and she, too, became a common citizen. She even lost her exalted title, Mako Naishinnō, Her Imperial Highness Princess Mako of Akishino, and is now referred to in the Japanese press as merely “Mako-san.” Just like that, the princess had demoted herself to Average Jane. And then it was off to America.
Just before they left Japan, “Mako-san” and Mr. Komuro gave a contentious press conference in Tokyo, during which Mako referenced the “defamation” against her over the course of a years-long media circus about her engagement. The Japanese public was deeply hurt and felt betrayed. But no matter. Mr. and Mrs. Komuro were on an airplane speeding toward the Big Apple, to the city where, as one Japanese wag in one of my favorite weekly magazines put it, Eddie Murphy had also made a go of things as an incognito royal back in the ’80s.
A strange place for an aristocrat, Hell’s Kitchen. The kind of place where “God save the Queen” somehow comes out sounding more like, “Hey, eff you.” Therein lies the attraction, I say. Mr. Komuro is in New York working at a law firm and trying to pass the bar. Mako is in New York doing what many other disaffected royals have done before her: start a new life in America. Fergie, Harry and Meghan, Eugenie, Edward VIII in a way, Prince Joel of Ethiopia (son of Emperor Haile Selassie), the Tongan princess (I think) I once met briefly at the University of Hawaiʻi—these and other hereditary aristocrats have sojourned, sometimes permanently, in a land founded in opposition to the crowning of heads.
Think back to high school history class and you’ll see just how odd it is that any royal should be in the United States at all. The bloody to-do over the English monarchy in the 17th century was in the background of the British settlement of the New World. Kicking all thrones to the curb forever was one of the major themes of the revolution our forefathers carried out in the century following. Legend has it that after that revolution some folks, who apparently didn’t get the memo, wanted to make George Washington king. As might be expected, that idea went nowhere. Washington prudently demurred, the legend tells us, and America continued along the path of Lockean-Rousseauan political equality (in the abstract, at least). King George III probably wasn’t a tyrant, as the revolutionaries liked to charge. Read the Declaration of Independence for yourself and tell me if the list of grievances is really on a par with, say, the bad behavior of Kim Jong Un. But the propaganda from the day stuck. America was born with a wooden spoon in its mouth, and a powerful distaste for anything smacking of highborn privilege.
So, what explains the American fascination with royalty? We threatened to tar and feather a member of the House of Hanover if he got any funny ideas about recolonizing us. But then we up and crowned Elvis king. We’ve also had a King of Pop (okay, maybe that’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek compliment), a Queen of Soul, a Duke of Ellington, a Count of Basie, and an artist formerly known as Prince. San Franciscans will remember Emperor Norton, who benevolently ruled over their fine city in the 1800s. Anyone who’s doled out Halloween candy this past decade will know that at least half the costumes are going to be some variety of Disney princess. And then there are the political dynasties, the Bushes and the Clintons, the Kennedys and the Roosevelts, the Adamses and the Daleys. If we really did kick the king habit in 1776, then why do we keep circling back to peer longingly through palace windows at the world we left behind?
I should admit here that I myself am not immune to the lure of pedigree. A few summers ago, I took out a trial membership in an ancestry website to trace my lineage—unexalted, alas—back through the Morgans of Virginia, who served in the war against George III, and then through a minor official at the English court, and then even farther back, twisting and zig-zagging across family tree branches until I got to someone who rode with the Duke of Normandy in the Conquest. But by that point the glory was so diluted that I could hardly claim any of it for my own. I am a typical American mutt. I was relieved to find I am not related to the Morgan of piratical infamy. I’ve got that going for me, at least. But I really was half hoping to discover some blue blood in my veins. As an American, this is almost tantamount to treason. But I can’t help myself. Davy Crockett on the outside, but secretly a Marie Antoinette fanboy at heart. How to reconcile my ’muhrican-ness with my closet admiration for fellers who wear powdered wigs?
Watching and reading the news about Mako in America got me to thinking about this question of royalty and the land of my birth. There are several explanations I’ve hit on for why America has such a weird frenemy relationship with the nobles. Perhaps, for example, we Americans always intuited that there could be no king of so majestic a country as ours. Before Europeans knew of the Grand Canyon or the sequoias of Yosemite, maybe they felt their presence and understood that no puny human, however wrapped in ermine and be-sceptered and be-fripperied, could ever compare with the geographic bounty stretching out across the continent. Huck Finn’s Mississippi is a kind of stately presence, a riverine aristocrat. The bald eagle and the rippling prairie—these, too, are our American grandees, perhaps.
And then there is our Biblical heritage. Our country’s taproot is wrapped around a tome which warns again and again against the narcissism, the futility, of political kingship. Saul and Jeroboam, David and Solomon—all is vanity, at best, when it comes to the guy on the throne. Usually it is much worse. Folly, thy name is “Sire,” the Good Book tells us. In a country in which overpasses are often spray-painted with “JESUS IS LORD,” it is difficult to imagine the populace taking seriously a mortal pretender. “Casting Crowns”—wasn’t that the name of a Christian rock group? “Let’s go, Brandon,” is an indication of the kind of welcome anyone putting on airs is likely to encounter in the USA. Then there is the image of Pilate, the drama repeated every Good Friday at Mass. No, we don’t want any political kings, thank you. We’ve seen how that tends to work out.
It could be that this rejection of hierarchy is just why Mako wanted to escape to New York. The gossip rags in Japan have been awash in speculation that Mako and her sister, Princess Kako, saw themselves as caged birds, trapped in a golden prison and condemned to spend their lives going through the polite motions of functions and events, smiling Mona Lisa-like and gently inclining at the waist when their royal names were read out. White, elbow-length gloves over cupped, clasped hands. Pearl earrings. Cylindrical felt hats. Mako apparently had a bellyful of all of it and has essentially run away from home, getting hitched to someone whom the Japanese press lambasted as a scheming doofus and a worthless lout. Mako wanted to make a clean break with the traditions of her upbringing. If Mr. Komuro turns out to be a dud, then, well, all the better. Sayonara, gilded cage.
To wit. The Japanese papers and pundits went wild with Schadenfreude when Mr. Komuro failed the New York bar exam on his first try. “Ho ho, the schmuck! He’ll be penniless in a foreign country, with an ex-princess in tow!” the talking heads gloated. “Told you so!” But I think Mako would actually relish the additional fall from grace that would come if Mr. Komuro were to fail the bar for the second, and probably last, time. Married to an impoverished nobody—that’s just what an ex-princess would desire. If you want to start from scratch, to drop an old routine and find a new one, then America is still your best bet.
And yet. And yet, there is something about royalty that tugs at us. We can’t just say that Mako joined the gangs of New York and leave it at that. Readers will remember when President Obama turned himself into a carpenter’s square before Mako’s grandfather, the retired Emperor Akihito. Americans gasped—no bowing and scraping! Presidents shake hands, they don’t stand on ceremony with sovereigns. But then how to explain our deference to “experts” and political royalty, the media’s kowtowing and bootlicking in the presence of a Fauci or a Clinton?
How to explain our fascination with Meghan Markle, really? She was an unremarkable actress in a town filled with them, but then she was a princess and we Americans totally went along with it all. We loved Diana, too, Meghan’s doppelganger in Heaven. I teared up when Elton John eulogized the Princess of Wales in a pop song he wrote for an American royal named Marilyn Monroe. So I was kind of partial to Meghan, despite her childish ways. Be honest—you are either on her side, or Prince William’s and Princess Kate’s side. It’s like the Bears and the Packers. You are obligated to choose an allegiance and see it through. We shouldn’t care about the royal squabbles, the snide remarks that aristocrats have always made behind closed doors. But then, Oprah sits down with Meghan, Duchess of Globalism and Comtessa of California. And we are hooked. “Ooh, the nerve of those British snobs, talking down to our princess!”
And then there is Mako’s cousin, Aiko-sama. Aiko-sama is the daughter and only child of the current Japanese emperor, Naruhito. Like Mako, Aiko-sama’s blood is the living testimony to her pedigree. Her great-grandfather, Hirohito, was emperor when the Americans bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her great-great-great grandfather was the Emperor Meiji, the lad sovereign thrust into the midst of an elite power shuffle as the old Tokugawa political order crumbled in the last third of the 19th century. Aiko-sama’s lineage goes back for nearly two thousand years, past the documentary brackish zone where history shades into myth. I don’t have a single royal in my family tree. Aiko-sama has nothing but. I can’t match that. I can’t even pretend to. I won first place in my school’s spelling bee in seventh grade. But, I mean, come on. Aiko-sama is a real, live princess. And she is without a doubt on a different plane than my Joe Sixpack self.
In December, Aiko-sama took part in the modern version of a very old courtly ceremony in Japan, Coming-of-Age Day. The official photograph of her from that day is stunning. Diadem and sash. Diamond necklace worth more than I will earn in my entire lifetime. White dress. The gentle, humble smile of true nobility. One can see why Mako ended up in Hell’s Kitchen. If you want to get rid of polish like this, you will need to go somewhere very, very downmarket and marry someone very, very boorish. And even then, it probably won’t work. I am an American, supposedly immune to the airs of the bluebloods. But dang if Aiko-sama doesn’t look a vision. Her younger cousin, Mako’s brother Prince Hisahito, is the heir apparent. There is debate in Japan about who the next emperor will be. But even if Aiko-sama remains a princess and doesn’t become empress, she will surely marry a royal all the same. She has to. Who else would suffice? Tocquevillian paeans to equality sound kind of tinny when I see a real princess of the blood.
I doubt we will ever have monarchs in America. Not until the ghosts of Liliuokalani and the Four Mohawk Kings see the revival of the Old Ways will Americans throw off their inborn disdain for royals. That seems unlikely for the time being, though. And I suppose that is what brought Mako to our shores, the antithesis of the world into which she had the misfortune, in her eyes, to be born. For all our American casualness and T-shirted beer swilling, though, I also doubt we will ever stop being fascinated by monarchs, by livery and brooches, by candelabras and ridiculously long names. We lost something in the American bargain. We got rid of the king. But we didn’t, couldn’t, get rid of the idea that there is something more to life than equality.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.