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Engagement under Japanese Law and Imperial House Rules

The following is a guest post by Sayuri Umeda, a foreign law specialist who covers Japan and various other countries in East and Southeast Asia. Sayuri has previously written posts for In Custodia Legis on various topics, including Is the Sound of Children Actually Noise?How to Boost your Medal Count in the Olympics, South Korean-StyleTwo Koreas Separated by Demilitarized ZoneEnglish Translations of Post-World War II South Korean Laws, Laws and Regulations Passed in the Aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and Changes to the Law on Sexual Offenses in Japan.

The Japanese media (and Japanese people) pay a lot of attention to the fate of the relationship of Mr. Kei Komuro and Princess Mako. Their informal decision (naitei) to get engaged was approved by the Emperor and officially announced last year. Then, earlier this year, the Princess announced through the Imperial Household Agency that they had decided to postpone the marriage and ceremonies relating to the marriage until 2020. The media has continued to follow their actions and, recently, reported that Mr. Komuro plans to attend Fordham Law School in New York. When Fordham Law School referred to Mr. Komuro as the “fiancé” of Princess Mako on its website, it was news in Japan. Later it was reported that the Imperial Household Agency had politely requested that Fordham drop the word “fiancé” from its announcement, which it did (the announcement now says that they “plan to marry”. ). The situation was the subject of an in-depth report by the New York Times.

This made me wonder about the legal definitions of “engagement” and “fiancé.” So I decided to  refamiliarize myself with the requirements for an engagement under Japanese law.

Wedding reception of Crown Prince Yoshihito and Princess Kujo Sadako (Kasai, Torajiro, artist, May 1900). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.02536.

As a preliminary matter, I needed to confirm that the general family law applies to Imperial family members. There is a special law for the Imperial House, the Imperial House Law (Act No. 3 of 1947). However, there is no provision regarding the engagement of an imperial family member in the Law. In addition to this law, there was the Imperial House Family Order (Imperial House Order No. 3 of 1910) in the pre-World War II era that had a section on marriage of Imperial House members. However, the Order was abolished when the post-war Constitution became effective. Therefore, it seems that the general law applies to an engagement of an Imperial House member.

Japanese family law is codified in Book IV of the Civil Code. There are sections on marriage and divorce in Book IV, but there is no part about engagement. There is not even a single provision specifically on engagement. So how is an engagement recognized under the law? The answer is that the general rules of contract apply; therefore, an agreement between a man and a woman is required. No written contract is needed. If a dispute regarding the status of an engagement arises, the engagement is usually proven by showing that a ring was provided, that the intention to marry was reported to the parents, and/or by yuino. (What is Engagement?, Daylight Law Firm (In Japanese).) Yuino is a traditional ceremony where the family of the groom-to-be hands over gifts and money to the family of the bride-to-be. A Supreme Court judgment stated that yuino is conducted “to clearly prove the engagement” (and for other purposes). (1963(o) No.1124 (Sept. 4, 1964), Minshu 18-7, 1394 (1964).) Yuino is therefore not legally required for the engagement but the parties can use it as proof.

Therefore, when Princess Mako and Mr. Komuro agreed to get married, the engagement contract could have been legally made. The question remains, why did the Imperial Household Agency have a problem with the word “fiancé”? According to media reports, it is the Agency’s position that a princess has not been officially engaged until nosai-no-gi is done. Until then, it is only an informal decision to get engaged. Nosai-no-gi is the Imperial version of yuino. As seen above, yuino is not a legal requirement for a legally valid engagement, so, nosai-no-gi should not be either. Therefore, legally speaking, what the Agency said must be based on a “house rule” (though it is Imperial).

Thus, it would appear that Princess Mako and Mr. Komuro can be legally engaged without nosai-no-gi. The question is not whether they are legally fiancé and fiancée, but whether the engagement is official or unofficial under the House rule. It is not wrong to say Mr. Komuro is the fiancé of the Princess, assuming they still intend to marry, as long as  the word “official” is not added. However, Fordham decided to remove the word “fiancé” from the announcement “[o]ut of respect for the long traditions and practices of the Imperial Household Agency.” (NY Times, supra.)

The Imperial Household Agency said it “would provide the necessary support” for Princess Mako and Mr. Komuro. Let’s hope the best for this couple!

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