In April of 2003, the wedding celebration of Prince Satohito Arisugawa and his bride Harumi Sakamoto were held. The celebration had all the splendor, pomp, and circumstance one would expect of a royal wedding. The Prince was dressed in a dashing traditional military uniform. The bride, a former announcer, was dolled up in a traditional 12-layer wedding kimono. It was attended by about 350 to 400 guests, many of them Tokyo’s ruling elite and celebrities. It was a wonderful party, except for one small fact: there is no Prince Satohito Arisugawa…
To understand this story, one needs a little background on Japan’s royal family. Japan has the world’s longest dynastic royalty. The current Japanese Emperor can trace his lineage directly to 1,500 years ago, and it has been traditionally believed that the emperor’s line is directly connected to the sun goddess Amaterasu.
After World War II, the Emperor had to renounce his godhood and the Imperial family lost all power in the governments and today are largely figureheads. But despite that, the Imperial family holds a powerful and strong place in the Japanese people’s hearts.
For Americans, who have no royalty, it is difficult to understand Japanese people’s reverence for the Imperial family. They are not celebrities here, in fact, the Imperial family seems to stay out of the spotlight for the most part. They very rarely make public appearances. So when you meet one in person, you might get very excited and have a great story to tell your children and grandchildren.
Furthermore, the Imperial family is rather vast. There are over 18 official princes and princesses. There are only 2 main imperial households or lines, but many subsidiary lines. If you have ever read or seen Game of Thrones, you can understand how confusing and complex royal succession can be. Needless to say, most Japanese people do not have the royal line of heritage memorized, which left space for a temple janitor to come up with a scheme.
Yasuyuki Kitano, a native of Kyoto, was the lonely son of a greengrocer. Seeing that the Imperial family almost never appears in public, but there is great respect and reverence in Japan for them, Kitano must have sensed an opportunity. He visited his local library and started looking up public records of the Imperial line. He found one line that went defunct many years ago, the Arisugawa.
Kitano first scammed a children’s charity. The newly styled “Prince Arisugawa” went to the charity and offered his aid. Certainly thrilled at the aspect of having a member of the royal family help their small charity, they began selling special bottles of mineral water with the “seal” of the Arisugawa family on it. Despite working hard to sell the water and other products with the Royal seal on it, the charity would never see a single yen of it.
During this time, he would meet Harumi Sakamoto, who was not a former announcer but a divorced mother of two. She introduced him to a third conspirator, Shinya Kusunoki who was an executive of a wedding planning agency. The three worked together to plan their crime of the century.
Japanese weddings are big and expensive. The actual wedding ceremony itself is often small and private, but it is very common to have one or more large wedding reception. One invites many families, friends, colleagues, teachers, and much more to these affairs. In Japan, guests pay to attend. This “entry fee” is used mainly to cover a part of the expense of the wedding party, and usually little to none of it goes to the bride and groom themselves. So the trio’s plan was to fleece their guests – invite lots of people and pocket as much of the money as possible.
As mentioned before, there were somewhere around 350 wedding guests making for over 13 million yen received from guests! But Kitano had swung for the fences by sending out over 2,000 invitations. Many people were happy and excited to attend. One guest said this of the event, “For a hick like me to get invited to an imperial wedding was quite something.”
But some guests were perturbed by some things they saw as odd. The food seemed substandard for the circumstance, and the royal couple was charging over 10,000 yen (about $90) for pictures. This seemed very out of character for a member of royalty. So after the wedding ended, some people stand to look into this Prince’s past, and when that happened, the jig was up. The prince was not a prince, and the bride was not even a bride. The couple had never registered their wedding, thus were not even legally married.
The trio was arrested for fraud, not for impersonating royalty, but for taking money from guests under false circumstances. At first, they continued their claims of legitimacy and claimed that they had not registered their union because royalty has no need to register. (Yes, rules and regulations only exist for the peons.) Kitano told police that he was told by a long-lost member of his family that he was indeed a member of the royal household, and as such, he didn’t have to go to the city office and register his wedding. But under some more pressure, they gave in. He admitted he was not a prince, and that he and Sakamoto were not married at all. The three were sentenced to over 2 years in prison.
Furthermore, their “great scam” was also a total failure. They netted a total of 13 million yen, but due to the extravagant costs of the wedding party, and the fact that few seemed to be interested in paying so much money for pictures, the three only made off with an estimated 700,000 yen (about $7,000). Split evenly between three people, that’s a mere 200,000 yen each (about the same as an entry level job’s monthly salary).
I think what this case shows is that there is a real thirst for connection between the Royal family and the Japanese people. I think Japanese people want to feel that the Imperial family are there, a part of society, and invested. Perhaps, in his own totally self-serving way, Kitano was trying to provide that sense of belonging and closeness with the symbols of Japan.