With less than five months until the start of the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the event continues to be plagued with problems. On top of the safety concerns surrounding the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, the Games have been thrown into disarray by the sexist remarks made by the 83-year-old Olympics Organizing Committee Chief and ex-prime minister Mori Yoshiro.
At a Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) meeting on February 3 Mori’s comments that “a board meeting including many women would take time” stunned both Japan and the world. The comments were in response to JOC’s policy of increasing the ratio of female directors to 40 percent, after which Mori explained that increasing the number of women would require regulating their speaking time.
The following day he retracted his remarks and apologized, saying that his “inappropriate comments were contrary to the spirit of the Olympics and Paralympics” but stopped short of resigning. Mori stated that he had considered stepping down but was dissuaded by Olympic Organizing Committee Secretary General Muto Toshiro, explaining that with less than half a year to go “the most important thing is how to make the Tokyo Olympics successful.”
Mori’s hollow apology brought to light not only the male-dominated “boys club” of Japanese politics but also the patriarchal attitudes of senior officials. Mori has a habit of making gaffes and despite the latest political controversy there were no serious calls from the Japanese government for him to step down. Although Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide stated that Mori’s comments were “not good for the national interest,” he referred to the IOC statement, which declared the issue closed.
But the backlash continued to grow. After Mori’s remarks the Olympic Organizing Committee received 4,550 phone enquiries about the incident. A formal apology was sent to all Olympic torchbearers, one of whom withdrew from their torchbearer position. Last week female members of the opposition party wore white clothing to symbolize the women’s suffrage movement in the United States and protest against Mori’s remarks.
International NGO Human Rights Watch handed Mori a “gold medal” in female discrimination.
Meanwhile, Toyota Motors, which is a major sponsor of the Games, also commented that Mori’s remarks “were deeply regrettable and differed from the values that Toyota cherishes.” An online petition demanding Mori’s resignation had almost collected its goal of 150,000 signatures but it was an opinion piece titled “Chairman Mori Must Quit” published on February 11 by major sponsor NBC that pressured Mori into voluntarily resigning.
In response to Mori’s resignation IOC President Thomas Bach made a statement saying “we fully respect Mr Mori’s decision to resign and understand the reasons why. The IOC will continue to work with Mori’s successor to realize a safe and secure Tokyo Olympic Games.” IOC officials stressed the importance of ensuring transparency.
Japan’s hierarchical and patriarchal leadership culture makes it difficult to give commands to senior officials such as Mori, who as a former prime minister has led the country’s political world. Mori has been retired from politics for almost 10 years but he still retains influence within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the sports world. Prior to joining the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee in 2014, Mori served as chairperson of the Japan Rugby Association, which allowed him to leverage business connections in planning and coordinating sponsorship for the Tokyo Olympic Games bid. That may be one of the reasons why senior officials have been reluctant to see him resign. His influence in the sports world is also credited for securing Japan’s bid for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Last week Mori nominated a fellow senior official, 84-year-old Kawabuchi Saburo, former chairman of the Japan Football Association to replace him. Kawabuchi announced his intention to accept the invitation but eventually declined the post after public outrage that he would ask Mori to stay on as a consultant. Kawabuchi stated that he acted against the advice of his family to consider the position, stating that he felt compelled after hearing Mori had been feeling “depressed” and “had shed tears“ over the public backlash.
Mori remaining behind the scenes to “save” the Tokyo Olympics and ensure corporate sponsors stay on reflects how issues like sexism are dismissed by the ruling elite.
But perhaps even more alarming is Mori’s aspiration to resume his position and ride out the controversy, which draws attention to his inability to read the situation and pick up on the seriousness of his remarks.
Gender disparity and sexism is a serious problem in Japan and attitudes like Mori’s are all too common. Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo pledged to raise the ratio of female managers at Japanese companies to 30 percent by 2020 but it currently stands at a mere 12 percent. Meanwhile, at the elite University of Tokyo women make up just 19 percent of undergraduate students and 8 percent of teaching staff. In politics, women represent only 10 percent of members in the House of Representatives and 20 percent of the House of Councilors.
On February 12, at an emergency meeting held by directors and councilors of the Tokyo Organizing Committee to discuss Mori’s successor, Mainichi Shimbun reported approximately 30 protesters were shouting via loudspeaker and holding placards calling for the cancellation of the Games and criticizing Mori’s sexist remarks. The Organizing Committee is also expected to launch a project promoting gender equality through sports.
There are voices among the Tokyo Organizing Committee calling for a younger and more active successor such as a female chairperson of a younger generation. Former Olympian Hashimoto Seiko, who serves as minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, is being eyed as Mori’s successor.