Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

Tokyo Olympics Hits a New Roadblock: Sexism

Sexist comments from the organizing committee head underline Japan’s deep-seated gender issues.

By Yukari Easton for
Tokyo Olympics Hits a New Roadblock: Sexism
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Tokyo-Good

The forthcoming Tokyo Olympics created unwelcome headlines last week when Mori Yoshiro, the 83-year-old former prime minister and head of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, said that female participants make meetings too long. Women, in his opinion, have trouble speaking concisely due to their innate competitiveness.

Mori has a prior history of questionable remarks, from mocking AIDS victims to belittling athletes. So extensive is his catalogue of blunders that his entry on Wikipedia has a dedicated “gaffes” heading. Japanese people have long excused such behavior, viewing it as merely encompassing an unpleasant character trait.

On this occasion, however, public reaction has been more critical. Domestic and international media, both traditional and social, expressed widespread disapproval. Given that Mori’s sexism is so fundamentally antithetic to the Olympic spirit of inclusion, calls for his resignation became rife. Mori gave a non-apology-apology, which, if anything, showed that he did not comprehend why his remarks had caused such offense. Yet, in the absence of any official censure, there was no imperative for Mori to resign.

The Olympics generally provides a host nation with tremendous opportunities to showcase its attractiveness through art, culture, and innovation. The Olympics, as arguably the greatest show on earth, provides an unparalleled soft power means to win hearts and minds globally. As such, the games have often been used as a national project, especially for nations on the rise. Indeed, Japan used the first Tokyo Olympics in 1964 for precisely this purpose, to show the world its post-war openness and economic success.

Half a century on, the world has, for the most part, become more progressive. The bar that Japan must hit to impress in 2021 is, therefore, higher than it was in 1964 – a benchmark the nation has failed to meet with Mori. Having the head of the organizing committee display such views, however, reveals a deep-rooted Japanese problem toward women. Mori may not be so much a cause as a symptom. While Japan has made progress economically and technologically, it remains reticent to embrace new social norms.

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Ironically, the broader participation of women in Japanese society is precisely what the nation needs. The underutilization of women creates a potential GDP gap in the double digits, especially with a dwindling labor force. Under former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, for example, Womenomics was identified as a key pillar of policy. Legislative changes were made in an attempt to incentivize and empower women. And many corporations now explicitly identify diversity as part of their vision.

In reality, however, gender stereotypes, roles, and pay gaps prevail. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, Japan is ranked 121st out of 153 countries in terms of gender parity. And yet, according to Pew Research, 77 percent of Japanese men believe gender equality has already been achieved. Seen in this context, Mori’s musings are merely emblematic of a wider societal malaise. The purported embrace of gender equality by politicians and corporate leaders is superficially encouraging, but needs to be supported by tangible policies, meaningful metrics to monitor progress, and widespread accountability. Absent such commitments, well-intentioned pronouncements amount to naught. Talk, to be blunt, is cheap.

Yukari Easton is a researcher and a 2014-2015 ACE-Nikaido Fellow at the East Asian Studies Center at University of Southern California whose research focus is upon international relations, diplomacy, and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Previously, she worked for ten years in international banking in Europe and Asia.