With this summer’s Tokyo Olympics already hanging in the balance due to the coronavirus pandemic, public outrage over sexist remarks by the Games’ organizing chief has thrown the event into a deeper crisis.
Despite the efforts of Japanese and Olympic officials to quash the debate, pressure on 83-year-old Yoshiro Mori is mounting over his comments last week saying that women talk too much in board meetings.
Japan’s public broadcaster NHK reports that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Organizing Committee will convene a special board meeting as soon as Friday to discuss the crisis. It is not clear whether the meeting will discuss calls for Mori’s resignation.
Organizers sent out apologies for the incident after receiving thousands of complaints. Hundreds of Olympic volunteers have quit, and some torch relay runners have withdrawn to protest Mori’s remarks.
Some foreign embassies in Japan have chimed in, with Sweden, the European Union, Germany and others tweeting pictures of diplomats and staff raising their hands in protest, with the hashtags #dontbesilent, and #genderequality.
The International Olympic Committee reiterated Tuesday that Mori’s comments were “absolutely inappropriate,” but did not indicate that he should face any consequences for his remarks.
“I don’t think it’s going to cost Japan the Olympics,” says David Leheny, a political scientist at Waseda University in Tokyo. “But it certainly reduces the level of public support that the LDP [ruling Liberal Democratic Party] can count upon in order to push ahead, if they decide to do so.”
Japanese who support the Games proceeding as planned are in the minority, with opinion polls showing that about 80% of respondents think the games should either be postponed or canceled. The IOC says that the games, which were put off by a year in 2020, cannot be rescheduled again.
Another poll, from Kyodo News, found about 60% of respondents thought Mori was unfit to serve as the head of the committee.
“I think he should resign,” said Chiaki Shinozaki, an information technology worker in Tokyo. “Now the reputation of the games is going down, and I think his resignation is one of the options, if we are going to hold the games with everybody feeling happy.”
Mori made the sexist remarks in response to a question about increasing female board members on the Japanese Olympic Committee, from the current 20% to 40%. Mori complained that female board members’ speaking time would have to be limited, “otherwise, we’ll never be able to finish.”
Mori apologized for his comments, but he later defended his remarks on Japanese television.
Japanese and Olympic officials have doggedly insisted that the games will go forward at any cost, partially because of the massive investments already made in infrastructure, and the billions of dollars in corporate sponsorship deals.
NHK contacted 70 Olympic corporate sponsors, and said that 36 said they found Mori’s remarks intolerable. None, though, called for Mori’s resignation, or said they would cancel their contracts.
The organizing committee apologized to corporate sponsors on Monday in an online meeting with about 80 of them, NHK reports.
While Mori is often described as gaffe-prone, others believe he was just saying what he normally says in the backrooms where the LDP makes policy.
“I’m really persuaded it’s not gaffes,” says Chelsea Schieder, a historian at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. “This is the actual procedure, and these are the actual conversations that are that are happening, rather than a mistake that we are suddenly privy to.”
Sexism is a problem throughout Japanese society, but it is especially severe within the LDP, which has dominated politics for most of the post-war era.
“The LDP’s track record on gender politics is really bad,” says Schieder. “The LDP didn’t even start thinking about how it was going to incorporate and promote more women within its ranks until opposition parties began to do so.”
Mori, though, was a logical figure to serve as Olympic organizing chief, as the former head of the Japan Sport Association, and the Japan Rugby Football Union. Perhaps more importantly, though, Mori is a former prime minister, and although retired, retains an outsized influence in the most powerful faction of the LDP.
“It’s an old boys club. It’s a club in which women generally aren’t speaking or which women aren’t playing leadership roles,” says Leheny. “So, if anything, the very thing that makes him valuable is the very thing that makes him likely to say something like this that causes such public problems.”
Historically speaking, however, Mori has seen worse debacles during his year-long stint as Japan’s Prime Minister, ending in April 2001. His approval rating towards the end of his term fell to about 6%, following a political crisis that had a sporting angle.
In 2001, a U.S. nuclear submarine collided with a Japanese fishery training vessel, about 10 miles south of Oahu, Hawaii. When Mori was informed of the incident, which killed nine Japanese, including four high-school students, “he continued playing golf,” Leheny notes.
“This only added to the impression among the general public,” he adds, “that he was a leader who was more interested in the internal workings of the party and his close connections with others, that he was in the welfare of the Japanese people, including children.”