Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

Tokyo Olympics: Mori to Leave but Gender Issue Remains

Despite the Olympic chief’s resignation, Japan continues to be a country run “by a club of old men.”

By Stephen Wade for
Tokyo Olympics: Mori to Leave but Gender Issue Remains

Mori Yoshiro, former president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, speaks at the World Economic Forum in October 2016.

Credit: Flickr/World Economic Forum

Mori Yoshiro resigned Friday as the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee following sexist comments implying that women talk too much.

“As of today I will resign from the president’s position,” he said to open an executive board and council meeting. The board was expected to pick his successor later on Friday.

Mori’s departure comes after more than a week of non-stop criticism about his remarks earlier this month. He initially apologized but refused to step away, which was followed by relentless pressure from television pundits, sponsors, and an online petition that drew 150,000 signatures.

But it’s not clear that his resignation will clear the air and return the focus to exactly how Tokyo can hold the Olympics in just over five months in the midst of a pandemic.

The Olympics are set to open on July 23, with 11,000 athletes and 4,400 more in the Paralympics a month later. About 80 percent in recent polls in Japan say they want the Olympics canceled or postponed with clear support at about 15 percent.

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Early reports said the 83-year-old Mori had picked 84-year-old Kawabuchi Saburo, the former president of the governing body of Japanese soccer and a former player himself. He played for Japan in the 1964 Olympics.

Kawabuchi is even older than Mori and will raise the issue of why a woman was not appointed. This is the center of the entire debate that Mori triggered over gender inequality in Japan and the absence of women in boardrooms, politics, and sports governance. Women are also largely absent in leadership roles at the organizing committee.

Kawabuchi indicated on Thursday he had been contacted by Mori. But he later indicated he might not be the appropriate choice.

Japanese media immediately pointed out there were three qualified women — all athletes and former Olympians and at least a generation younger — who could fill the job.

Yamaguchi Kaori won a bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics in judo. Kotani Mikako won two bronze medals in the 1988 Olympics in synchronized swimming. And Takahashi Naoko was a gold medalist in the marathon in the 2000 Olympics.

Hashimoto Seiko, the current Olympic minister and a former Olympian, has also been mentioned as a candidate.

Mori’s remarks have put the spotlight on how far Japan lags behind other prosperous countries in advancing women in politics or the boardrooms. Japan stands 121st out of 153 in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality rankings.

Nakano Koichi, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, characterized Japan as a country still run “by a club of old men.” But he said this could be a watershed moment.

“Social norms are changing,” he wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “A clear majority of the Japanese found Mori’s comments unacceptable, so the problem is more to do with the lack of representation of women in leadership positions. This sorry episode may have the effect of strengthening the call for greater gender equality and diversity in the halls of power.”

Though some on the street called for Mori to resign — several hundred Olympic volunteers say they are withdrawing — most decision makers including Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide stopped short of this and simply condemned his remarks.

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A comment a few days ago from Toyota Motor Corp. President Toyoda Akio seemed to move the needle.

Toyota is one of 14 so-called Olympic TOP sponsors that pay about $1 billion every four-year cycle to the International Olympic Committee. The company seldom speaks out on politics, and Toyota did not call for Mori’s resignation. But just speaking on the matter might have been enough.

“The (Mori) comment is different from our values, and we find it regrettable.” Toyoda said. Toyota and Coca-Cola also are major sponsors of the torch relay.

Reporting by Stephen Wade for the Associated Press in Tokyo, Japan. Associated Press writer Yuri Kageyama contributed to this report.