Public Outrage Over Sexist Comments Forces Changes at Tokyo 2020

Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro Mori got a laugh earlier this month when he warned members of the Japan Olympic Committee that women talk too much. He had no idea the backlash would force to him to step down just nine days later.

“In all my 83 years, I feel it’s pathetic that a brief remark from me led to this,” Mori said Friday, as he announced his resignation and apologized again.

Mori’s offensive comments had touched a raw nerve, unleashing anger over the widespread unfairness in Japanese society. His ouster, and a last-minute U-turn on a plan to replace Mori with another man in his eighties, may indicate a new willingness by those in power to listen.

“There was much more reaction and debate than before,” said Mari Kogiso, a former Fast Retailing executive turned sustainable development consultant to financial firms. “Many women who have probably been avoiding talking about gender issues are finally starting to talk.”

Japanese politicians -- including Mori himself -- have gotten away with worse in the not-too-distant past. This time, the public nature of Mori’s Feb. 3 remarks, the international spotlight of the Olympics, and the amplification of social media kept him on the defensive.

Mori, who has built his career across some of the most male-dominated fields in Japan -- rugby, journalism and politics -- apologized and retracted his comments on Feb. 4, but said he wouldn’t step down. Anger continued to simmer on social media and an online petition calling for Mori’s resignation began gathering signatures.

In a survey conducted Feb. 6 and 7 by the Mainichi newspaper, which is also a local sponsor of the Tokyo Olympics, 60% of respondents said Mori was not an appropriate person to be in the top Olympic post.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Feb. 8 it was not his job to decide Mori’s fate, but the mounting public outrage prompted the International Olympic Committee to condemn Mori’s words as “absolutely inappropriate” in a Feb. 9 statement.

Public Outrage Over Sexist Comments Forces Changes at Tokyo 2020

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, one of the most prominent female politicians in Japan, on Feb. 10 told reporters she wouldn’t attend an Olympics meeting with Mori planned for later in the month. The next day, reports began to emerge that Mori would leave his post.

Past instances of elder Japanese statesmen belittling women haven’t always carried such consequences. In 2003, Yasuo Fukuda, then the Chief Cabinet Secretary, was reported to have said that young women dress in a way that invites rape. He said his comments had been distorted and went on to become prime minister in 2007.

In 2007, then-Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa sparked anger across the political spectrum when he referred to women as “child-bearing machines,” but wasn’t fired.

Beyond Mori’s resignation, there are signs that, at least this time, public opinion matters. Reported plans to replace Mori with another male octogenarian, Saburo Kawabuchi, met with a new round of objections. Within a little more than a day, the former footballer told the organizing committee he wouldn’t take the job.

Local media is currently reporting that Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto, an Olympic medalist and one of two women in the cabinet, is a candidate to lead the committee.

“A lack of diversity and outside opinions means important things get overlooked, people turn a blind eye to wrongdoing by colleagues and there is a tendency toward cover-ups,” said political scientist Lully Miura of Yamaneko Research Institute.

“What society needs to do now is train women within organizations and make them stronger by constantly maintaining diversity,” she added. “It would be good if Mori’s remarks prompt a shift in that direction.”

The Olympics organizing committee has said it will establish a gender equality team and seek to increase the number of women in senior roles, and a gender-balanced panel comprised mostly of athletes will choose Mori’s replacement.

The process will be led by Canon Inc. Chief Executive Officer Fujio Mitarai, who is 85.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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