Tokyo Olympics President Yoshiro Mori followed standard procedure for a Japanese politician after making sexist remarks: withdraw comments, apologize – less for their content than for any inconvenience caused – and attack the media for to have made stories.
In Japan, which is ranked 121st in the World on Gender Equality by the World Economic Forum, this is usually enough. Mori, an 83-year-old former prime minister, and contemporaries like the deputy prime minister Taro Aso have a long history of similar comments. But such blunders did not hurt their political careers.
This time, however, public criticism reached the point where Mori had to resign last week at the helm of Tokyo 2020. The question is whether this marks a shift in gender equality in Japan or if the high profile of the Olympics – which made Mori responsible for pressure from corporate sponsors and international opinion – means that this is an exceptional case.
Mori made the comments at a meeting of the Japanese Olympic Committee this month to discuss increasing female representation. Meetings last “twice as long,” he said, when women attend. “If one raises their hand to speak, everyone else feels they have to do the same. So everyone is talking, ”he added.
The resignation is the latest accident to hit the postponed Tokyo games, which had already been postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mori’s departure leaves the event without a leader within months of the opening ceremony.
Proportion of Japanese who thought Mori should stop
Mari Miura, professor of political science at Sophia University, said Mori’s resignation was a “landmark event” for gender equality. She’s one of the organizers of an annual online vote for the most sexist public remark of the year – and there are always plenty of contenders.
“The process of [Mori’s] the resignation was very important, ”she said. “Many people in Japan disagreed, saying his words were sexist and he had to take responsibility for it. It is quite unusual.
Polls have shown that about 60 percent of the public believed Mori should step down, with the backlash extending beyond the usual circle of opposition activists and politicians. “This time around, women have been expressing their opinions very quickly online – especially the younger generation,” said Yayo Okano, professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto.
But Mori only resigned after a series of Olympic sponsors made public statements disavowing his words and the Tokyo housekeeper refused to meet with him, suggesting he would be unable to function in the post.
The online campaign drew on criticism from abroad, which was eagerly reported by the Japanese media. “Don’t stay silent,” tweeted the I embassy in Tokyo.
“I’m definitely going to corner this guy at the breakfast buffet,” said Hayley wickenheiser, four-time gold medalist in ice hockey and a Canadian member of the International Olympic Committee.
The feeling the world was watching put pressure on the sponsors, who were initially reluctant to get involved. When the Financial Times started calling companies on February 5, only investment bank Nomura made an official statement, while another company provided a comment and then retracted it.
As the fury grew, Japanese companies realized they needed to speak out, especially after Mori gave a press conference in which he apologized but appeared more irritated than remorseful.
“As a matter of principle, we do not normally comment on remarks made by individuals, especially on a political issue,” said an official at a sponsor. “But Mr. Mori’s press conference the next day turned the situation from a blunder into serious business. If we remained silent, we thought we would be seen as tolerant.
Without the foreign pressure, the sponsor added, Mori would likely have survived.
Some commentators, however, saw Mori’s criticism as an example of American-style “wokism” or “culture cancellation” coming to Japan, even though the context of his remarks – in a discussion of the increase of women’s participation in the JOC – suggested that they were her true opinion rather than a verbal error.
“I think that’s what some really think in Japan,” said Hiroaki Nakanishi, president of the Keidanren Business Federation, adding that such thinking was outdated but the resulting social media storm was “terrifying. “.
Another question is whether the case will lead to a real change in attitude or if it represents just the last breath of a generation of elderly politicians ignoring what is acceptable to say in public. Mori himself sought to deflect the attacks by implying that his opponents were guilty of age discrimination and wanted to treat the elderly as “oversized garbage”.
But Miura said the aim was to increase women’s voices in decision-making, and Mori’s downfall had shown that opposing that was no longer socially acceptable.
“He basically wanted women to shut up and didn’t agree with the idea of a quota or a goal,” she said. “Any organization that needs public approval will need to strive for diversity and give women enough time and space.”