Commentary: Olympic shuffle highlights Japan's missed target for new leaders

Former athlete Seiko Hashimoto (left) was a replacement for Yoshiro Mori, who resigned after disparaging women.
Former athlete Seiko Hashimoto (left) was a replacement for Yoshiro Mori, who resigned after disparaging women.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - The shuffling of senior Olympic leadership positions in Japan has put a spotlight on an uncomfortable truth in the country: After years of public statements in support of women in leadership, there still do not seem to be enough to go around.

In its search for a replacement for Yoshiro Mori, 83, who resigned last week after disparaging women for talking too much, the Tokyo Olympic organising committee landed on former athlete Seiko Hashimoto. But she already had a job in the cabinet, as Minister for the Olympics and held the gender equality portfolio. She eventually quit those roles, forcing a new scramble to fill her shoes.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga tapped Tamayo Marukawa, who has served as Olympics minister in the past.

"Having to cannibalise the cabinet to find a woman to save the Olympics from clueless octogenarians speaks volumes about the low status of women in Japan," said Machiko Osawa, a professor who researches labour economics at Japan Women's University.

"They are under-represented across the board due to the discriminatory policies and attitudes that Mori and his powerful defenders put in the limelight."

Though the numbers vary across sectors, Japan overall is way behind the target set by the government in 2003 of having women take 30 per cent of management posts in all fields by 2020. Today, there are few if any women in the wings when senior positions open up.

Politics is among the most stubbornly male-dominated fields, with women making up less than 10 per cent of lower house lawmakers in Mr Suga's own Liberal Democratic Party, and only two of his 20-strong cabinet.

The private sector is by some measures even more lopsided than government. On the boards of Japanese-listed companies, women held just 6.2 per cent of director positions, up from 1.6 per cent in 2012, according to the Cabinet Office Gender Equality Bureau.

Worldwide, women hold around 20 per cent of board seats; among Hong Kong-listed companies, they comprise 13 per cent.

Japanese women face a number of obstacles to professional advancement, including a culture of long working hours, which makes it difficult for Japanese women with families to take on senior positions. Japanese men do less housework than their counterparts in any other OECD country, often increasing the burden on their partners.

Efforts to entice more women into the workplace and keep them there have had some success - larger numbers are entering the career track of the bureaucracy though few have cracked the senior ranks. More typically, women end up in poorly paid part-time positions after having children.

Japan's newly appointed Minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games Tamayo Marukawa at the prime minister's official residence, in Tokyo, on Feb 18, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Noriko Mizoguchi, who won silver in judo at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, called for more women in leadership positions across the country's sporting bodies, not just on the 2020 organising committee - a move that would, in turn, fill the pipeline of future Hashimotos or Marukawas.

"Women are just as active as men in the Olympics recently, but I can't say there's an appropriate number of women in management," said Mizoguchi, now a professor of sports science at Japan Women's College of Physical Education.

"Gender equality is still a work in progress."