'Not qualified' but Mori stays

Despite flak over sexist views, Tokyo 2020 chief gets backing of Japan's establishment

TOKYO • In the days since the president of the Tokyo Olympic organising committee ignited a fierce backlash by asserting that women talk too much in meetings, more than half of the Japanese public agreed in a poll that he was "not qualified" to lead.

One of Japan's most prominent Olympic hopefuls, tennis star Naomi Osaka, said his comments were "really ignorant". Editorials in two of the country's largest newspapers also called for him to resign.

Yet after making a brief apology, Yoshiro Mori, the Tokyo 2020 chair, remains the face of Japan's effort to pull off the most important event on the international sports calendar.

His imperviousness to the firestorm over his sexist remarks last week appears to reflect the support of a Japanese power structure that is largely unaccountable to the public, works to preserve the old guard and freezes out the critical voices of younger people.

On social media, this generational divide has coalesced around the Japanese word "rougai", a term that connotes irritation at the intransigent behaviour by the country's legions of older people, and that Mori himself used in discussing his remarks.

The tenacity of the 83-year-old, a former prime minister, also shows how the country's long-running ruling party has little incentive to stand up for women's rights, managing to stay in power despite failing to meet its own targets for advancing women in politics and the workplace.

"The people around Mori and he himself think that they can be like this because it's always been like that," said Kaori Hayashi, a professor of sociology and media studies at the University of Tokyo. "And if the storm calms down, then they can go back to business as usual. That's been the culture."

Political leaders - almost all men - operate within a bubble, under the notion that "we are the ones who decide".

"So that's why even if we are screaming, our voices can't reach these circles," she added.

Since Mori's gaffe, prominent political backers have lined up to say that he should remain in charge.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called his remarks "against the national interest" but pointed to a statement from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declaring the issue "closed".

On Tuesday, the IOC issued a follow-up statement calling Mori's comments "absolutely inappropriate" but made no reference to calls for his resignation.

Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has also said it would "not be a problem" for Mori to stay in place. Even those who have been critical of his remarks have declined to call for his departure.

Ms Seiko Hashimoto, the Cabinet minister overseeing the Olympics, and the Tokyo Governor, Ms Yuriko Koike - both among Japan's highest-ranking female politicians - have said Mori "should not have made" the remark.

But they have signalled that they would continue to support the organising committee if he stayed on.

Mori has several things in his favour despite his sexist remarks. He can lean on his broad network built up over a decades-long career and it could be difficult to replace him with the Olympics scheduled to start in just over five months and amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With a reputation as a political fixer, he can also rely on those who feel they owe him loyalty for previous favours granted in Japan's insular political and business worlds.

"A lot of people seem to depend on his support for political and professional survival," said Noriko Hama, an economics professor at Doshisha Business School.

However, sponsors are upset at how plans to strengthen their own brands are instead suffering further damage.

Public broadcaster NHK said 36 of 70 sponsors it contacted saw the comments as "unacceptable", while nearly two dozen firms had received complaints from clients.

Although none have yet threatened to withdraw, Toyota, a worldwide Olympic sponsor, via its president Akio Toyoda has issued a strong rebuke, saying Mori's remarks were contrary to the values that the Japanese automaker respects and supports.

Other sponsors, including Nippon Life Insurance Company, global brewery Asahi Holdings and energy company Eneos have equally criticised his line of thinking. Tokyo 2020 organisers will hold an executive board meeting tomorrow to discuss Mori's comments on top of gender equality initiatives.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2021, with the headline ''Not qualified' but Mori stays'. Subscribe