• Kyodo

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Sexist remarks by Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics organizing committee head Yoshiro Mori have set off a wave of criticism in Japan and abroad, but members of the country’s government and sporting establishment have refrained from joining calls for his resignation.

With the coronavirus pandemic potentially jeopardizing the postponed Olympics, stakeholders are quietly backing the highly influential former prime minister, who is still seen as instrumental to the staging of the games.

Mori, 83, sparked the sexism row in a gathering of the Japanese Olympic Committee on Wednesday, when he said women tend to talk too much in meetings as they have “a strong sense of rivalry.”

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in the Diet that Mori’s remarks “completely diverge from the important Olympic ethos of gender equality” but declined to directly address calls for his resignation.

Education minister Koichi Hagiuda said the comments were “inappropriate” but that he also had no intention to call for the resignation of Mori, who holds powerful sway in the political, business and sporting arenas.

While other stakeholders have also voiced criticism of Mori’s comments, they have drawn a line at calling for his resignation, fearing the impact of a change at the top of the organizing hierarchy.

Mori was appointed as chief of the organizing committee at its launch in January 2014 by then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The government had specifically sought out Mori for his formidable clout and coordinating ability as a former prime minister.

The appointment appeared to pay dividends, with Mori helping overcome major roadblocks in the games’ preparation, most notably the one-year postponement over the pandemic, but also the relocation of the marathon course from Tokyo to Sapporo because of extreme heat.

He has also built “a relationship on equal terms” with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, according to one government source.

With the critical period for the hosting of games lying ahead — the torch relay starting in March, along with decisions on having spectators and foreign fans in attendance — a games source said the comments were “not good” but doubted whether anyone could fill Mori’s role.

“If he resigns, there’ll be no Olympics. We need him to continue whatever the cost,” a government source said.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who clashed with Mori over cost-sharing issues during the games’ preparation, is currently keeping in line, while JOC President Yasuhiro Yamashita said he “understands there are many opinions” over the remarks but wants Mori “to serve out his role” as he also made clear there is no need for resignation.

A former university rugby player, Mori previously headed the Japan Sport Association, as well as the Japan Rugby Football Union, for whom he helped secure hosting rights for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

His influence in the sporting realm is virtually unrivaled in Japan, with senior JSA and JOC figures seeking out his opinions ahead of important decisions.

Yamashita, the 1984 judo gold medalist in the open division in Los Angeles, succeeded Tsunekazu Takeda to become the JOC president in 2019. He is also subject to the influence of Mori, with a source saying, “Those living in the sporting field have to live in a world with Mori at the summit.”

Mori made the controversial comments at a JOC online board meeting which he had attended primarily to offer support for Yamashita, through whom he can make his presence felt, according to sources.

“He is exerting great leadership,” Mori said of Yamashita during his 40-minute speech.

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