OSAKA – The domestic and international furor surrounding Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Organising Committee, whose sexist comments resulted in his resignation Friday, puts an end to the latest chapter in the career of one of Japan’s most influential, but controversial, public figures.
Despite broad domestic and international criticism that the 83-year old Mori was out of touch and a relic of a bygone era, many within the Japanese Olympic movement and the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga initially either urged Mori to stay or were reluctant to call for his resignation.
In the end, even the International Olympic Committee — which had earlier said that with Mori’s apology the problem was over — condemned his comments as inappropriate and contradictory to its Olympic goals.
But how did Mori, a former prime minister noted for his verbal gaffes, become such an influential figure in the worlds of politics and sports?
The answers can be found in his experience, political connections and contacts in both arenas that made him a valuable fixer and intermediary for politicians and sports officials.
Mori’s career as prime minister was brief, lasting only one year, from April 2000 to April 2001.
He only became prime minister after his predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, died suddenly, with the appointment agreed to via a backroom deal among Liberal Democratic Party factions of the time rather than him being elected LDP president.
Just before taking office, he’d already made controversial remarks about both AIDS patients and murders committed in the United States during blackouts.
After assuming office, Mori described Japan as a nation of gods, centered on the emperor — stirring wartime emperor-worship controversies. Prior to a June 2000 Diet election, Mori suggested voters who had yet to decide who to vote for should stay at home in bed.
And in February 2001, Mori was heavily criticized for continuing a round of golf after hearing that a U.S. submarine, the USS Greeneville, had accidentally collided with a Japanese fisheries training ship, the Ehime Maru, which sank, killing nine students and teachers.
By the time Mori stepped down in April 2001, public opinion polls showed his support rate in single digits. But he had the experience, connections and political clout to remain a highly influential figure.
Mori officially retired from politics in 2012 after being elected 14 times by constituents in Ishikawa Prefecture. His power within the LDP is connected to the 98 member Hosoda faction, the largest and most powerful faction within the party.
Though now run by former-Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, Mori led the faction between 1998 and 2006, except when he became prime minister in 2000. Mori remains influential among its members, helping with fundraising activities and providing advice to younger members.
Hosoda faction members who became prime minister after Mori include Junichiro Koizumi, Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe. While Prime Minister Suga does not belong to any faction, sports minister Koichi Hagiuda and Tokyo Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto also belong to the Hosoda faction. Both voiced support earlier this week for Mori continuing as president of the Tokyo Organising Committee.
Mori also became involved with diplomatic activities such as those related to Russian-held islands off Hokkaido. Since a 2001 summit between Mori and Russian President Vladimir Putin, he’s promoted the return of just two of the four disputed islands.
Mori has also attempted to use the passion for judo shared by Putin and Japanese Olympic Committee President Yasuhiro Yamashita, who is also an IOC member, to achieve further progress on Russia-Japan issues.
He met Putin again in 2014, delivering a message from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Mori’s family also has a deep relationship with Russia. His father Shigeki served as a local town leader in Ishikawa Prefecture for more than three decades, and had worked to improve relations with Russia during the Cold War period.
Mori’s political connections have also made him a mover and shaker in the sports world. He had entered Waseda University in 1956 determined to play rugby at one of Japan’s top-ranked schools for the sport.
Four months after joining the team, he was diagnosed with acute gastroenteritis, and forced to quit. But on the advice of one of the upperclassmen on the rugby squad, Mori was invited to Waseda’s debate society — a training ground for many future politicians.
It was a turning point in the young Mori’s life. It set him on the road to a political career even as he retained his love of and connections to the sporting world.
After his stint as prime minister, Mori served as chairman of the predecessor of the Japan Sports Association between 2005 and 2011, and then as chairman of the Japan Rugby Football Union from 2005 to 2015. Under his leadership, Japan won the right to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The Japanese rugby team reached the quarterfinals, electrifying the nation.
Mori became chairman of the Tokyo Organising Committee in 2014, after Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Games the previous year, and after fellow faction member Shinzo Abe had returned to power.
With his high-level political experience and contacts in the sports world, Mori was now the go-to guy for the government when it came to dealing with matters related to the Tokyo Olympics.
According to Upper House Secretary General Hiroshige Seko, another Hosoda faction member, Mori’s experience thus earned him the reputation in Japan’s political world as an irreplaceable figure. That reputation shielded him, despite gaffes that would destroy the careers of most other politicians.
With not only deep connections and experience in the political but also the sports world, at home and abroad, Mori was unique in Japanese politics. He had the contacts his peers did not, and the ability to get things done behind the scenes that leaders in both worlds relied on heavily — whatever they privately felt about his tendency to make controversial remarks.
His exit now forces Japanese and IOC officials to find a successor for the “indispensable” Mori and to prepare for an already troubled Tokyo Olympics without one of its most visible and powerful backers at the helm.
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