On Feb. 3, when former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, then-president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, explained his sexist views on how women act in meetings, he was speaking at an extraordinary meeting of the Japanese Olympic Committee Council that the media could only watch remotely, and which they were not allowed to record. Had it been a regular meeting of the JOC, they would have been banned completely. However, reporters soon had access to the minutes and conveyed Mori’s startling remarks to the world.
Mori had attended in order to provide his “private opinion” about the government’s directive to increase female participation on executive boards of sports organizations, including the council, to at least 40%. He said that increasing female membership might be counterproductive since women take too much time expressing themselves. Reportedly, some people in the room reacted with laughter.
However, all hell broke loose on the internet after the meeting’s contents were revealed. Mori gave a hastily organized news conference the next day in which he apologized and tried to retract his comment by claiming that his intelligence about women in meetings was not entirely first-hand, but related to him by others. He said Yasuhiro Yamashita, head of the JOC, had previously indicated to him that it would be difficult to increase the number of women on the council, so he was trying to lend his support.
The reason for this difficulty became clearer on Feb. 5, when sports tabloid website Sponichi Annex explained that Yamashita chose to close official JOC meetings to the media in 2019, a decision opposed by four women on the council, all former Olympic athletes who believed the public should know what was being discussed at such meetings. Then, last March, one of the women, Kaori Yamaguchi, put Yamashita on the spot when she publicly advocated for postponing the games due to the worsening COVID-19 crisis. At the time, the committee’s position was that the games proceed as scheduled.
So there’s a certain poetic justice in the notion of Mori getting his comeuppance for offending women at a meeting where the media are normally restricted against the wishes of its female members, not to mention under circumstances where Mori himself rambled on for 40 minutes about how long-winded women could be. But the irony runs deeper.
During a discussion on the TBS radio show “Ashita no College,” reporter Daiki Sawada said the foreign media’s uproar over the remark rattled the government. The Prime Minister’s Office then arranged for Mori to retract the remark the next day in front of the press, despite Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s initial statement that he didn’t know enough about the matter to comment on it.
But it was domestic reporters, including Sawada, who revealed the breadth of Mori’s cluelessness at the news conference. Given Mori’s reputation for saying embarrassing things, the “Ashita no College” host, Satetsu Takeda, said it’s surprising the government allowed him to speak in front of reporters unshielded, but Sawada said that there was a greater risk if he didn’t show up and face the press, given the worldwide reaction.
What’s important to note is which press outlets showed up prepared for battle and, more significantly, that they acted in concert rather than in competition. There were no chairs at the event, thus indicating it would be brief, so the reporters knew they had to make their questions count. Sawada explained how government officials typically stonewalled journalists by preventing follow-up questions. That’s why he wanted to be flexible in his brief interrogation of Mori so as not to lose any opportunities opened up by previous reporters.
Mori reacted to this offensive in a predictably defensive manner, dropping his guard to reveal that he still didn’t think there was anything wrong with what he said at the JOC meeting. He was especially abrupt with female reporters, and demanded that two of them remove their masks before he took their questions. Sawada called his replies “typical mansplaining.”
When Sawada’s turn came, he mentioned how, in his prepared retraction, Mori had admitted his remarks violated the spirit of the Olympic Charter. Didn’t that disqualify him from being president of the organizing committee? Mori replied, “What do you think?”
“I think it disqualifies you,” Sawada said.
Mori could only say, “I’ll accept that.”
The news conference was over as far as Mori was concerned, and as Sawada pointed out, he attempted to salvage his reputation on a subsequent TV appearance, where he could talk at length without fear of confrontation.
As former Asahi Shimbun reporter Atsushi Yamada later said on the web program Democracy Times, the reporters who grilled Mori at the news conference did not normally cover the Olympics or sports-related matters. Sportswriters for the major dailies were present, but they didn’t ask aggressive questions. That’s because they know their place, unlike the women who Mori thinks talk too much at meetings.
In an Asahi Shimbun interview, Yuko Inazawa, the first woman ever appointed to the board of directors of the Japan Rugby Football Union, which Mori used to head, explains that she was asked to join because the union wanted someone from outside the sport. As a scholar, Inazawa’s area of expertise is women’s issues, so she could help expand rugby’s appeal, which was on the decline when she joined. So she asked lots of questions during meetings and believes she was expected to, since sports organizations are inherently hierarchical, and those who have been part of those organizations for a long time may be reluctant to speak out. She is convinced that Mori was specifically thinking of her when he made his remark about voluble women.
This hierarchy applies to the media as well, especially for those who cover sports. Sawada’s beat is neither the Olympics nor sports, and he knew that only someone from outside those structures would be able to challenge Mori in a meaningful way. He and his fellow reporters did, and, a week later, Mori quit.
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