During an online executive meeting on Feb. 3, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, in his capacity as president of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organizing committee, made a contemptuous comment regarding women when asked about his committee’s plan to increase the number of female board members to more than 40% of the total.
The New York Times began reporting with a fact-based story that “On Twitter, users quickly began calling for Mori to resign,” while others “suggested Mori’s age, and his outdated attitude, were the real problem” or “expressed dismay” that “no one in the meeting had objected in the moment.”
On Feb. 9, however, The Times carried an article with a misleading headline of “Olympics Chief Said Sorry for Demeaning Women. In Japan, That’s Often Enough.” The article also said, “Yoshiro Mori’s resistance to calls for his resignation shows the power of a male-dominated old guard that is mostly unaccountable to public opinion.”
It is misleading because it failed to examine what really happened in Tokyo after Mori’s unbelievable comments. The article drew a simplistic conclusion that “the power of a male-dominated old guard” was the reason Mori did not promptly resign. This is far from reality.
Were Mori’s remarks sexist ?
Of course they were. According to the Feb. 3 article in The New York Times, Mori said, “On boards with a lot of women, the board meetings take so much time” because “Women have a strong sense of competition. If one person raises their hand, others probably think, I need to say something too. That’s why everyone speaks.”
To make matters worse, at a news conference the next day, Mori mechanically apologized and retracted his remarks but would not hint at his resignation. He just said, “I recognize the remark was against the spirit of the Olympics and Paralympics,” and “I deeply regret what I said,” apologizing “to those who felt uncomfortable.”
Mori’s remarks were totally unjustifiable in 21st century Japan. He deserves a red card — in soccer, that means a player is sent off the field for a serious infraction. Sadly, those older than 75 years old in Japan may not understand this norm. For those under 40, it has become commonsensical. For those in between, it is acquired knowledge.
Did he refuse to resign?
Probably not. As a matter of fact, Mori reportedly decided to resign immediately after the remarks. It was the secretariat of the organizing committee who strongly pleaded with him to stay in his position. Their rationale was not to defend Mori’s disgusting comments but rather to save the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
In a January poll, 77% of the Japanese favored canceling or postponing the Games. The International Olympic Committee declared that Mori’s issue had been “closed.” As the expression goes, “Don’t change horses in midstream.” It was not sexism but a realistic international dynamism that kept Mori in his position for two more weeks.
Of course, Mori should have resigned immediately, and no one should try to justify his political judgment. It must be stressed, however, that Mori’s resistance to calls for his resignation does not automatically prove “the power of a male-dominated old guard,” in Japan as The New York Times article incorrectly put it.
Mori’s ignorant remarks
A poll in Japan was right when it showed more than 50% of the surveyed Japanese public agreed that Mori was “not qualified” to lead. Naomi Osaka was also right when she said Mori’s comments were “really ignorant.” Newspaper editorials were right that called for Mori to resign.
That said, stories that relate Mori’s sexism to “a Japanese power structure that is largely unaccountable to the public,” to “the old guard” freezing out “the critical voices of younger people,” or to “the intransigent behavior by the country’s legions of older people,” may be inaccurate.
What did Suga do?
I do not know what Prime Minister Suga did, and he said extraordinarily little about it. Nevertheless, Suga seems to have let Mori’s tragedy end well. In other words, Suga did nothing to hinder the correct but delicate political process of transferring power from Mori to the new president, Seiko Hashimoto, on Feb. 18.
Thus, if you talk about Suga’s “deference to the entrenched male-dominated power structure,” or his missing “a golden opportunity to kill the old guard and obstructionists,” you are missing the bigger picture: the 2021 Tokyo Games at large.
Gender relations in Japan
When I joined the Japanese foreign service, there were two female senior-class officers in my class of 1978. They were the first two female career foreign service officers since 1958. The number of such female career officers increased only gradually, and until recently there have been a few females among the new career officers every year.
Then, things started to change dramatically. In 2019, among the total number of the foreign ministry’s 128 new recruits, 64 were female. Among the career officers, 43% were female and among the specialized officers, the figure was 48%. Unlike in my generation, female bosses are not uncommon for young officers in the foreign ministry.
Although it may take more time before those female career officers make vice minister, it will be only a matter of time. Other domestic ministries may have fewer female officers than the foreign service, but it will also be only a matter of time for them to follow the foreign ministry.
The resignation of Mori underscores the changing gender relations in Japan, not the helplessly backward sexist behavior among some senior citizens older than 75. Although it may take time, Japan must and will eventually make Mori’s departure the beginning of a new era where competition is much tougher for younger males.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as special adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.
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