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Hopes are high that a successful Olympic and Paralympic Games will brush off the controversies they have been tainted by, including a sexism row that has damaged the reputation of the games and undermined Japan’s efforts to narrow the gender gap.

With Seiko Hashimoto, a former Olympic speedskater and cyclist, now at the helm of the Tokyo Organising Committee and its board having been revamped with a higher share of female members, the event could serve as a chance for Japan to showcase that, at least in sports, it is serious about equality.

“For true gender equality, I think women must be able to lead a lifestyle of their choice, not only as athletes but once they finish their careers as well,” Hashimoto told the International Olympic Committee (IOC) following her appointment as president of the committee.

But as the debate over gender discrimination in sports continues, former female athletes and gender experts say the outrage over sexist remarks by former Tokyo Games chief Yoshiro Mori — and a narrow understanding of what gender inequality isovershadow deeper structural issues that drive discriminatory practices. They are calling for reforms of outdated structures promoting obsolete principles that not only hinder women’s career opportunities but also present a challenge for all young athletes unwilling to follow in the footsteps of their seniors, who enjoy power and influence over Japan’s sports organizations.

Push for gender parity

Gender equality has long been enshrined in the Olympic Charter, compelling organizers to “encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels.”

However, Japan’s commitment to gender parity was recently called into question after sexist remarks targeting women by Mori shined a spotlight on problems female athletes face in their careers and post-retirement life.

Mori, who in early February said that women talk too much at meetings and suggested that speaking time for women should be limited, eventually bowed to growing pressure and resigned. Following the scandal, women were placed at the forefront of the sporting world’s push for social change. Former Olympics minister Hashimoto, who replaced Mori, appointed 12 women to the committee’s executive board, raising the proportion of women to 42%.

Etsuko Ogasawara (left), who spearheaded a campaign in Japan aimed at addressing challenges faced by women in sports, poses to commemorate the signing of the declaration on gender equality adopted at the first World Conference on Women and Sport in the United Kingdom in 1994. | KYODO
Etsuko Ogasawara (left), who spearheaded a campaign in Japan aimed at addressing challenges faced by women in sports, poses to commemorate the signing of the declaration on gender equality adopted at the first World Conference on Women and Sport in the United Kingdom in 1994. | KYODO

In 2017, five major Japanese sports organizations, including the Japan Sports Agency, the Japan Sport Association and the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), signed the Brighton Plus Helsinki 2014 Declaration, an international statement recommending that the world pursue gender equality. The statement included a proposal to have a minimum of 40% of decision-making positions occupied by women by 2020.

“In the past few years, these organizations have sought to take the initiative and get their gender balance right,” says Rieko Yamaguchi, an associate professor of gender studies at Josai University in Saitama Prefecture. “For that very reason, Mori’s comments stood out as if he were sailing against the wind.”

Male-dominated sports

But former Olympic judo medalist Noriko Mizoguchi believes that gender biases and stereotypes are still prevalent in some disciplines, such as judo, which have quite a brief history of women’s active participation. Mizoguchi, a silver medalist in the women’s 52-kilogram class at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, was one of the first women to compete at the Olympics in the discipline. That year, female judoka were awarded Olympic medals for the first time.

For the former Olympian, the black belt with a white line running its length that she wore throughout her journey to stardom serves as a bittersweet reminder that in some sporting disciplines, the progress toward gender equality comes slowly.

International federations in Europe ruled the practice as discriminatory in 1999. But female judoka in Japan were still obligated to wear white-striped belts until 2017, as opposed to the pure-black ones worn by male competitors, despite having earned the martial art’s highest ranks.

Mizoguchi finally acquired her pure-black belt in France, where she moved after her retirement to coach the local Olympic judo team.

Yuko Arimori | KYODO
Yuko Arimori | KYODO

Now a professor at the Japan Women’s College of Physical Education, Mizoguchi admits that since female judoka began to bring home more medals for Japan, and even began to outperform the men in the gold medal count, “it has become easier to raise one’s voice.”

But in this is still a patriarchal society that tends to turn a blind eye toward acts of discrimination or harassment that should be penalized, she said in a recent interview.

Reflecting on her early years as a female judoka, Mizoguchi recalled that in the male-dominated sport women’s aspirations often clashed with cultural expectations that women should be responsible for things that men are not.

With a bitter laugh, Mizoguchi recalled that “all active female athletes were supposed to carry their male instructors’ luggage and you couldn’t just say no to your coach — if you did, your career as an athlete would have been over.”

She said that women’s less extensive experience is still used to female athletes’ disadvantage.

Etsuko Ogasawara, founder and executive director of the Japanese Association for Women in Sport, agrees. She believes that Japan needs more specific guidelines on harassment that would prevent discrimination against women and help female athletes plan their second careers.

Ogasawara spearheaded an initiative that contributed to turning the women’s cause into a law — the Sports Basic Act, which was enacted in 2011 and defines key principles of sports promotion and helped secure financial support from the government to promote gender equality.

In a recent interview, however, she lamented the fact that, despite calls to improve access to mental health care and put more focus on giving women opportunities to compete and continue their careers after lifestyle changes such as childbirth, those areas still see underinvestment.

“Only with physical and mental health support and infrastructure friendly to women can athletes be able to win medals, and all these elements should be seen as complementary,” Ogasawara said.

Old boys’ club

While Mori’s remarks stirred debate over individual acts of discrimination against women in sports, some athletes and experts associate the problem more with an outdated hierarchical approach to governance and working culture.

Yamaguchi, a member of the women’s sports division at the JOC, says that in sports organizations, women seeking to advance their careers often confront societal barriers.

“This world has been shaped by the persistent gender stereotype that only men are a good fit for decision-making positions, and women have had a hard time joining these all-male clubs,” Yamaguchi said in a recent interview.

However, she says that such stereotypes exist due to generational differences over work values, which has contributed to male dominance of the field. Yamaguchi explained that this environment, where a relatively low priority is put on work-life balance, has been unsuitable for both women and young men trying to juggle work and family, with parents often forced to choose between attending meetings that run late into the evening and child-rearing.

Yuko Arimori was the Olympic silver medalist in the women's marathon in Barcelona in 1992. | KYODO
Yuko Arimori was the Olympic silver medalist in the women’s marathon in Barcelona in 1992. | KYODO

Yamaguchi also points out that among the biggest obstacles for women’s advancement is the hierarchical structure of organizations, which favor experience that is not necessarily gained through equal opportunities.

In addition, Yamaguchi says that women who do get promoted into supervising positions may still perpetuate the sports world’s male-dominated environment or find themselves tolerating sexism that they would normally disapprove of.

Former marathoner Yuko Arimori believes that could have been the case with the turmoil over Mori’s sexist remarks. In a recent interview, the two-time Olympic medalist said the cause of the problem was with the organizing body.

“The real problem is not really Mori’s comment but the attitudes of those in his entourage, both men and women, who tolerate his blunders, and knowing that he’s gaffe-prone, allow him to take a stand,” Arimori said. “So I believe that steps to prevent such situations were missing.”

Although Mori’s gaffe made headlines in foreign media, it took about a week for the IOC to call his comments “inappropriate” and against the spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Mori also told the Mainichi Shimbun daily that he had initially decided to quit after the global criticism erupted but was convinced to reverse course after Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto and other Olympic officials begged him to stay on.

Diverse environment

In recent years, pressure from across Japan and abroad has created a platform for women to speak up.

But Yamaguchi warns that even though raising the percentage of female representation is an essential move toward gender equality, the existing environment favoring men cannot be simply fixed with gender quotas for executive positions, as outlined by the Brighton Plus Helsinki 2014 Declaration.

Arimori, who advocated for women’s reproductive health and rights while serving as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund from 2002 to 2010, agrees that an excessive push for equal gender representation may become counterproductive.

Between 2014 and 2018, Arimori was a board member of the Japan Professional Football League, where she was one of two or three women among a group of 30. She warned that a push for gender quotas in male-dominated fields could result in having more qualified candidates pushed aside.

“Some disparities stem from physical differences, which are undeniable, while others have occurred due to insufficient knowledge or lack of awareness (of women’s abilities),” she said. “On the other hand, it’s not enough to create positions for women even if they have identical experience and abilities as their male counterparts.”

Rieko Yamaguchi, an associate professor of gender studies at Josai University in Saitama Prefecture. | KYODO
Rieko Yamaguchi, an associate professor of gender studies at Josai University in Saitama Prefecture. | KYODO

Arimori said that’s because, at the moment, women seeking to advance their careers after childbirth or marriage may not be able to commit to their responsibilities at work due to a lack of support in child-rearing or a lack of understanding from the organizations about a woman’s child-rearing responsibilities, as well as poor awareness from fathers on the burden mothers face balancing their careers and having children.

Women in the sporting world point out that in many sporting organizations roles are defined in accordance with outdated structures.

“Mori has been an influential figure with political connections, but appointing him to head the (Tokyo 2020 committee) affected the organization and its operations,” Arimori said. “As chairman, he didn’t have decision-making power. He shouldn’t have been authorized to take an official position, including on issues outside his area of expertise, and the (organization) failed to define his role.”

She explained that giving Mori the authority to comment on all aspects of the preparation for the Olympics may have somehow undermined the efforts of all individuals involved in the games.

Ogasawara, who is also a professor of sport management at Juntendo University in Tokyo, worries that Japan still lacks a good strategy on pushing forward efforts toward gender equality. On March 12, the IOC approved revised guidelines effective through 2025 that reaffirmed its commitment to fostering gender equality and strengthening support for athletes. Ogasawara is calling for Japan to draft its own strategy for ensuring a balanced environment for all athletes and equal and fair access in line with global standards.

“First, Japan needs to verify where it stands on progress toward gender balance and understand what efforts and support are needed,” she said. “Without it, Japan won’t be able to move forward. And such a plan should be drafted regardless of whether the Olympics are successfully held this year, because if we wait until it’s over or canceled, no one will care.”

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