Sport and sexism in Japan

Sport and sexism in Japan

Congratulations to Seiko Hashimoto, Japan's former Olympics minister, who has taken the helm of the troubled Tokyo Games, after her predecessor quit amid an uproar over his sexist remarks.

I and many other women around the world applaud the choice of the seven-time Olympian as another major step forward to break the ultimate glass ceiling in Japan, where gender inequality remains a deep-rooted structural problem.

While the Tokyo 2020 president is mostly a figurehead, the appointment of a woman signals that the men's club of Olympic decision-makers in Tokyo has learned from the backlash over the resignation of Yoshiro Mori for making "inappropriate comments" about women.

Mr Mori, a former prime minister, was quoted as complaining during a meeting of the Japanese Olympic Committee that board meetings with many female directors "take so much time".

Because of women's "strong sense of competition", the 84-year-old said, "if one person raises their hand, others probably think, 'I need to say something, too.'"

Having fallen into a hole of his own making, Mr Mori kept digging: "If we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat. They have difficulty finishing, which is annoying."

To add insult to injury, Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last week decided to invite women to attend key meetings -- as long as they don't speak. It proposed allowing five female lawmakers to "observe" its all-male board meetings.

The row over Mr Mori's remarks has highlighted an old-fashioned way of thinking -- male-centric and intolerant of dissent -- still prevalent in Japanese society at large. While gender equality and fighting discrimination are principles of the Olympic Charter, the committee board has only five women out of 25 members, despite setting a goal in 2019 to double this number to 10.

Japan is ranked 121st out of 153 countries on the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index compiled by the World Economic Forum -- the worst among advanced countries -- scoring poorly on women's economic participation and political empowerment. In 2006, when the index was first published, Japan ranked 79th.

This is a pity because Japan has many good female leadership options, said Kathy Matsui, a former Goldman Sachs strategist who put "womenomics" on Tokyo's radar screen two decades ago. "Role models matter -- a lot," she said. And women leaders, she noted, tend to alter a nation's priorities.

Ms Hashimoto has been a pioneer in Japan's male-dominated political sphere. As the minister for the Olympics, as well as gender equality, she was one of only two women in Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's cabinet. Born in Hokkaido, she was elected to parliament five times as a member for the ruling LDP.

Other standouts include Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, and Tamayo Marukawa, an LDP lawmaker who has succeeded Ms Hashimoto as Olympic minister.

The controversy set off by Mr Mori was the last thing the Tokyo Games organisers needed. They were already struggling to put on an event that had been pushed back by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms Hashimoto's appointment comes less than six months before the Games are due to start on Aug 8. Opinion surveys show steadily declining support among the Japanese public for staging a major global sports event in a country that only began its coronavirus vaccine rollout last Wednesday.

A poll conducted by Nikkei Asia at the end of January showed that 46% of respondents thought the Games should be canceled if the pandemic continues, and 36% thought they should be postponed.

The organising committee's main priority now is ensuring that the Games will be safe and secure. It has already announced policies for inspecting and restricting the activities of athletes entering the country. It is considering limiting the number of spectators or barring them altogether.

One of Ms Hashimoto's pressing immediate tasks is to win back the confidence and support from the public and the Games' major sponsors. Toyota Motor, the country's biggest company, was among those that raised concerns over Mr Mori's sexist remarks.

She is also expected to take concrete steps to promote gender equality, and create an environment in which a diverse array of people can speak freely.

The committee's new leadership has no time to waste to revamp its own culture and that of the broader sports community. Doing so will lay the foundation for Japan to have the world behind it in successfully hosting an Olympics that have already proved to be a major challenge.

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