Japan has chosen Seiko Hashimoto, one of its most prominent female politicians, to serve as the country’s new Olympic organizing chief, in a bid to send a message of gender equality following a sexism scandal that toppled the previous chief.
The message was intended to repair damage to the Tokyo Games’ reputation, following remarks by Yoshiro Mori, who rejected more women joining the Japanese Olympic Committee board because he felt they talk too much.
Mori’s remarks triggered international outrage and threatened to exhaust what little support remains in Japan for holding the Games this summer. With much of the country still under a state of emergency, 80% of the population is in favor of canceling or postponing the Games.
Hashimoto, 56, resigned as Olympics minister, and minister in charge of gender equality and women’s empowerment to take over the new position.
She vowed to restore trust in the Tokyo Games organizers, improve gender equality on the organizing committee and make safety a priority in holding the Games amidst a global pandemic.
Hashimoto will remain a member of the Japanese parliament, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Only 9.9% of Japan’s lawmakers are women, a percentage which ranks it 165th out of 191 nations, according to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Hashimoto has competed as a speed skater in four winter Olympics, and as a cyclist in three summer games. She is the mother of three children, and helped establish a child care facility for lawmakers at Japan’s parliament.
For many Japanese, Mori’s remarks underlined the degree to which male elites dominate politics and public discourse, and enjoy impunity even after their chauvinistic remarks, made behind closed doors, are leaked to the public.
On Tuesday, LDP General Secretary Toshihiro Nikai, 82, responded to female LDP lawmakers who asked for more female participation at the party’s executive levels. He invited five female lawmakers to join some of the party’s executive meetings, but only as observers, who are not allowed to talk.
Yoshiro Mori, a former Prime Minister, was chosen for his job, Japanese observers say, because of his access and influence at the highest levels of the Japanese and Olympic leadership.
Hashimoto is considered Mori’s protégé, referring to him as her “teacher in politics.” She told reporters Thursday that “we should think separately about Mr. Mori’s experience and accomplishments, and his recent remarks.”
Mori attempted to select his own replacement, the 84-year-old mayor of the Olympic Village and head of Japan’s national soccer and basketball leagues. But that too prompted an outcry and the Tokyo Games Organizing Committee overruled Mori, and set up a panel with equal numbers of men and women to choose his replacement.
Observers have noted that Hashimoto’s career has not been free of controversy either.
In 2014, a Japanese magazine published pictures of Hashimoto with a younger male figure skater at a party following the Sochi Winter Olympics. The story alleged that Hashimoto had sexually harassed and tried to forcibly kiss the skater. Hashimoto later apologized. The skater said he didn’t feel harassed.
Asked about the incident, Hashimoto told reporters Thursday, “At that time, and now, I deeply regret my careless behavior.”
A senior LDP politician, 76-year-old Wataru Takeshita, tried to defend Hashimoto, the Asahi newspaper reports, describing her as “having a personality of a man in the skating world because she thinks nothing about hugging (everyone she meets).”
Takeshita’s aides then called reporters to retract the statement, explaining that he had simply meant that Hashimoto was “masculine for a woman.”
Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report from Tokyo