TOKYO — In the days since the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee ignited a fierce backlash by asserting that women talk too much in meetings, more than half of the Japanese public agreed in a poll that he was “not qualified” to lead. One of Japan’s most prominent Olympic hopefuls, Naomi Osaka, said his comments were “really ignorant.” Editorials in two of the country’s largest newspapers called for him to resign.
Yet after making a brief apology, the Tokyo 2020 chairman, Yoshiro Mori, 83, remains the face of Japan’s effort to pull off the most important event on the international sports calendar. His imperviousness to the firestorm over his sexist remarks appears to reflect the support of a Japanese power structure that is largely unaccountable to the public, works to preserve the old guard and freezes out the critical voices of younger people.
On social media, this generational divide has coalesced around the Japanese word “rougai,” a term that connotes irritation at the intransigent behavior by the country’s legions of older people, and which Mr. Mori himself used in discussing his remarks.
The tenacity of Mr. Mori, a former prime minister, also shows how the country’s long-running ruling party has little incentive to stand up for women’s rights, managing to stay in power despite failing to meet its own targets for advancing women in politics and the workplace.
“The people around Mori and he himself think that they can be like this because it’s always been like that,” said Kaori Hayashi, a professor of sociology and media studies at the University of Tokyo. “And if the storm calms down, then they can go back to business as usual. That’s been the culture.”
Political leaders — almost all men — operate within a bubble, under the notion that “‘we are the ones who decide,’” Ms. Hayashi said. “So that’s why even if we are screaming,” she added, “our voices can’t reach these circles.”
Mr. Mori, who served two decades ago as one of the country’s most unpopular prime ministers, made his comments last Wednesday after an online meeting of the Japanese Olympic Committee. In a speech about increased female representation on the committee, he warned that meetings would never end as women competed with each other to talk the most.
He later retracted his remarks, but said he had no intention of resigning. On Thursday evening, he appeared on a satellite news program and suggested that he had apologized mainly out of expediency. “Withdrawing my remarks was the fastest way,” he said. “The important Olympics are getting closer.”
Since then, prominent political backers have lined up to say that Mr. Mori should remain in charge. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s current prime minister, called Mr. Mori’s remarks “against the national interest” but pointed to a statement from the International Olympic Committee that declared the issue “closed.” On Tuesday, the I.O.C. issued a follow-up statement calling Mr. Mori’s comments “absolutely inappropriate.”
Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of Mr. Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party, said it would “not be a problem” for Mr. Mori to stay in place. “Isn’t that enough?” Mr. Nikai said of Mr. Mori’s retraction of his comments.
Even those who have been critical of his remarks have declined to call for his departure. Seiko Hashimoto, the cabinet minister overseeing the Olympics, and the Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike — both among Japan’s highest-ranking female politicians — said that Mr. Mori “should not have made” the remark. But they said they would continue to support the organizing committee if he remained at the top.
Jesper Koll, who has worked in Japan for decades as an economist, said that with Mr. Suga’s deference to the entrenched male-dominated power structure, he had missed “a golden opportunity to kill the old guard and obstructionists.” Instead, Mr. Koll said, the prime minister’s “silence makes him complicit to the dark side of Japan.”
As a former prime minister with extensive experience in the sports world, Mr. Mori can lean on his broad network built up over a decades-long career. And with the Olympics scheduled to start in just over five months, some commentators said it could be difficult to replace him. Organizers are struggling to establish protocols to protect the Games from a global pandemic that will not be brought to heel by the time of the opening ceremony on July 23.
With a reputation as a political fixer, Mr. Mori may also rely on those who feel they owe him loyalty for previous favors granted in Japan’s insular political and business worlds.
“He seems to be very good at taking care of people’s little troubles and foibles, and a lot of people seem to depend on his support for political and professional survival,” said Noriko Hama, an economics professor at Doshisha Business School. “So that’s probably serving him well at this moment, which is very sad and embarrassing and infuriating.”
Young people, in particular, she said, might like to speak out. “But they fear the consequences because he is such an influential person,” Ms. Hama said.
Commentators have pointed out that Mr. Mori has been “gaffe-prone” throughout his career. But women’s rights activists say his comments go much deeper than a simple mistake, and reflect an attitude shared by many men in Japan.
Speaking on Asahi TV’s morning news analysis show on Monday, Mayu Yamaguchi, a lawyer and former finance ministry official, choked up as she described her own experience of being told she was “annoying” when she talked the same length of time as a male commentator, or being called “hysterical” if she spoke as loudly as a man.
For years, Japan has vowed to improve its lowly status among developed countries on the advancement of women. The previous prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said that women should occupy 30 percent of corporate management jobs by 2020; they hold less than 12 percent. Within the Liberal Democratic Party, 40 out of 391 members of Parliament — just over 10 percent — are women.
In Mr. Suga’s 20-person cabinet, only two members are female, and the average age is over 60.
“Even the relatively liberal wing of the L.D.P. are not firmly committed to gender equality,” said Mito Akiyoshi, a professor of sociology at Senshu University in Tokyo. “They are more opportunistic feminists. When it looks good for their public image or is seemingly good for the economy, they try to push for greater women’s involvement in politics and the economy.”
Elections in Japan are overwhelmingly local, with ideology or identity politics not playing a strong role. Voters emphasize security and continuity, even if they don’t agree with the ruling party’s agenda, and women are as likely as men to support the Liberal Democratic Party, according to Gregory W. Noble, a professor of comparative political economy at the University of Tokyo.
But that does not mean women don’t appreciate the stakes when a powerful man like Mr. Mori demeans them.
His comments could have profound effects on how women are treated, and not just in board meetings, said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, who oversees the group’s advocacy with the International Olympic Committee.
“If action is not taken in relation to the man who is running the Summer Olympics, the most important global sporting event,” said Ms. Worden, “then what message does that send to the young girl whose swimming coach is touching her inappropriately or the women and girls who are fighting for equitable pay?”
Some activists say they do not want to focus on Mr. Mori alone. Kazuko Fukuda, one of the authors of a Change.org petition criticizing Mr. Mori’s remarks as “prejudiced, narrow-minded and discriminatory,” said they were calling for broader policies to ensure gender equality.
“The people who said it’s not easy to include women or that women talk too long are not only Mori, but the people inside those institutions working for the Olympic Games,” Ms. Fukuda said. “We think it’s not just an individual problem, but a structural problem.”
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