As Japan Prepares for the Postponed Olympics, a Conservative Old Guard Is Dragging the Country Down

A sexist outburst from Japan’s Olympics chief derailed preparations for the rescheduled Tokyo Games and provoked an international furor. Mori Yoshiro’s antiquated attitudes are rooted in a conservative, authoritarian worldview that’s deeply entrenched on the Japanese right.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori resigned after making sexist remarks. (Franck Robichon / Pool / AFP via Getty)

On March 25, the Olympic torch relay is due to set out from Fukushima with its “sacred flame” on a grand national circuit of Japan, visiting all forty-seven of the country’s prefectures, and arriving at the Tokyo Games venue in time for the opening ceremony on July 23. But will this eagerly awaited scenario really play out according to plan?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded Japan the Games in the first place because Prime Minister Abe Shinzo assured them in Buenos Aires in September 2013 that the legacy of the Fukushima nuclear disaster was “under control.” According to Abe, there would be no problem with Japan playing host to the world.

In the Abe design, adopted by his successor, Suga Yoshihide, in November 2021, the “Recovery Games” would signal to the world Japan’s recovery from the 2011 quake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. The grim fact, however, is that Abe’s assurance was unfounded.

The Fukushima Legacy

As of 2021, not only has the Fukushima crisis, now in its eleventh year, yet to be resolved — the initial 2011 declaration of a national emergency has not been rescinded — but a second major crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, has followed in its wake. For neither Fukushima nor COVID-19 is there a resolution in sight.

The people of Fukushima — and indeed of Japan as a whole — continue to suffer from the impact of the 2011 meltdown of three reactor cores at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The disaster released a radioactive slurry into the soil, air, and sea, including caesium-137 and strontium-90 — the equivalent, as nuclear physicist Koide Hiroaki reports, of a thousand Hiroshima bombs. Within the reactors, a significant volume, estimated to be more than 1,100 tons, of nuclear fuel, debris, and waste remains.

The caesium slowly degenerates but, according to Koide, even the passage of a hundred years will only diminish it by one-tenth, leaving Japan in a state of nuclear emergency far into the future. Many thousands of Japanese citizens remain displaced by the disaster. In April 2011, 2,700 tons of “less radioactive” water was released into the sea, but much more has accumulated since then, having absorbed some measure of radioactivity from being poured in to cool the melted reactor cores.

The buildup of polluted water continued at a rate, as of early 2020, of several hundred tons each day, with a total volume now in excess of one million tons. Nobody knows what the effect will be of pouring substantial quantities of irradiated fluids into the ocean over the next decade, even if they have been partially “cleaned.” But that is the government’s plan. The water dump, however, is to be held over until after the Tokyo Olympics.

Japan has so far escaped international censure for such high-risk plans. One may readily imagine what the response would be from the international community if some other country — North Korea, for example — were to announce such a step.

With the 2011 nuclear crisis and state of emergency still in effect, a second and very different crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, followed from early 2020. Over one hundred million people around the world have so far contracted it and two million have died. Japan accounts for approximately four hundred thousand and seven thousand of those figures, respectively.

In its current iteration, the COVID-19 emergency declaration covers Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures and extends from January to March 2021. The Abe government postponed the Tokyo Games from 2020 until the following year in response to the pandemic.

Mori and the Emperor Cult

As if the two emergencies were not enough, in February 2021 there was an unexpected complication for Japan’s postponed Olympics. The head of the Japanese Olympic Committee, Mori Yoshiro, declared that meetings with many female participants were slow to get anything done, because women talked too much. As sexist comments go, this one was relatively mild, but it stirred a wave of outrage, from women and men alike, both in Japan and internationally.

Mori at first issued a perfunctory apology and retraction, while declaring that he had no intention of resigning. As the wave of sentiment in favor of sacking him spread, ten days after making his remark, Mori stepped down, still protesting that he had been misunderstood. Although he is now gone, the question remains of what his gaffe signified.

Mori is a major political figure, whose career includes a year (2000–1) as prime minister. He stands out in early twenty-first century Japan as a believer in the absolutist Shinto formula upon which the prewar Japanese state was built — a formula that ultimately led to war with much of the world in the 1930s and ’40s. As such, he has been a leading advocate for revision of the Japanese constitution to bring it back into accord with the 1889 imperial document.

As Mori put it in May 2000, addressing a Shinto politics forum: “Everyone should recognize that Japan is the land of the gods, centered on the emperor.” It was precisely this formula of the Japanese state that reached its apogee and then collapsed catastrophically in 1945, giving way to the postwar constitutional order based on popular sovereignty. After that 2000 statement, support for his government steadily drained away, recording an absolute nadir of 6.5 percent in February 2001, at which point Mori resigned as prime minister.

However, his archaic and reactionary worldview proved to be no serious obstacle for continued high-profile roles as a core member of the Shinto Politics League in the Diet, and a national coordinating figure for Japanese sport since 2005, first as president of the Japan Rugby Football Union and then as head of the organizing committee for the Tokyo Olympics. From time to time, Mori continued to provoke controversy by making statements that were calculated to outrage democratic constitutionalist sentiment.

In June 2003, when he was the chair of a committee for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Japan’s falling birth rate, Mori suggested that it was inappropriate for women who declare they will not have children to receive any subsidy from the public purse. In July 2016, in his capacity as Olympic president, he declared that that any athlete who was unwilling to sing the “Kimigayo” imperial anthem at a victory ceremony was not a representative of Japan, implying that their selection would be cancelled.

Mori’s latest contemptuous reference to women can be seen as another expression of the feudal framework of his thinking, with the emperor as the supreme, concentrated expression of unsullied Japanese-ness, while women are considered to be impure, inferior beings, summed up in the expression danson johi (men to be revered, women to be contemned).

A Women’s Uprising

Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and his deputy, Minister of Finance Aso Taro, distanced themselves from Mori’s latest remark, though both men are known to share his attachment to the prewar, emperor-centered polity. While they were mildly critical of Mori, they refrained from issuing any call for his dismissal, focusing on the possible impact of Mori’s comment for the “national interest” (kokueki) rather than on its inherent sexism. It was only when the IOC itself intervened on February 9, declaring Mori’s remarks to be “absolutely inappropriate,” that the ground shifted underneath him. Three days later, he resigned.

Suga and Aso seemed not to realize that the problem with Mori’s statement was its breach of a fundamental principle of modern democracy rather than the damage it might cause to the national interest. It offended simultaneously against the Olympic Charter, which defines the Olympic movement as one transcending national interests, and Article 14 of the Constitution of Japan, which prohibits gender discrimination, not to mention the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1981 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.

In the end, it was a kind of uprising by furious women that may have played the decisive role in forcing Mori’s resignation. Mori’s plan for the Games assigned a key role to an army of eighty thousand unpaid volunteers, including many talented bilingual or trilingual women. In light of Japan’s deeply entrenched institutional sexism — the country ranked 121st out of 153 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2020 “Gender Gap” table — the Mori remarks came as an intolerable insult. Women sent in their resignations by the hundreds, along with quite a few men, in a snowballing phenomenon that was only halted by his resignation.

However, the Mori affair is not going to be solved simply by his resignation, rooted as it was in the deep and ramified structures of Japanese sexism. The whole framework of the Olympic movement in Japan is imbued with his values and staffed by his appointees. Indeed, his controversial remarks signified Mori’s resistance to even modest efforts and pressure to address gender imbalances from within and beyond Japan. His words made this clear:

MEXT [Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology] has been making itself a nuisance by demanding we raise the number of female board members to 40 percent. But the more women there are, the longer board meetings go on. I am embarrassed to have to mention it, but meetings of the Rugby Association take twice as long now that women are included.

On February 12, Hashimoto Seiko, a fifty-six-year-old former Olympic women’s speed skater, took Mori’s place at the helm. Hashimoto is well known to be Mori’s protégé, with the two referring to each other as being “like daughter” and “like dad.” Upon assuming the post, she had no words of criticism for her predecessor, instead offering effusive praise for Mori as her teacher and political exemplar. It is therefore most unlikely that Hashimoto is going to usher in a new era for the Olympic movement in Japan.

Full Steam Ahead?

The Japanese government, in consultation with the IOC, must first decide whether to proceed with the Games. Opinion polls consistently report public opposition running at levels of around 80 percent. Even in the corporate sector, a survey in early February found just 7.7 percent of firms in favor of going ahead with the Games as currently scheduled. About 56 percent wanted another postponement or outright cancellation.

There would be a precedent for cancellation, but it’s not one the Japanese authorities would want to be reminded of — the aborted 1940 Tokyo Games. So far, the government seems determined that the Games must go ahead at any cost. It is said to be contemplating a possible arrangement where only athletes would be admitted into the venues and the Olympic torch would be escorted through empty streets.

Can the Japanese people and their business sector be persuaded to see the Games of the XXXII Olympiad as a symbol of recovery from nuclear disaster and pandemic? Even among athletes, there are reports of concern about the potential risks of participation. The governor of one prefecture, Shimane, has served notice that he might withdraw it from the torch relay, warning that the Games were likely to result in another infection spike: “As things stand now, the Olympics should not be held.”

With the Torch due to set off on its grand national tour in a matter of weeks, how will Japan’s Olympic organization and its government reconcile their need for public attention, grand spectacle, and multiple celebrations with the pandemic principles of social distancing? Mori Yoshiro’s antiquated outlook may not be the last hurdle for the Toyko Games to clear.