TOKYO >> Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, resigned Friday, a little over a week after he unleashed a firestorm by suggesting that women talk too much in meetings.
His resignation followed unrelenting international criticism of his sexist remarks, which presented another challenge to Japan’s efforts to carry off the postponed games amid a raging pandemic.
No successor was named. At a news conference Friday evening, Toshiro Muto, chief executive of the organizing committee, said a selection committee would be formed to choose a new president “as soon as possible.”
Mori, who is 83 and a former prime minister of Japan, had made the offensive remarks after an executive meeting Feb. 3 of the Japanese Olympic Committee. During the session, which was streamed online, he addressed efforts to increase female representation on the panel by expressing worries that meetings would drag on as women vied against each other to speak the longest.
“Just when we were preparing to definitely hold the Games, I, as president, said something I shouldn’t have said,” Mori told reporters before an executive committee meeting Friday in Tokyo.
Yet Mori suggested that he did not agree with the criticism levied against him, saying he had been misinterpreted. “I didn’t mean it in that way, although it was said to be discrimination against women,” he said. “I have been praising women, promoting them to speak out more.”
He added that he believed he had been unfairly criticized because of his age. “Old people are also doing well for the sake of Japan and the world,” he said. “I feel extremely unhappy that older people are said to be bad. But it may go nowhere if I complain.”
On Thursday, reports emerged that the leading candidate to replace Mori was Saburo Kawabuchi, 84, a former president of the governing body for Japanese soccer. But Friday, the Japanese media reported that Kawabuchi would not be taking the post.
Speculation then turned to a woman, Seiko Hashimoto, 56, the Cabinet minister for the Olympics. The appointment of a woman would represent an abrupt change in course and a sharp capitulation to pressure after the organizing committee’s apparent initial intent to name another octogenarian male leader.
At the news conference Friday evening, Muto said that a selection committee evenly divided between women and men would pick Mori’s successor. Muto said a new president would need “experience” and a “high understanding” of gender equality, diversity and inclusion. However, Muto added: “I don’t think we need to discuss or debate gender. We simply need to choose the right person.”
After Mori made his sexist remarks last week, a backlash swiftly followed, and he apologized the next day at a news conference. He said he expected to remain in his post but said he would resign if he was deemed “an obstacle.”
Although some high-ranking political leaders in Japan, including Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, expressed disappointment in Mori’s remarks, none of them called on him to resign. But in the days that followed, pressure built on Mori as criticism of his comments remained undiminished.
A poll showed that nearly 60% of Japanese believed he was no longer qualified to lead. Some Olympic sponsors expressed concern about their continued involvement in the Games, according to Japanese media reports, and the president of Toyota called Mori’s comments “truly regrettable.” Female lawmakers in opposition political parties wore suffragist white to Parliament on Wednesday to protest his remarks.
Mori’s fate had seemed to turn Tuesday evening, when the International Olympic Committee, which had previously called the issue “closed” after his apology, called his remarks “absolutely inappropriate.”
Mori’s resignation came a little over five months before the Games are scheduled to open July 23. Even without the uproar and the headache of appointing a successor, the organizing committee has been scrambling to convince a skeptical Japanese public that it could safely proceed with the Games as the pandemic continues unabated. Vaccinations are not scheduled to begin in Japan until later this month.
Last week, organizers released the first of several so-called playbooks to guide athletes, officials and members of the news media on the rules they must follow to protect participants from the virus at the Games.
Some prominent people opposed the move to push Mori out, saying that it would imperil the Olympics altogether.
“If Mr. Mori steps down, the Tokyo Games will be canceled,” Yoichi Masuzoe, a former governor of Tokyo, said in an interview with Sports Hochi, a daily sports newspaper. “It shows how big his contribution is.” He added: “If he steps down now, the situation will get more confused.”
Those who had called for Mori’s resignation from the organizing committee said it would be a small victory for women’s rights. Kanae Doi, director of Human Rights Watch in Japan, said she hoped that activists could build on the moment and introduce better monitoring of sexual harassment and abuse in sports, as well as more gender parity in general.
“The real challenge is whether Japanese people can make a legacy out of this huge scandal,” Doi said. “Unless we are successful in reforming this country, and in particular the sports community, I think we cannot say it was a success.”
Kazuko Fukuda, a women’s rights activist and one of the authors of a Change.org petition that had criticized Mori’s remarks, said she was glad that authorities had “really valued the people’s voices” in urging Mori to resign.
Fukuda said that “the only thing I really want is that they choose through the right process and choose a person who really understands the Olympic ideals of human rights and equality,” she said. “That’s a really important point no matter if that person is a woman or a man or whatever age that person is.”