In a late submission to the Olympics line-up, Japan has introduced a new discipline in which the octogenarian president of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee first insults women and then lumbers angrily through an obstacle course of consequences. In a rigged field, he may even clinch gold.
The on-pitch antics — a masterclass in one man’s determination to clutch a metaphorical electric fence with both hands — have made compelling viewing. Yoshiro Mori, a growly 83-year old former prime minister, who barely managed one year in office, limbered-up for the event with a history of public missteps and a record as one of Japan’s postwar leaders with the lowest approval ratings.
Japan’s sometimes lethargic national conscience may not have been troubled earlier about the risks of putting such a figure in charge of the Olympics’ showcase of youth, diversity and inclusivity. Yet it seems to be fretting now. In remarks that appeared oblivious to the disgust they would cause, Mori said that women did not belong on committees because their “strong sense of rivalry” made meetings last twice as long. Japan’s poor record on gender equality, coupled with the exasperated stream of day-to-day discrimination reported on social media, made this impossible to laugh off.
Yuriko Koike, the first female governor of Tokyo, described the comments as a “major issue” for the Olympics. A day after, Mori made a qualified apology and referred to his wife’s peevishness. He later suggested to a TV interviewer that he chiefly felt obliged to say sorry because of all the foreign attention he had provoked. Mori thus does not appear to have recanted his beliefs; he just regrets speaking the credo aloud. He has also rejected calls to resign, thereby intensifying the difficulty that politicians and corporate sponsors encounter when condemning such sexism while acknowledging that an unreconstructed supremo remains in charge.
Considerably more revealing than Mori’s outburst from another era, though, is the commentary that followed it. He provoked a domestic swell of criticism. But that has been accompanied with attempts to contextualise the unforgivable and promote the idea that Mori’s attitude now falls well outside the mainstream of Japanese business and political leadership.
Where domestic media have shown vehemence in their criticism, it appears fuelled by the sense that this was the last straw in an Olympics that has been eye-wateringly costly, is strongly opposed by the Japanese public, and, as a sports event, may anyway be irreparably diminished by the pandemic. The sense of disconnect between public outrage and the government’s understanding of it was highlighted when the matter was discussed on Thursday in parliament. “I am unfamiliar with the details of the remarks,” said Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to opposition party jeers.
Mori’s tin-earedness, some suggest, is a product of the cocoon of deference that so often surrounds even Japanese men well below his stature, whereby little he says is challenged. Others have explained the incident with the phrase kuuki yomenai — a contemptuous term for when people have proved unable to “read the air”. In that analysis, what he said was more a failure of manners and diplomacy than of character.
Others point to the baffling habit of Mori and other Japanese leaders of forgetting that the outside world is watching the globe’s third biggest economy — an amnesia that seems all the more absurd when the country is battling, in the face of a pandemic, to stage a sporting event to which athletes from most everywhere are invited.
But overwhelmingly — in the outrage expressed on Japanese social media, news shows and in dozens of online to-and-fros with friends and contacts — the words that keep appearing are “embarrassment” or “shame”. Some find it shameful that Japan appears to reward men such as Mori despite their attitudes; others that Japan’s power structures are unable to get rid of such people when they overstep the line and cannot jettison the attitudes themselves. Many, led by Japanese media, highlighted the way in which the story was immediately seized upon by international news organisations, and were embarrassed that Japan, in this instance, appeared represented by the reprehensible.
This public reaction may be both heartfelt and acute. But Mori may ultimately avoid the resignation that many think he owes Japan’s female population because the shame, now nationalised, does not appear to be something he feels personally. The problem, then, is less the embarrassment but rather the underlying condition of sexist discrimination, entrenched by deference and enshrined by longevity, that this moment of national ignominy exposed.