Yoshiro Mori, former prime minister and president of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organizing committee, indicated on Thursday, 11 February, that he would step down amidst a growing backlash to sexist remarks about the role of women in meetings. Mori had previously “retracted” his remarks but resisted calls to resign despite mounting protests at home and abroad, the resignation of hundreds of volunteers, and behind-the-scenes pressure from sponsors and International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials.
The controversy was particularly poorly timed for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose government needs to make the case to a deeply skeptical public that the Tokyo games, rescheduled for this July, should proceed on schedule. The organizers and the IOC insist that the games will not be canceled or rescheduled. They are currently deliberating whether events will be held with crowd restrictions – and the Suga administration is considering whether it will be possible for international spectators to view the games, given current entry restrictions due to Covid-19. The outcry over Mori’s remarks could therefore increase the political cost to Suga of holding the games as scheduled.
In the immediate term, Suga could lose more public support due to his handling of the controversy. While Suga criticized Mori’s comments as detrimental to the national interest and inconsistent with the values of the Olympic Games, he declined to call for his resignation from the organizing committee. Meanwhile, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai openly dismissed calls for Mori’s resignation – saying he had already retracted the remarks – and belittled the resignations of volunteers, suggesting that they would reconsider after taking time to reflect. Ultimately, it appears to have been Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike – the former LDP lawmaker who has a fraught relationship with her former party and ambitions for higher office – who finally forced Mori to resign and she announced that she would not attend a 17 February meeting between national government, Tokyo government, IOC, and Tokyo 2020 officials. This controversy therefore provides another sign of Suga’s weakening grip on power. He may have been constrained from openly confronting Mori due to his power as a former chairman of the LDP’s largest faction, who has been able to rely on stalwart defenders from the LDP’s right wing since the controversy began.
Mori may also be prepared to defy Suga in the selection process of a successor. Mori reportedly dismissed a suggestion from Suga that his successor should be younger and female (as well as a proposal from IOC President Thomas Bach that he appoint a female co-president). Instead, he proposed that his replacement should be Saburo Kawabuchi, an 84-year-old former soccer player who has managed the national team and led the Japan Football Association (JFA). The selection of another octogenarian with outspokenly right-wing views – who is close with Mori and will likely rely on him for advice – will do little to restore public confidence or otherwise rebuild support for the Tokyo games, suggesting that the Olympics and their management will remain more of a liability than an opportunity for the embattled prime minister going forward.