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A Gold Medal for Sexism in Japan

Tokyo Olympic President’s Remarks Show Discrimination Against Women Still Rife

Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee President Yoshiro Mori delivers a speech during the Tokyo 2020 Executive Board Meeting in Tokyo, Japan, March 30, 2020. © 2020 Issei Kato/Pool Photo via AP

The Olympic system likes to claim that sport is “one of the most powerful platforms for promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls.” Yet when the president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee and former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori was asked recently about increasing gender diversity on the Japanese Olympic Committee board, his response was that “women talk too much.”

“If we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat, they have difficulty finishing,” Mori reportedly said at the committee meeting. “We have about seven women on the organizing committee but everyone understands their place.”

The Japan Olympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, which Mori chairs, have an important role to play when it comes to gender equality and stopping abuse of athletes in sport. Women in Japan are grossly underrepresented in sports federation leadership. Human Rights Watch recently reported on the persistent abuse of children, including girls, in sport in Japan. 

With the global reckoning over #MeToo abuses, Japan’s female athletes, including in gymnastics, swimming and wrestling, have made accusations of harassment and abuse. The Olympic wrestler Kaori Icho won four consecutive gold medals, but then had to fight the Japan Wrestling Federation to get her coach out of the sport when he harassed her. 

Women in Japan who complain of discrimination or sexual abuse are severely stigmatized. Government figures show that more than 95 percent of sexual violence incidents are not reported to police, partly because discussing rape is seen as “embarrassing” in Japan and because many victims feel that reporting would make no difference. 

Japan’s justice system is rigged against survivors of sexual violence. Women, including transgender women, face deep discrimination. Women still face strong barriers to keeping their family name when they marry. In 2018, Japan’s most prestigious medical universities admitted manipulating examination results to suppress the number of women accepted.

The International Olympic Committee has said that Olympic hosts must “prohibit any form of discrimination,” including on grounds of sex. Mori’s comments show the Japanese government urgently needs to reform its attitudes towards women, and a good place to start would be in sports.

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