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Female Olympian to head Tokyo Games after predecessor’s ouster for sexist remarks

Japan’s Olympics minister, Seiko Hashimoto, seen here in Tokyo in 2019, will take over the Olympics organizing committee. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

TOKYO — Seiko Hashimoto, a seven-time Olympian and Japan's Olympics minister, was appointed Thursday as the new head of the organizing committee overseeing the delayed Tokyo Games, after the former chief resigned for making sexist remarks.

Hashimoto, 56, had been one of only two women in the cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, but she had to step down from the cabinet to take up her new role.

She was born five days before the start of Tokyo’s last Summer Games in 1964, and her parents reportedly named her after the Olympic flame, seika in Japanese.

She lived up to her name by taking part in three Summer Olympics as a cyclist and four Winter Olympics as a speed skater, a record for a Japanese woman, and winning a bronze medal in the 1,500-meter speedskating event in Albertville, France, in 1992.

Olympic chief shake-up in Tokyo casts light on wider sexism in Japanese sport

But Hashimoto has an unenviable task of rebuilding confidence in the Tokyo Games, which have already been postponed by a year and still face the threat of being disrupted because of the coronavirus pandemic. Compounding the challenge, the event has largely lost support among the Japanese public. Last year, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso called the Games “cursed.”

“The Tokyo Games are five months away, and we have to secure safety for Japan and the world. The most important issue is coronavirus prevention,” Hashimoto said Thursday.

Former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was the driving force behind Japan’s Games, resigned last year because of poor health. Then, Tokyo 2020 organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori was forced to resign last week after an outcry over remarks in which he defended the Japanese Olympic Committee’s poor record of promoting women by saying they make meetings run too long by talking too much.

The 83-year-old initially tried to pick his successor — an 84-year-old man who was a former head of the Japanese soccer association — but the government blocked the attempt after more uproar.

Japan's Seiko Hashimoto, a seven-time Olympian, said Feb. 18 that she is replacing the man who resigned after making sexist remarks. (Video: Reuters)

A panel was established to choose a successor, and it set out five criteria: a deep knowledge of the Olympic and Paralympic Games; an understanding of its principles concerning gender, inclusivity and diversity; work experience; knowledge of the Tokyo Games; and management skills.

Hashimoto was immediately a front-runner, and although media reports suggested she had expressed private reluctance to take the job and surrender her cabinet role, she accepted the role Thursday.

“I want the organizing committee to confirm the great vision of the Tokyo Games — unity in diversity,” she said. “I want to create a legacy of building a society that accepts people regardless of gender, disability, race or sexual orientation.”

In the faction-ridden world of Japanese ruling party politics, the choice of Hashimoto is one that won’t rock the boat. She belongs to the same political faction as Mori and has described him as a father figure in the past.

But she has already made history several times in her own right, as the only Japanese woman to have competed in the Olympics while serving as a lawmaker, and also as the only upper-house lawmaker to give birth while holding office.

On social media, though, one sportswriter suggested Hashimoto had been used as a “pawn” by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to draw a line under the Mori scandal and was forced to resign as minister against her will.

“Can this really be seen as women’s empowerment?” Kazuto Oshima asked.

Hashimoto has doubled as Olympics minister and minister for women’s empowerment since 2019. The Mainichi newspaper said she may be replaced in Suga’s cabinet by Tamayo Marukawa, 50, a former television announcer who was elected to the upper house of parliament in 2007 and has also previously served as Olympics minister and as environment minister.

Kazuko Fukuda, one of the women who started a petition calling for Mori’s resignation and greater representation for women on the Japanese Olympic Committee signed by more than 150,000 people, said she welcomed the fact that Hashimoto had been chosen by a panel made up equally of men and women.

But she said Hashimoto would be missed in her role as a women’s empowerment minister who “aggressively took on many gender issues” in Japan.

“She was someone who listened to the voice of the youth, and has pushed for issues that many in the party opposed, including personal choice of surnames for married couples, proper sex education and selling morning-after pills over the counter,” she said. “For the Olympics it is a step forward with her as the new chief, but I am concerned that there may be a setback for the country’s overall gender issues.”

Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.

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