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2020 Olympic golf venue feeling pressure to drop men-only membership rule

The clubhouse at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, is seen on Jan. 15, 2017. (Mainichi)

The golf club chosen as a host venue for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has suggested it will allow women to join as full members "sometime in the future," after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike expressed "discomfort" at the club's men-only policy.

"An era when we make women full members is coming sometime in the future," a Kasumigaseki Country Club representative said after Koike suggested the male-only membership rule was out of touch with the 21st century. Some observers have expressed hope that the club will open its regular roster to women as the Olympic Games approach.

The private Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, was founded in 1929, and has a number of ironclad traditions. The International Golf Federation (IGF) praised the course as the most appropriate for the Olympic competition from among 10 Kanto region candidates, and in January 2013 the club was listed as the host of the event in the candidature file submitted to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

According to the club's articles of incorporation, it has about 1,270 full members, all men. However, it also has some 1,800 family and weekday members, more than 200 of whom are women. The club admits only full members on around half the some 60 Sundays and holidays in a year. The club has permitted women to play on its course as family members since before World War II, and installed women's facilities in the clubhouse in the 1990s. It also opened to "junior" players and local residents around the same time.

Regarding Gov. Koike's remarks, Kasumigaseki Country Club general manager Hiroshi Imaizumi commented, "We were proud that we're comparatively open to women, so it caught us by surprise." A family membership costs 4 million yen per year, but a full membership costs more than 10 million. According to the club, no women have ever expressed a desire to become full members, and so the issue has never been discussed. "The membership is satisfied with the current arrangement," Imaizumi said.

The IOC's midterm Olympic Agenda 2020 plan calls specifically for promoting gender equality. However, Japan Golf Association managing director Hiroshi Yamanaka stated that "we have told the IGF about the Kasumigaseki club's management practices. It is our understanding that there is no problem." But the British news media has raised doubts about the Kasumigaseki club's men-only membership policy, and a wave of criticism is growing.

Meanwhile, club board member and public relations committee chairman Shigeki Sugita commented, "The content of the criticism is common sense in society. I thought that women as full club members were still a long way off, but it may have got a lot closer."

To allow women to become regular members, the change must be approved by half of voters at a general meeting of current full members. The average age among regular members is 69, and there are apparently many calling for the club to "uphold tradition."

"Rather than wondering what to do because of outside pressure, this could be a chance to really think about the issue," said Sugita. "Culture and ways of thinking don't change overnight. It will take time."

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