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Despite some efforts, Japanese sports bodies still lag behind in gender equality

Japan Sports Agency chief Daichi Suzuki, center in the front row, and others are pictured in this photo taken after they signed the Brighton Plus Helsinki 2014 Declaration in April 2017. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Sports Agency)

TOKYO -- Although a growing number of Japan's female athletes have performed exceptionally well in the Olympics in recent years, not many of them have been appointed to the executive boards of domestic sports associations after retirement.

About two years ago, five major Japanese sports organizations, including the Japan Sports Agency, the Japanese Olympic Committee and the Japan Sport Association, signed the Brighton Plus Helsinki 2014 Declaration, an international statement recommending that the world should pursue gender equality. However, the pace of reforming Japanese sports bodies to that end remains slow.

A snapshot taken immediately after the five groups signed the statement highlights the reality of gender equality in the Japanese sports community. Five men who signed the declaration, including Japan Sports Agency chief Daichi Suzuki, stood in the front row while women who played a vital role in the process leading up to the signing of the pact were at the rear.

"Men only signed the statement while leaving efforts toward reform up to women. They don't regard the work as their own," deplored a woman belonging to one of the five organizations.

The Brighton Declaration, the predecessor of the Brighton Plus Helsinki 2014 Declaration, was proposed in Britain in 1994. The International Working Group on Women & Sport (IWG), which upgraded the statement to the Brighton Plus Helsinki 2014 Declaration, is demanding that the ratio of women to board members of sports organizations be increased to at least 40%.

However, a survey conducted by the Japan Sport Association in October 2018 shows that the ratio of female board members at 117 member organizations stood at a mere 11.2%. Six such groups had no female executives. The sport climbing and kendo associations are set to appoint women to their respective boards in June.

Kaori Yamaguchi, a JOC executive board member who heads the women's sports division, is critical of the situation. "These organizations are set to increase female executives simply because they have come under pressure to do so. These bodies don't expect women to play an active role," she lamented.

The number of women's sport events adopted in the Olympics has been increasing. Women's soccer was introduced at the 1996 Atlanta Games and wrestling at the 2004 Athens Games. As a result, the number of Japanese female athletes is now almost equal to that of their male counterparts. Moreover, female athletes tend to acquire more gold medals than their male counterparts.

However, Rieko Yamaguchi, associate professor at Josai University and a member of the JOC women's sports division, pointed out that the Japanese sports community has failed to carry out reforms to promote women's empowerment.

"It appears as if gender equality has been achieved, but progress hasn't been made in some aspects," she said.

There are unspoken rules on electing board members of sports organizations, people linked to the sports community have revealed. It is a customary practice for sports organizations to compile a list of candidates for board members on the recommendation of their executive boards, making it difficult for women to be appointed as board members.

"Those who select executives don't have women in their eyes. They keep saying, 'We can't find good candidates,'" Yamaguchi said.

A high-ranking member of a major sports organization that signed the declaration expressed regret over the sports community's failure to appoint women to key posts. "Views that men should play a leading role persist within the sports community. It's not true that there are no capable women. We have failed to establish a system to appoint women to key positions," the executive said.

However, some organizations are proactively trying to increase female executives. The Japan Sailing Federation (JSAF) began to set aside three posts for women last year. No women ran in the previous election for its board. In the latest election, however, five women ran and two of them won by garnering enough votes, while three others who failed to win sufficient support were appointed to the position as directors set aside for women.

Overall, eight women are serving as the federation's directors including its president and those recommended by local chapters, accounting for over 20% of its board members.

The JSAF has since stepped up efforts toward women's empowerment. It set up day care facilities at a growing number of venues for competitions. Ai Yoshida, who gave birth to a boy after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and became the first Japanese woman to win a gold medal in the world championships last year, also uses day care facilities at venues.

Meanwhile, more progress is being made on gender equality overseas. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has revised its charter and is trying to achieve a balance between male and female members in stages. The IAAF will appoint a woman to one of the four posts of vice president and increase the number to two in 2027. Moreover, the organization intends to increase the ratio of female board members to about half by that year.

In March 2018, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced a 25-point reform plan in a bid to achieve gender equality. Specifically, the IOC is reviewing procedures for elections and calling for a balance between the number of male and female members, and equal treatment between men and women in competition schedules, their media exposure and prize money.

However, Etsuko Ogasawara, head of the Japanese Center for Research on Women in Sport at Juntendo University, warned that too much emphasis is placed on the ratio of female executives in sports organizations, and calls for substantive gender equality in the sports community.

"The world is watching what Tokyo is doing. It's not appropriate to focus just on the ratio of women in discussions," said Ogasawara, who previously co-chaired the IWG.

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Tahara, Sports News Department)

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