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Japan public mood was key factor in Hashimoto's appointment as new Olympic chief

Seiko Hashimoto, the new president of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic organizing committee, speaks to reporters at a Feb. 18, 2021 press conference in Tokyo's Chuo Ward. (Pool photo)

After a 16-day process with some twists and turns, Seiko Hashimoto, a seven-time Olympian and Japan's Olympic minister, was appointed the new president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee. Her selection, which came after predecessor Yoshiro Mori's resignation over sexist remarks, was decided amid close consideration for the mood of public opinion.

    With the spread of the coronavirus continuing to plague Japan, challenges remain before the country can hold the Summer Games as scheduled. Confusion over the new committee chief's selection has also left a chasm between the parties organizing the event.

    On Feb. 17, a deliberation committee meeting of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games decided on its candidate to succeed Mori as committee head. Even after Fujio Mitarai, 85, chairman of the deliberation committee, informed Hashimoto, 56, of its request that she assume the presidency that evening, she remained silent about the offer. Furthermore, she said to the press in a detached tone, "Procedures are underway. I will refrain from commenting any further as it concerns personnel matters."

    Hashimoto's decision over whether or not to accept the offer was not leaked even to those around her. Speculation abounded among concerned figures within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Japanese government, with one saying, "People around her are desperately trying to persuade her, and the decision is up to Ms. Hashimoto." Another remarked, "Ms. Hashimoto is the candidate, but that's only for now."

    Behind the strict gag order was the confusion that hit the organizing committee a week earlier. On Feb. 11, the day before Mori formally announced his intention to step down, former Japan Football Association president Saburo Kawabuchi, 84, divulged to the media that he had accepted Mori's direct appointment of him as his successor and that he had requested Mori remain in the committee as an adviser.

    But because the committee president is supposed to be chosen by the mutual election of board members, Kawabuchi's revelation triggered a public backlash that personnel matters were being decided behind closed doors. In response, Kawabuchi backed down and declined the offer.

    Several individuals connected to the matter criticized Kawabuchi for "talking too much," and the Japanese government also warned the organizing committee must take "appropriate procedures." It complied and set up a candidate deliberation committee with eight male and female members to improve transparency. In a bid to highlight fair discussion, the deliberation panel detailed the five qualifications it sought for the new president, and took special care that the candidates' names did not come to light.

    Behind Hashimoto's silence lay another reason. In 2014, a weekly magazine reported that Hashimoto forcibly kissed a male figure skater when she headed the Japan Skating Federation. The incident was a major concern for Hashimoto's assumption of the organizing committee presidency. Mori's resignation came after his sexist remarks went viral on social media and drew fire from foreign media, and there was a risk of Hashimoto's past actions inviting fury online as sexual harassment.

    South Korean media reacted sharply, with one outlet saying "Hashimoto, known for forced kisses, taking place of misogynistic Mori." Another stated, "Commotion continues in sexual harassment row." But overall, criticism from overseas media was limited. The Associated Press pointed to low female representation in decision-making processes and politics in Japan, and laid its hopes of a break down in gender inequality on the appointment of a female president.

    Michael Payne, former International Olympic Committee marketing chief, who earlier called for Mori's resignation over his gaffe, hailed Hashimoto's appointment. He tweeted: "Congrats @Tokyo2020 on selecting a woman to lead the committee, selecting an Olympian and a politician who has been closely following the planning. Right decision, real legacy impact to society. Good luck Seiko Hashimoto."

    With the spread of the coronavirus already taking a heavy toll on the Tokyo Games, organizers were keen to avoid any further confusion over the selection of the new organizing committee chief.

    "If a backlash gains momentum in the mass media and social media, it would complicate the situation. To discern whether the plan to appoint Hashimoto as new president would be viable, the concerned parties were watching until the very last minute how the public would react," an individual close to the government revealed.

    (Japanese original by Yuta Kobayashi, Sports News Department, Tamami Kawakami, Foreign News Department, and Akiko Horiyama, Seoul Bureau)

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