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Japan local Olympic torch relay organizers U-turn on 'men only' boat section after criticism

The Chintoro boats, which only men are permitted to ride, are seen on the water in this image from the Aichi dashi matsuri nipponichi association's website.

NAGOYA -- The decision to exclude women from a section of the Olympic torch relay set to take place on a traditionally men-only boat in central Japan's Aichi Prefecture was scrapped April 2 following the Mainichi Shimbun's reporting on the plans.

    In the early hours of April 2, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay in Aichi Prefecture Task Force urged a rethink from the Handa Municipal Government, which runs the city where the section of the route is being held, and it was decided that women would be allowed to board the vessel.

    A "men only" traditional boat ride was initially set for inclusion on the Olympic torch relay itinerary scheduled for April 6 in Aichi Prefecture. The boats, used in the city of Handa's Chintoro Festival dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867), will carry Olympic torchbearers, but because women are traditionally forbidden from riding the vessels, a request by the city to allow only men on them in the relay had been accepted by the organizers, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay in Aichi Prefecture Task Force. Experts criticized the move, with one saying, "Don't they understand that the Olympic Charter calls for equality of the sexes?"

    According to the Aichi Prefecture task force, an around 200-meter section of the course across the city's Handa canal was to be limited to men only. Apart from the torchbearer, a total of about 30 male residents were to ride the boat, some of whom will provide live musical accompaniment recreating the traditional festival's atmosphere.

    The Handa Municipal Government proposed to the task force that the boats be used in the relay to promote the festival. During the event, only men are allowed to ride the boats, so it was reportedly decided the relay also would be a men-only affair.

    In an earlier conversation with a local male executive in charge of the festival, the Mainichi Shimbun learned that police officers and media-related individuals riding the boat were also all set to be men. When the plans were put forward to the Aichi Prefectural Government, they were reportedly told that women are traditionally forbidden from getting on the boats.

    But following media reports and discussions with the festival's local organizers, which manage the boat, its use this time will now be treated as an "event" rather than a "festival," thereby allowing women to ride the boat in this instance. Children will also be among those performing traditional festival music on the vessel, and their parents and guardians will also be on board. Owing to the gender limits on the boat, it had been expected that only male guardians would be allowed on, but with the change it's reportedly now possible for female ones to ride, too.

    Before the change, a city government official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "While there might be elements that aren't in keeping with the Olympic spirit, the festival is the way it is. It's an issue about whether we choose history and traditions, or the latest commonly held views."

    But after it was decided to let women on board, one member of the task force said, "Although it's important to protect traditional culture, it's not in-keeping with the Olympics. We reviewed it so that it could take a form which the public could appreciate."

    In its original reporting on the story, the Mainichi Shimbun heard critical views from cultural experts. Among them was professor emeritus in cultural anthropology at Keio University and expert on female exclusion in culture Masataka Suzuki, who explained how the tradition came to be maintained: "The boats used in the festival are intended to welcome and celebrate the gods, and so allowing women to ride them became taboo."

    He indicated the festival was inappropriate for the torch relay, saying, "The question is, why did they decide to use a ship originally meant for the gods in the torch relay? They should think of the festival and this event as separate things."

    Kyoko Raita, a professor at Chukyo University and an expert on sports and gender issues, said, "That this was decided without anyone feeling any kind of doubt itself shows there are issues of no one even looking at this from a gender perspective."

    (Japanese original by Shinichiro Kawase and Shiho Sakai, Nagoya News Center)

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