Japan is in the news lately, all for wrong reasons. Amid surging cases of infected coronavirus and search for the right vaccine to stem its further spread, Japan was taking pride as it was preparing to host the next Olympics in Tokyo. The pandemic forced the event to be postponed to 2021 from the originally scheduled 2020 and now risks either further postponement or outright cancellation. The event hit another stumbling block as the shadow of gerontocracy, a political system governed by old men, and seen normal in Japan because of deep-rooted cultural imprint, is making the third largest economy in the world as the laughing stock in the eyes of the world.
At the centre of controversy are the 83-year-old former prime minister and chief of Japan’s Olympic Committee (JOC) Yoshiro Mori, whose sexist remarks, created domestic and international uproar forcing him to resign. Mori did apologise but the Japanese public was not so forgiving, as was the global audience.
So, what was Mori’s gaffe? In an online press conference on 3 February, Mori was asked if the JOC was thinking of increasing the number of female directors to more than the current target of 40 %, to which Mori replied: “Meetings with women take time. You would have to limit meeting time somehow, or else they wouldn’t end and it could be a problem.” Mori reasoned that there could be a “strong sense of competition” among women, which would cause them to raise their hand more in meetings. That would require extending time of the meeting, an unhealthy practice, according to him.
What appeared innocuous, Mori’s remarks unleashed domestic and international backlash, with social media and all forms of communication going agog against Mori’s sexist remarks. Though Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga termed Mori’s comments as “unacceptable”, Mori was forced to release a formal apology and then resign after initial hesitation. Such a controversy coming just in less than six months of the mega event is a huge embarrassment to the host nation.
Though Japan continues to remain a male-dominant society and treats women as second-class citizens despite former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s ‘womenomics’ to unleash women power yielding limited results, the women of the present generation are unwilling to accept the old narrative of being mere office ladies serving tea/coffee to male colleagues, or home makers or “baby making machines” as a lawmaker labelled them some years ago. They are prepared to challenge the old idiom and demand to be treated as equals. Though it is a long way to go to achieve such goals, the aspirations are already there and they are ready to question the old narrative whenever an occasion occurs. Mori’s sexist remarks came just as a cannon fodder to the feminists who dismissed the remarks with disdain. Mori was called a ‘crazy old man’ who must change his mind-set about women (1). It was an embarrassment for Japan before the international community on the eve of an important event that it was preparing to organise. The reaction of a Japanese woman that she shall “never forgive this crazy old man” reflected the general mood of the Japanese women in general.
The Japan Society for Sport and Gender Studies, an organisation that tries to disseminate recommendations on how to reduce gender discrimination in sport was aghast and issued a statement expressing outrage that Mori’s statement takes away the credibility from the advances women have made in the world of sports. In a damage-control initiative, Mori did apologise and admitted that his remarks were “inappropriate” and “contrary to the spirit of the Olympics and Paralympic Games”. The delay in his decision to resign forthwith led many to suspect that his apology was hollow and insincere.
Issue of successor
With Mori out of the scene and Suga determined to host the event despite plenty of imponderables, the immediate question was who was to take up the mantle after Mori. Not to remain irrelevant even after demitting office, Mori had a sense of deju vu in choosing a successor. This, despite his many gaffes when he was the prime minister for a year after Keizo Obuchi suddenly died in 2000, Mori was never out of controversy. Immediately after becoming Prime Minister, his remarks that “Japan is a kingdom of gods centred on the emperor” raised many eyebrows.
The issue of Mori’s successor becomes murkier now as the four people who were instrumental in Tokyo’s bid are now out of positions under irregular circumstances. (2) The former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo had laboured hard in September 2013 to secure to host the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. The outbreak of the coronavirus forced Japan to postpone the event and now even faces further postponement or cancellation altogether since uncertainties continue. That time, the four persons that played key role in securing Tokyo to host the event were the Naoki Inose, 74, then governor of Tokyo, Tsunekazu Takeda, 73, then president of the Japan Olympic Committee (JOC), Shinzo Abe, 66, then prime minister, and Yoshiro Mori, 83, the chair of the Tokyo 2020 council. Now, all four are no longer in office. While Inose resigned the governorship in December 2013 after the discovery that he received about 50 million yen (around $476,390) from Tokushukai Group, an incorporated medical institution, Takeda was investigated in January 2019 by French judicial authorities over suspicions of improper activity during the bidding process for the games. He resigned at the end of his then-term in June 2019. Then Abe resigned from office of Prime Minister in August 2020 owing to pre-existing disease. Now Mori too goes because of his objectionable remarks on women.
In a damage-control measure and to assuage the feeling of hurt by Japanese women, it could be prudent to choose a woman to succeed Mori. Seiko Hashimoto, Japanese minister for the Tokyo and Olympic and Paralympics and also a woman, emerged as a frontrunner to succeed Mori (3). Hashimoto is seven-time Olympian and if she accepts the request, that could sooth the feeling of hurt by Japanese women to some extent. If the 56-year-old Hashimoto decides to accept the post (initial report says she was reluctant), she shall have to resign from her post as Olympic minister.
In terms of competence, Hashimoto has all the credentials. Besides having adequate experience in governance, she appeared at seven Olympics between 1984 and 1996 and became the first Japanese female to win a medal in speed skating. Other names that appeared are Yasuhiro Yamashita, 63, a gold medallist in judo at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and Mikako Kotani, 54, former artist swimmer and currently the sports director for the games.
But the issue is not that simple. The Japanese women today are not that forgiving. They want a long-term solution and change to the misogamist attitude of Japanese men. For them, just replacing Mori would not solve the problem (4). Mori tried behind the scene to push the case for 84-year-old Saburo Kawabuchi, the former head of the governing body of Japanese soccer to succeed him but public opinion was against him and this led Kawabuchi to withdraw from consideration.
Kawabuchi’s credentials were strong. He played football for Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and was instrumental in launching the J-League, Japan’s professional football league, in 1993. But his age and Mori’s open support for him went against him. In view of this, Kawabuchi withdrew from consideration, a nice strategy to remain free from further embarrassment.
Japanese media listed almost a dozen women in their 50s, many of them former Olympians and medal winners to succeed Mori but the truism is that the “old boy network” remains strong in Japan than in most developed economies and therefore not east to change.
But when the debate on who to succeed Mori continued, the cost for the event continues to escalate. Though official costs are now estimated to be $15.4 billion, it is expected to be twice this amount. The public opinion, almost to the tune of 80% in opinion polls, is mounting against the event, either to be postponed or cancelled altogether. The critical perception is that “Japan is still governed by a club of old men” but social norms are changing.
Politics of ‘groupthink’
While the Japanese public expect greater transparency in choosing Mori’s successor, there is greater temptation in the Japanese system of ‘groupthink’ in which there is every scope to fall into the trap of closed-door politics wherein important decision are taken by some, as someone told, ‘crazy old men’. (5)
Groupthink is a concept that was identified by the late American research psychologist Irving J Janis. The theory was intended to explain bad decisions and outcomes made by governments and businesses, which Janis sometimes called “fiascoes.” (6) It refers to faulty decision-making in a group. Janis defines groupthink as: “a mode of thinking people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.” (7) When groups engage in groupthink, they all agree with one another instead of bringing their own ideas into the discussion. Groupthink interferes with creativity and independent thinking. It occurs when the staff is more concerned with seeking the approval of others than coming up with breakthrough ideas.(8)
Janis conducted thorough research of such historical judgment errors as the Bay of Pigs Invasion under the administration of President John F. Kennedy and the Watergate scandal under the administration of President Richard Nixon, and analyzed the mechanism behind the thinking that led the super elites that controlled the U.S. government to make such grave mistakes. He was interested to examine situations where pressure with the group seemed to result in a failure to think clearly.
According to Janis, groups prone to groupthink have strong bonds, and are not easily affected by external forces, have a domineering leader, and do not have the protocols in place to allow for the deliberation of a diverse range of options, among other characteristics. Such groups tend to assume they are the final arbiter to take decision on an issue as they feel to possess the wisdom that others are deficient in their perception and therefore do not merit for consideration. In this matrix, the group do not allow dissent or any contrary opinion and also tend to apply pressure on those who have a different opinion. As a result, the groupthink could take foolish and extreme decisions at times that could be detrimental to the larger goal.
Impact of Mori’s exit
So, choosing Mori’s successor fell in this category of ‘groupthink’, a reflection of how Japanese politics and culture can be at times detrimental to the national interests. In a top-down system, both in politics and business, Japan find it difficult to dispense with the paternalistic values and therefore its homogeneous group culture with emphasis on backdoor meetings is normally the accepted norms. Though changing the deeply rooted system shaping the mindset is difficult to dispense with, Japan could probably ponder over bringing in some plausible change where possible so that multiple opinions can have merit and bring dynamism.
Mori had to go because of mounting pressure at home and the opprobrium that his sexist remarks created. The comment of Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp. who is seldom known to speak on politics, was critical of Mori’s comments. Toyota and Coca-Cola are major sponsors of the torch relay on 25 March and Toyota is one of 14 top sponsors that pay about $1 billion every four year Olympic cycle to the International Olympic Committee and comments of Toyoda carried considerable weight. Similarly, Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo Metropolitan Government and one of the few powerful female politicians in Japan announced that she would distance under Mori’s headship. Her withdrawal from the Olympic Committee meeting was viewed as her strategy to make political gains in a male-dominated society and therefore made most of her popularity.
While the International Olympic Committee did not call publicly Mori to resign and treated his apology enough for the matter to be closed, it had to term Mori’s remarks as inappropriate when the gender-equality issue in the Olympic started gaining stronger currency. Mori too came under pressure from the opposition Democratic Socialist Party to resign.
Hashimoto to succeed Mori
Finally 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. The mood of the public opinion, and being a woman, were the main factors for her choice. Hashimoto’s choice is also expected to break down in gender inequality, a major concern now in Japan. Under the circumstance and amid the surging coronavirus, it will be a huge challenge for Hashimoto to sail smooth through the Olympics. If she succeeds in organising the event at least moderately, women power in Japan would have received an extraordinary boost. She is young, very experienced and motivated. One hopes and wishes that luck favours her in this new journey.
- Arielle Busetto, “‘Crazy Old Man’” Backlash in Japan Over Tokyo Olympic Head’s Sexist Comment”, 5 February, https://japan-forward.com/crazy-old-man-backlash-in-japan-over-tokyo-olympic-heads-sexist-comment/
- “Cursed Olympics? With Mori out, all 4 Tokyo bid leaders now gone”, Mainichi Daily News, 13 February 2021, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210213/p2a/00m/0sp/005000c
- “Olympic minister Hashimoto nominated for Tokyo Games chief”, Mainichi Daily News, 17 February 20212, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210217/p2a/00m/0na/025000c
- “’Just replacing Tokyo Games chief won’t solve problem,’ Japanese Olympian warns”, Mainichi Daily News, 12 February 2021, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210212/p2a/00m/0sp/014000c
- “Is Japanese politics a manifestation of groupthink?”, Mainichi Daily News, 16 February 2021, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210216/p2a/00m/0op/011000c
- Keith Vore, “Understanding Groupthink”, 8 April 2013, https://csc.asu.edu/2013/04/08/understanding-groupthink/
- Irving J Janis, “Groupthink” (1972), https://www.academia.edu/35096309/Groupthink_by_Iriving_L_Janis_Summary_pdf; Irving J Janis, (1982), Victims of Groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes (2nd edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Tim Borchers, “Group thinking”, 20 November 2015, http://www.austhink.org/critical/pages/group_thinking/