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Calls mount for Tokyo Olympics boss Yoshiro Mori to step down over sexist comments

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Tokyo — A firestorm set off by the man in charge of the Tokyo Olympics shows no signs of ebbing. Calls for organizing committee chairman Yoshiro Mori to step down are mounting, with a possible showdown set for Friday as the committee meets to deal with the crisis. 

The scandal began last week, when Mori, 83, casually declared that meetings drag on when women are in attendance, because they talk too much. The damage was only compounded when he offered what was construed as a disingenuous apology and retraction the following day.  

The blowback has been unrelenting and brutal. The International Olympic Committee this week called Mori's comments "absolutely inappropriate," but then cited his apology and said the matter was "closed."

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games organising committee news conference
Yoshiro Mori, President of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Organizing Committee, at a news conference in Tokyo on March 23, 2020. ISSEI KATO/REUTERS

A survey found about 60% of Japanese think Mori is unqualified to lead the Games. Inspired by early American suffragettes, female opposition lawmakers wore white jackets and roses in parliament to protest. 

Almost 400 Olympics volunteers have quit and Tokyo City Hall has been inundated with angry phone calls. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has said she will sit out a planned February 17 meeting with Mori and IOC head Thomas Bach, saying it "would not deliver anything really positive." 

Mori's comments "made everyone feel uncomfortable at a time when we are trying to overcome the pandemic and gear up toward the games. I am very disappointed as the head of the host city," Koike was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.

As of Wednesday, 145,000 people had signed an online petition protesting Mori's actions and calling for corrective measures. Athletes here and abroad have called on him to resign.

Perhaps most stomach-churning for the IOC, corporate sponsors — accounting for the bulk of anticipated revenue — have expressed displeasure about being associated with the Tokyo Olympics chief's remarks. Twenty-two sponsors told state broadcaster NHK they had received customer calls asking them to demand Mori resign or "take appropriate action as a sponsor." None of the firms said they were planning to drop their sponsorship. 

Mori's sexist gaffe has unleashed a new social media hashtag in Japan, wakimaenai onna, "a woman who doesn't know her place." 

Natsumi Ikoma, 50, who directs gender studies at Tokyo's International Christian University, told CBS News the episode speaks volumes about Japan's insular, male-centric and increasingly gerontocratic conservative party, which has run the country almost nonstop for the last nearly 70 years.

"Because he's so old, he's not in touch with modern technology... and probably he's not really aware of the MeToo movement," Ikoma said. "So I think he considered it okay to say something so obviously sexist."

Japan's customary deference to elders is also to blame, she said.

"Because he is high-ranking, he's surrounded by sycophants, and probably nobody has ever criticized him before," said Ikoma. "The older (you) are, the more authority you have, so they think they should be revered." 

Historian Chelsea Szendi Schieder, of Tokyo's Aoyama Gakuin University, told CBS News that sexist trolling by Japanese politicians is so commonplace here, the furor over Mori's statements is especially noteworthy.

"There's the usual procedure — there's a so-called gaffe, and then an apology to retract it, and then that's supposed to smooth everything over," Schieder said. "What I've been a little bit surprised about is how much traction this has gotten." 

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The crude display of sexism amid what is supposed to be one of the most prestigious and inclusive events on Earth has proven a national embarrassment for organizers already struggling against overwhelming public antipathy toward the Tokyo Olympics: 80% want the Games canceled or rescheduled, according to several news surveys.

While similar controversies have usually drawn nationalistic objections to "Western" values being forced on Japan, Schieder said, "in this case, the anger is really palpable within Japan as well." 

Yoshiro Mori, the man at the center of it all, is no stranger to humiliation. The former prime minister earned the second-lowest support rating of any leader in Japan's post-war history.

His public backing slid to 9% in 2001 after repeated verbal fumbles and corruption scandals among his cabinet — but those weren't the worst blights on his brief tenure.

Relatives of victims of the Ehime Maru v
Relatives of victims of the Ehime Maru vessel are joined by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (center) on March 20, 2001, as they throw flowers into the sea at the site of the February 9 collision between the Japanese vessel and the U.S. Navy nuclear attack submarine USS Greeneville off the coast of Hawaii.  HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty

Exactly 20 years ago today, Mori was playing golf when he was notified that a Japanese high school training ship had sunk after being hit by the U.S. nuclear submarine USS Greeneville. The accident would claim the lives of nine victims, including high school students and teachers. 

Mori stayed on the links to finish his game.

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