Ex-Olympian Seiko Hashimoto takes over as Tokyo Olympic chief with Naomi Osaka's backing

Cassandra Negley
·4-min read

Seiko Hashimoto, a seven-time Olympian turned politician, is taking over as the head of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games after the previous leader resigned following sexist remarks earlier this month.

Hashimoto was one of two female cabinet ministers in Japan and her seven appearances in the summer and winter games are the most of any "multi-season" athlete. She competed four times in speed skating, winning bronze in the 1,500-meter speed skate in 1992, and three as a cyclist.

To some her appointment marks a gender and generational shift, while others see it as a continuation of the same. The move comes two weeks after former leader Yoshiro Mori first came under criticism for saying board meetings with women "take too much time" because they're always talking.

Naomi Osaka, who commented on the news after defeating Serena Williams on the Australian Open semifinal, called it a push forward.

Hashimoto takes over Tokyo Olympic planning

Hashimoto, 56, takes over with five months to go until the rescheduled games. She has served in Japan's Parliament since 1995 and most recently held a cabinet post as minister for the Olympics and for gender equality. Born days after the country hosted the 1964 games, her name roughly translates to "Olympic flame" in English.

The choice was made via a newly formed organizing committee split evenly between men and women following a second outcry following Mori's resignation last Friday, via the New York Times. The first committee was ready to appoint Saburo Kawabuchi, 84, as successor and handpicked choice of Mori. He is the former leader of Japanese soccer.

Critics on social media, per the Times, blasted that decision and pointed to his age, "apparent support for corporal punishment of children and the seeming back-room nature of his selection." the second committee was formed and Hashimoto was a frontrunner, per the Times, though she was reportedly reluctant to take the job. She is close with Mori and part of his political faction, leading some to question if it will be the change they wanted.

The committee said in a statement, via the Times, it hired Hashimoto because of her “deep knowledge of sport, an understanding of the issue of gender equality and experience working to achieve it, international experience and perspective, and a thorough understanding of preparations for the Games.”

Gender equality in Japan

Seiko Hashimoto stands at the committee meeting.
Seiko Hashimoto, standing, is surrounded by the nearly all-male board. (Photo by YUICHI YAMAZAKI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Hashimoto will take over an executive board that is 80 percent male and her appointment is viewed by some as a token hire since Mori's comments were sexist in nature. He told the Japanese Olympic Committee on Feb. 3 that board meetings with women "take too much time."

“Women have a strong sense of rivalry," he said. "If one raises her hand to speak, all the others feel the need to speak, too. Everyone ends up saying something.”

"If you want to increase female membership, you would be in trouble unless you put time limits in place," he said.

The former prime minister later apologized and resigned.

Hashimoto's hiring will not change sexism and misogyny overnight in Japan, but various media reports from the country see it is a turning point since it got people talking. And it got people angry, firing back at the idea a comment like that would be allowed.

Japan ranks 121st of 153 countries on the World Economic Forum's annual gender equality ranking. Fewer than 10 percent of the country's house lawmakers are women.

Osaka: 'Barriers are being broken down'

Osaka called Mori's comments "ignorant" and his resignation a good thing for the country she represents. The three-time Grand Slam winner spoke of Hashimoto's appointment after reaching the Australian Open final and noted “you're seeing the newer generation not tolerate a lot of things.”

"I feel like it's really good because you're pushing forward, barriers are being broken down, especially for females," Osaka said. "We've had to fight for so many things just to be equal. Even in a lot of things we still aren't equal."

Osaka, 23, was born to a Haitian father and Japanese mother and was raised in the United States. But she plays under the Japanese flag and is the international athlete face of the games.

What does this mean for Tokyo Olympics?

The committee is still grappling with how to hold the rescheduled games while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Hashimoto said Thursday afternoon after her appointment her first priority is to protect against the virus so “both the Japanese people and people from abroad will think that the Tokyo Games are safe and secure.” She told athletes directly, via the Times, she wants them “perform on this dream stage without hesitation.”

Polls show approximately 80 percent of Japanese want the Olympics postponed or canceled based primarily around fears of bringing COVID-19 into Japan. The country has done a good job of stopping the spread of the virus. The price tag for the games is also skyrocketing.

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