Though a rising star, new Olympic chief Seiko Hashimoto still must contend with Japan's 'iron ceiling'

At issue is whether Seiko Hashimoto's ascension to president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee will lead to any meaningful change in male-dominated Japan or is it just a short-term, cosmetic move?

New role highlights great disparity between men and women in senior positions

Seiko Hashimoto has been touted as a possible candidate to become Japan's first female prime minister. (Getty Images)

The promotion of Seiko Hashimoto to president of the organizing committee for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics did not come as a great surprise in Tokyo.

Hashimoto's Olympic bona fides are without question. Her Olympic pedigree actually extends back to her birth. Born five days before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics began, Hashimoto's first name was chosen by her father in honour of the Olympic Flame (seika in Japanese).

She competed in seven Olympic Games — four times as a speed skater in the Winter Games, winning a bronze medal in the 1,500 metres at the 1992 Albertville Olympics, and three times in the Summer Games as a cyclist. 

Since retiring as an athlete, she's been active in the Olympic movement and is president of the Japan Skating Federation. She was Japan's Minister of State for the Games before her elevation to the top role in February in the wake of  predecessor Yoshiro Mori's sexist comments.

The greater issue is whether Hashimoto's ascension will lead to any meaningful change in male-dominated Japan or is just a short-term, cosmetic move.

When the 83-year-old Mori, a former prime minister, made controversial comments about women during a meeting, it seemed almost inevitable that he would be replaced by a woman. There was brief talk about former Japan Football Association president Saburo Kawabuchi, who is 84, taking over, but that was quickly panned as a bad look for Japan to the global sporting community.

Hashimoto, a native of Hayakita, Hokkaido, on Japan's northern island, is much more than a former athlete. The 56-year-old is the mother of three children (six counting her step-children), a politician who was a member of the House of Councillors, and was also the chef de mission for Japan at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Hashimoto competed in four Winter Olympics in speed skating, and three Sumer Games as a cyclist. (Getty Images)
Hashimoto (19) avoids a collision during her event at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. (Bongarts/Getty Images)

Touted as possible prime minister

She was even considered a possible candidate to run for Tokyo governor several years ago. If she is able to steady the Tokyo Olympics and bring the event across the finish line in the face of a pandemic and all of the chaos it has wrought, it is not out of the question to say that she could someday be Japan's first female prime minister.

But there is much work to be done in the months ahead. Hashimoto is facing multiple issues that include a ballooning budget, lack of public support for the Olympics, and the logistics of trying to safely bring more than 10,000 athletes and support staff for the extravaganza this summer. To call the task confronting Hashimoto monumental could be considered an understatement, and she realizes that.

"I'm here to return what I owe as an athlete," Hashimoto said after accepting the role as president of the organizing committee. "As I'm taking on such a grave responsibility, I feel I need to brace myself."

Best-selling author and Japan expert Robert Whiting, who has lived in the country for most of the past 60 years, provided his observations on Hashimoto and what he sees long term in the wake of the move.

Hashimoto, left, with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike at a meeting in February. (Getty Images)

"Hashimoto was the best candidate of the six that were presented," said Robert Whiting, a Tokyo resident who has written extensively on Japanese culture, particularly its Olympic history. "Personally, I would have preferred to see [Tokyo Governor Yuriko] Koike take on the role. She would have been ideal. She could have delegated her governor's duties to her aides for five months. Hashimoto is less sophisticated and is a protege of Mori, which has its drawbacks. But she had Olympic experience in spades and got elected to the Diet."

While Whiting acknowledges Hashimoto's qualifications, he does not believe it will lead to any meaningful change for women in Japan going forward.

In Japan, the glass ceiling is made of iron.​​​​​- Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike

"I don't see great strides for women," Whiting said. "It's marginally better than it was when I first came [nearly 60 years ago,] but percentage-wise there has not been a big increase in women in executive positions in Japan, in business, or politics.

"Koike is the big exception. But remember when [former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro] Ishihara said, 'Nobody wants an old hag who wears too much makeup as governor.' Koike got elected, but she also said, 'In Japan, the glass ceiling is made of iron.'"

Koike's remark is not an exaggeration. Back in the early 2000's the Japanese government set a target of having women hold 30 per cent of managerial positions by 2020, but has dismally missed the goal. A poll conducted in 2019 by Teikoku Databank showed that women had filled just 7.8 per cent of the posts.

With the 34-member executive board for the Tokyo Olympics made up of 80 per cent men, the group was expanded to 45 on March 3, with 12 new members being women. Among the new members is Naoko Takahashi, the gold medallist in the marathon at the 2000 Sydney Games.

Hashimoto said last week that her goal was to have 40 per cent of the panel be female, and that benchmark has now been surpassed with 19 women now holding places on the board.

Not everybody believes that Hashimoto is an appropriate choice to lead the Tokyo Olympics. Tokyo resident Yuriko Komiyama is one of them.

"I am afraid I think Seiko Hashimoto is not appropriate for the Tokyo Olympics president," Komiyama said. "Because I remember her sexual harassment to the Japanese male figure skater [Daisuke Takahashi.] I was so disappointed."

The incident that Komiyama referenced seems to be the only negative mark in Hashimoto's athletic and political careers.

It happened at a party for the Japan delegation in Sochi at the end of the 2014 Olympics. According to a report and photos in the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, Hashimoto got carried away while dancing with Takahashi, the bronze medallist at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and kissed him several times, much to his surprise.

Charges of sexual harassment followed in the wake of the story, but Hashimoto denied the allegations. She was bailed out when Takahashi's management came to her aid by saying the skater had not been harassed.

Hashimoto served as Japan's chef de mission at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, and was accused of sexual harassment of a male figure skater. (Getty Images)

#Dontbesilent campaign

Hashimoto addressed the matter head-on at the press conference announcing her promotion on Feb. 18, saying, "Both then and now, I deeply regret my behaviour."

Komiyama is pleased that a woman was chosen to lead the Tokyo Olympics.

"It is good that, not Seiko, but a woman takes up the position to represent Japan like a president of the Olympics," Komiyama said. "I think it will start change for more women to get executive jobs.

"A series of events started from Mori-san's sexist remarks made a lot of Japanese men realize that social awareness towards women's participation, and that people all over the world watch Japan," Komiyama said. "I think they noticed that without promoting women their organization will never succeed globally."

Keio University student Momoko Nojo used Mori's comments about women last month to organize a campaign on social media aimed at promoting gender equality in Japan. The effort resulted in more than 150,000 people signing a petition called #DontBeSilent.

"In Japan, when there's an issue related to gender equality, not many voices are heard, and even if there are some voices to improve the situation, they run out of steam and nothing changes," Nojo said in an interview with Reuters.

Kurumi Mori, a business reporter for Bloomberg in Tokyo, paints a bleak picture of hope for serious change for women in the executive ranks any time soon.

Typically, Japanese women end up in poorly paid part-time positions after having children so finding ways to help balance their home life with work life is key.- Kurumi Mori, Bloomberg reporter in Tokyo

"The recent shuffling of top Olympic leaders in Japan was another reminder that even after years of public statements in support of women in leadership roles, there still doesn't seem to be enough," Mori said. "Remember, when the organizing committee decided to go with Hashimoto as its new chief, she already held a job in the cabinet as Minister for the Olympics and gender equality.

"So pulling her away from that role meant they had to find a replacement," Mori said. "There was some criticism on social media among local Japanese when Tamayo Marukawa was picked, saying these newly appointed women were only chosen because of their gender, and not as experienced as other candidates."

Mori said that keeping women in the workplace here is one of the core issues holding them back from advancement.

"Today there are only a few, if any women in those positions to be able to step up when senior roles do open up," Mori said. "So for meaningful progress, we need to see more women succeeding in the workplace. Typically, Japanese women end up in poorly paid part-time positions after having children so finding ways to help balance their home life with work life is key. There need to be more ways to entice them to stay and keep them there."

Following her semifinal victory over Serena Williams at the Australian Open last month, eventual champion Naomi Osaka, who became a Japanese citizen last year, saluted Hashimoto's selection at her post-match press conference in Melbourne.

"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."

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