Olympics Chief Mori’s Gaffe Exposes Suga’s Weakness

Exactly twenty years ago today, on February 9th 2001, the American submarine USS Greeneville collided with a Japanese high-school training boat, the Ehime Maru, sinking the ship and killing nine of those aboard, including four high school students and two teachers. Japan’s then prime minister Mori Yoshirō was informed of the tragedy midway through a round of golf and, now infamously, chose to remain on the golf course for over an hour and a half to finish his game. Within weeks, his already-low approval rating had dropped into single digits, the lowest approval for any prime minister since the 1980s. His public standing never recovered, and two months later he resigned, marking yet another unpopular revolving-door prime minister who lasted little more than a year in office.

In 2014, when then-prime minister Abe Shinzō appointed Mori as President of the organizing committee for the Tokyo Olympics, senior LDP officials – and, indeed, everyone else – must have known what was in store. Mori, 83, has a lengthy track record of high-profile gaffes and the Ehime Maru collision is only one entry in a long, controversial list that includes the Recruit scandal, AIDS-related jokes, and being photographed drinking with a high-ranking yakuza member. In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that Mori’s conduct would eventually put pressure on a beleaguered Prime Minister and perhaps even threaten the viability of the Tokyo Games. How could it ever have turned out any differently?

In fact, given this gaffe-prone propensity, the most surprising element from Mori’s six year tenure in this high-profile international role is how sedate it was until recently. He attracted condemnation early on for making condescending remarks about figure skater Asada Mao’s performance in the 2014 Winter Olympics, but since then he has managed to steer clear of controversy, possibly with the help of staff reining him in or simply by being chastened by the backlash to those earlier comments.

Either way, Mori’s tenure was mostly uneventful, until last week, when the version of Mori that the Japanese public so resoundingly rejected in 2001 came roaring back to the limelight with a series of sexist comments accusing women in the Olympics committee of talking too much in meetings, and suggesting that if there were more women on such committees (they remain a small minority), their speaking time might need to be limited in order to prevent the meetings from lasting forever.

Mori’s comments caused an immediate uproar and he apologized – to some extent – but refused calls to resign. He and his supporters claim that his resignation only months before the postponed Tokyo Olympics are finally due to begin would threaten the whole project, pointing to Mori’s influence over Japan’s sporting organizations and businesses as a key factor in the organization of the Olympics. The idea that Mori’s absence at this juncture would threaten the Games is perhaps one reason why reactions from officials have been muted. Senior government officials, including Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and Education Minister Hagiuda Koichi (whose ministerial portfolio also covers sports) have condemned his remarks as inappropriate but declined to go further, with Suga deferring to the International Olympic Committee’s statement that it considered the matter closed with Mori’s apology.

The idea that Mori’s absence at this juncture would threaten the Games is perhaps one reason why reaction from officials have been muted

The IOC may consider the matter closed. The Japanese public, however, clearly does not. In a Kyodo opinion poll conducted after Mori’s sexist remarks, only 6.8 percent of respondents thought that he was qualified to lead the Olympics – a figure very similar to the depths his public support plumbed after that fateful game of golf twenty years ago. While much criticism of the postponed Olympics has a boy-who-cried-wolf quality to it, with critics often seeming to work backwards from their dislike of the Games to try to find any possible reason to call for their cancellation, Mori’s statements – and, perhaps, the way they have been brushed off so lightly by many other senior figures – appear to have been a genuine tipping point for some people. In the same Kyodo poll, a mere 14.5 percent of people support hosting the postponed Olympics this summer. The news agency later reported that almost 400 Olympic volunteers, upon whom the Games rely heavily, have withdrawn. In total, the Games needs 80,000 volunteers; whether 400 is a drop in the ocean or the thin end of the wedge is something the organizers will be watching nervously.

As public dissatisfaction has mounted over the government’s lack of action over Mori’s remarks, cracks have begun to show in the ruling party’s response. LDP Secretary-General and powerful faction leader Nikai Toshihiro added fuel to the fire by stating it was “not a problem” for Mori to remain in his position, suggesting that Olympic volunteers who quit would reconsider once they “calmed down”. It’s a statement that is almost as tone-deaf as Mori’s own, and one that might as well have been designed to ensure that the controversy rumbles on for at least another news cycle. Nikai was in turn immediately criticized by Olympics minister (and former Olympian) Hashimoto Seiko, who told a Diet committee that his remarks were out of line.

Suga, meanwhile, seems to have taken a position of saying the bare minimum and hoping it all goes away. He criticized Mori’s statements in boilerplate terms, but emphasized the independence of the Tokyo organizing committee and the IOC’s conclusion that the matter was closed. He also described Mori’s gaffe as being “unfavorable to the national interest” – a statement which serves as a tacit nod to conservative arguments that strong reactions to socially regressive statements such as Mori’s merely stem from gaiatsu (foreign pressure) and do not represent the attitudes of ‘real’ Japanese people. Widespread overseas reporting of Mori’s remarks and condemnation by foreign athletes and embassies, among others, have been a double-edged sword, ensuring that the story stays in the headlines locally while also fueling conservatives’ insistence that the whole affair can be dismissed as merely a case of unwanted pressure from overseas.

The evidence of opinion polls, demonstrations and widespread discussion within Japan, however, clearly demonstrates that this public outrage is not just another case of ‘you’re embarrassing us in front of the foreigners’. Mori has touched a nerve for many people and has managed to provoke genuine anger. Now his statements are dominating media cycles at a time which ought to be crucial in gaining public buy-in for the Olympics (in whatever format the government and the IOC are concocting for them). As public support for the Games fails to firm up and LDP figures bicker among themselves, Suga’s attempt to stay out of the fray risks looking weak.

As public support for the Games fails to firm up and LDP figures bicker among themselves, Suga’s attempt to stay out of the fray risks looking weak.

This could be attributed to genuine weakness in the leader’s position. Suga is prime minister largely because he represented continuity from the former Abe administration during a point in the pandemic when a major political disruption would have been catastrophic. There was also no other senior figure (at least nobody acceptable to a broad group of LDP lawmakers) who seemed to especially want the job at that difficult juncture. Suga is generally respected within the party but lacks strong loyalty and factional backing, and in recent months he appears to have fallen out with Nikai, who is strongly connected to the travel industry lobby and disagreed with Suga’s lukewarm support for the Go To Travel campaign and the decision to suspend it in December. To also end up at loggerheads with Mori – who, like Abe, is attached to the powerful Hosoda faction and is seen as something of a godfather figure to many LDP right-wing politicians – would leave Suga incredibly isolated and could fuel rumors that a leadership change is being considered by the party’s grandees.

The Olympics organizing committee has called an emergency meeting this week which may provide Suga with some succour; if it demands Mori’s resignation, the tide of negative public opinion could be stemmed without Suga having to intervene directly and make enemies he can ill-afford. With support for his government slipping back below the 40 percent mark, however, LDP lawmakers in marginal seats will start to look nervously to the next election – and wonder if voters will choose to punish such indecisive leadership. Whether it’s this scandal or the next that pushes public opinion over the edge, one thing is certain; if either Suga himself or the Olympics come to be seen as a millstone around the neck of his party’s electoral prospects, the knives will come out for both.

Assistant Professor at Waseda University | Website | + posts

Rob Fahey is an Assistant Professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS) in Tokyo, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Milan's School of Social and Political Sciences. He was formerly a Research Associate at the Waseda Institute for Political Economy (WINPEC). His research focuses on populism and polarisation, the impact of conspiracy theory beliefs on political behaviour,  domestic Japanese politics, and the use of text mining and network analysis techniques for political and social analysis. He received his Masters and Ph.D from Waseda University, and his undergraduate degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

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