TOKYO, Japan — In yet another setback for the postponed Tokyo Olympics — and another involving comments about women — games' creative director Hiroshi Sasaki resigned on Thursday after making demeaning comments about a well-known female celebrity in Japan.
The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to open in just over four months, dogged by the coronavirus pandemic, record costs, and numerous scandals. And all of this converges as the Olympic torch relay starts next week from northeastern Japan, a risky venture with 10,000 runners set to crisscross Japan for four months.
When the International Olympic Committee awarded Japan the games 7 1/2 years ago, Tokyo billed itself as “a safe pair of hands.” It has evolved into anything but that.
Japanese organizers did well with initial planning and organization. But they have been buffeted by the pandemic and seem snake-bitten with the Olympics causing new problems and more expenses almost daily. Support has plummeted with various polls suggesting about 80% of Japanese want the Olympics canceled or postponed again. They cite the costs and the risks of holding the mega-event during a pandemic.
“The IOC and Japanese politics are male-dominated territories,” Dr. Barbara Holthus, deputy director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo, told The Associated Press. “Japanese politicians have a long history of furthering gender inequalities — besides many other inequalities.”
In February, the president of the organizing committee Yoshiro Mori was forced to resign after making sexist comments, saying women talk too much in meetings.
Two years ago, the head of the Japanese Olympic Committee Tsunekazu Takeda was also forced to step down in a bribery scandal connected to vote-buying involving IOC members.
Sasaki was in charge of the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics, which are scheduled to begin on July 23. He also designed the Tokyo handover ceremony at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and arranged a one-year-to-go event in July at Tokyo's new National Stadium.
Last year he suggested to planning staff members in online “brainstorming exchanges” that well-known entertainer Naomi Watanabe could perform in the ceremony as an “Olympig.”
Watanabe is a heavy-set young woman, a fashion icon, and very famous in Japan. Sasaki's “Olympig” reference was an obvious play on the word “Olympic.”
The story was first reported by the weekly magazine Bunshun, and the corresponding controversy took off almost instantly.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike called Sasaki's comments "extremely embarrassing,”
“When we are talking about what we deliver from Tokyo, or from Japan, we shouldn’t be sending a negative message," Koike said Thursday.
Sasaki released a statement saying he was stepping down. He said he had also called Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the organizing committee, and tendered his resignation.
“For Ms. Naomi Watanabe, my idea and comments are a big insult. And it is unforgivable," Sasaki said. "I offer my deepest regrets and apologize from the depth of my heart to her, and those who may have been offended by this.”
“It is truly regrettable, and I apologize from the bottom of my heart,"Hashimoto said in a Thursday news conference that she had accepted his resignation. She said a replacement would come quickly, and also indicated she had tried to persuade him to stay.
“I did feel that way but he explained, and his intention was very strong,” Hashimoto said. “That is how I felt. For those reasons I decided to accept his resignation.”
Hashimoto also said she talked with IOC member John Coates, who oversees preparations for Tokyo.
“The IOC also received the (magazine) article and they were quite concerned," Hashimoto said.
Hashimoto, who has appeared in seven Olympics and won a bronze medal in 1992, took over a month ago when Mori made similar sexist comments and was forced out. Hashimoto has acted quickly and appointed 12 women to the organizing committee's executive board, increasing female membership to 42%. It had been 20%.
Sasaki formerly worked for the giant Japanese advertising company Dentsu Inc., which has been a key supporter of these Olympics. It is the official marketing partner and has helped to raise a record of $3.5 billion in local sponsorship, almost three times as much as any previous Olympics.
The torch relay for the Olympics kicks off next week from northeastern Japan and will be a severe test with 10,000 runners crisscrossing Japan for four months, heading to the opening ceremony and trying to avoid spreading COVID-19. Japan has controlled the virus better than most countries and has attributed about 8,700 deaths to the virus.
Organizers and the IOC insist the Olympics will go forward during the pandemic with 11,000 Olympic and 4,400 Paralympic athletes entering Japan. Official costs for Tokyo are $15.4 billion but several government audits show the real cost might be twice that much.
A University of Oxford study says Tokyo is the most expensive Olympics on record.