By Ichiro Suzuki
This is so classic. This is about why Japan has been falling behind over the last 30 years failing to keep up with the changing world. Many case studies can be written about this incident from a few different angles.
Yoshiro Mori, Tokyo Olympics Organization Committee Chairman, is stepping down after having said at the beginning of the month “Women cause meeting to run long by talking too much.” An 83 year old former prime minister has been long known for his gaffes. His Wikipedia page, in Japanese, even lists his past gaffes.
For his defense, Mr. Mori is an honest old man. The job of the Olympic Organization Committee chairman is something he never wanted. He took an offer because there was no taker and someone had to do it. Upon taking the job, Mr. Mori declined to be paid for it. When he was told it was not technically possible for him to be unpaid, he set his salary at the lowest level employees’. He did many good things to the organization committee and then stumbled in a manner that is so typical of him. Here is a list of what went wrong.
1. Japanese organizations and men in general don’t get it.
Diversity is a trendy word that sounds so nice. A number of leading Japanese corporations are taking it up nowadays. However, it is doubtful that this nice word is well digested and understood and has its place firmly at the bottom of the hearts of men who are running a corporation, a division or a department. Organizations and men who run them have been making great efforts to enhance diversity. They know it’s a good thing. Nonetheless, such words of blatant sexism still come out of a man who holds a prominent position.
Hiroaki Nakanishi, President of The Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren) said that Mr. Mori’s remark unveiled true colors of Japanese organizations. That’s it. Men running Japanese organizations intellectually understand the importance of diversity. Nonetheless, upset with public uproar against Mr. Mori, Mr. Nakanishi, 74, let his feelings slip through his mouth. There is a reasonable chance that diversity is not a deeply rooted concept at every factory floor of Hitachi, the company he used to run. If Stanford-educated Nakanishi is not grasping it fully, there is little chance that a man like Mr.Mori, who is older and has never lived abroad, really gets it. The Keidanren itself is a group of old men representing companies that once drove the Japanese economy at the time of the country’s super normal growth, but has lost their lusters in the age of globalization. It is a static organization where tech entrepreneurs like Masayoshi Son of Softbank has no place. (As a notable exception in the monolithic Keidanren, Toyota Motor, represented by Akio Toyoda, is keeping up with the 21st century world.) 2. Mishandling of the situation on every step
In response to an eruption of furies, Mr. Mori took back his remark and apologized officially. He might have thought about resigning immediately. However, people who surrounded him, old men, reportedly persuaded him to stay, saying there was no replacement for him. This shows the downside of a clubby world of old men. For too long, they’ve been together in closely knit small groups. Their cohesive experiences have given them distrust of the world outside the group and an illusion of their invincibility. Worse, coziness of the group keeps the members from telling him hard, cold truth, even if they are aware of the problem.
Mr. Mori made up his mind to step down as Olympic sponsors, NBC above all, had turned against him. Then he moved on to choose his successor, possibly bumping him up to a newly created position of senior advisor. The move has infuriated Prime Minister Suga for lack of transparency. To begin with, a man who is resigning has no right to choose a successor. He has proved that ‘diversity’ is not the only concept foreign to him. He apparently doesn’t understand ‘governance’.
3. Heated debates are unwelcome
In a press conference following the gaffe, Mr. Mori said “We have seven women in the organization committee, but everyone understands her place.” This remark caused additional furies among women. He thinks that women have to behave in accordance with unwritten rules of men’s world and that the women working for him are so good that they always behave ‘properly’ without being told to do so.
Mr. Mori apparently dislikes long meetings, and that’s healthy. However, his remark reveals that heated debates are unwelcome in a meeting, and that participants sit there only to accept tacitly pre-agreed conclusions without asking sharp questions or stating different opinions. What Mr. Mori thinks ideal could take place only in a homogeneous group. A meeting can be speedier if it is attended by men of the same background and age group. It could be even easier if decisions are made at a bar or on a golf course. This is the world he prefers, it seems.
4. Only a man of significant experience and achievements can do it.
A deeply-rooted real problem brought to light by the Mori incident is Japan’s system that excessively stresses seniority and experiences. To be chosen for the top job of the Olympic Organization Committee, you have to be old. All the people you are dealing with are old men with an outstanding resume in the world of politics or business. It is too much to expect for a boy to be talking to these dignitaries face to face on equal terms. In fact, all the heads of organization committees of past Olympics in Japan were very old. Old men in general have a stronger chance of being out of touch with a changing world. Numbers speak for themselves. Here is a list of organization committee heads for the games in Japan. (All ages at the time of the games.)
Daigoro Yasukawa, 78, Tokyo 1964
Kogoro Uemura, 78, Sapporo 1972
Eishiro Saito, 84, Nagano 1998
Yoshiro Mori, 84, Tokyo 2001 (but has resigned)
These Japanese men can be compared to some of the younger counterparts in the Olympics outside Japan.
Peter Uberroth, 46, Los Angeles 1984
Pasqual Maragall, 51, Barcelona 1992
Billy Paine, 50, Atlanta 1996
Michael Knight, Sydney 2000
Mitt Romney, 54, Salt Lake City 2002
Sebastian Coe, 55, London 2012
Tony Estanquet, 46, Paris 2024
Casey Wasserman, 54, Los Angeles 2028
As it turns out, Mr. Mori’s successor is Ms. Seiko Hashimoto, 56, former Olympian and a member of the Diet (parliament). While a politically correct and cosmetic change is made on a top-down basis, true colors have been already brought to light.
About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.