TOKYO — Yoshiro Mori resigned as the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee on Friday after sexist comments made last week in which he said women "talk too much."
The resignation of the former Japanese prime minister at an executive board meeting has left a mess in its wake. And it comes just over five months before the postponed Olympics are to open in the middle of a pandemic with public sentiment overwhelmingly against the games.
The executive board did not immediately choose a successor for Mori, which CEO Toshiro Muto said would come "as soon as possible" and will be made by a review committee. He called it a "single-digit body" made up equally of men and women, and he repeatedly declined to give a specific time frame.
Muto also declined to say if Mori's replacement would be a woman. Gender inequality in Japan is exactly the issue that was raised last week by Mori's demeaning comments, and what drove his ouster. Women are largely absent in the boardroom and in top politics in Japan, and Muto acknowledged that the organizing committee has too few women in leadership roles, and no women at the vice president level.
"For myself in selecting the president, I don't think we need to discuss or debate gender," Muto said. "We simply need to choose the right person."
The front runner is probably Seiko Hashimoto, the current government Olympic minister who was also an bronze medalist in speedskating in the 1992 Albertville Games. She fits all the bills — female, a former Olympian, and she's been around the organizing committee.
Any pick will be tricky.
On Thursday, 84-year-old Saburo Kawabuchi, the former head of the governing body of Japanese soccer, gave interviews and said he had talked with the 83-year-old Mori and was likely to be his successor.
That news — that another elderly man was taking over — exploded Friday morning on national television and social media. A few hours later, Kawabuchi withdrew his candidacy at the board meeting and told Muto to make it public.
"He (Kawabuchi) is not thinking of becoming president, even if he is asked he will decline," Muto said.
Mori's departure comes after more than a week of non-stop criticism about his remarks earlier this month. He initially apologized but refused to step away, which was followed by relentless pressure from television commentators, sponsors and an online petition that drew 150,000 signatures.
"As of today I will resign from the president's position," Mori said to open an executive board and council meeting.
Mori was appointed in 2014, just months after Tokyo won the bid to host the Olympics.
"My inappropriate comments have caused a lot of chaos," he said, repeating several times he had regret over the remarks, but also said he had "no intention of neglecting women."
"As long as I remain in this position, it causes trouble," he told the board. "If that is the case, it will ruin everything we've built up."
Muto was asked repeatedly if Mori would have a behind the scenes role as an advisor, which seems logical.
"Currently we are not discussing any position for him," Muto said.
It's not clear that his resignation will clear the air and return the focus to exactly how Tokyo can hold the Olympics in just over five months in the midst of a pandemic.
The Olympics are to open on July 23 with 11,000 athletes and 4,400 more in the Paralympic a month later. About 80% of people in Japan in recent polls say they want the Olympics canceled or postponed.
Japanese media immediately pointed out there were three qualified women — all athletes and former Olympians and at least a generation younger — who could fill the job.
Kaori Yamaguchi won a bronze medal in judo at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Mikako Kotani won two bronze medals at the same Olympics in synchronized swimming. And Naoko Takahashi was a gold medalist in the marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Mori's remarks have put the spotlight on how far Japan lags behind other prosperous countries in advancing women in politics or the boardrooms. Japan stands 121st out of 153 in the World Economic Forum's gender equality rankings.
Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, characterized Japan as a country still run "by a club of old men." But he said this could be a watershed.
"Social norms are changing," he wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "A clear majority of the Japanese found Mori's comments unacceptable, so the problem is more to do with the lack of representation of women in leadership positions. This sorry episode may have the effect of strengthening the call for greater gender equality and diversity in the halls of power."
Though some on the street called for Mori to resign — several hundred Olympic volunteers say they are withdrawing — most decision makers, including Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, stopped short and simply condemned his remarks.
A comment a few days ago from Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda seemed to move the needle.
Toyota is one of 14 so-called Olympic TOP sponsors that pay about $1 billion every four-year cycle to the International Olympic Committee. The company seldom speaks out on politics, and Toyoda did not call for Mori's resignation. But just speaking on the matter might have been enough.
"The (Mori) comment is different from our values," Toyoda said, "and we find it regrettable."