On March 17, Tokyo Olympic creative director Sasaki Hiroshi was forced to quit after making misogynistic remarks, becoming the second high-ranking official to be pushed out of the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021 because of overt sexism. Sasaki's resignation marks yet another setback for the 2020 Olympic Games, already postponed a year because of the pandemic, and plagued with gaffes, low public support and the ongoing problem of COVID-19.
Sasaki Hiroshi, who until March had been responsible for the opening and closing ceremonies of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, had been seconded to the position from giant advertising and public relations firm Dentsu. Sasaki stated he proposed the idea a year ago that popular comedian and entertainer Watanabe Naomi, a woman, dress up as a pig as a play on words taking the last three letters of “Olympics.” Sasaki was forced to explain his comments after investigative news magazine Shukan Bunshun broke the story on March 17.
In February, the president of the Japan Olympic Organizing Committee, Yoshiro Mori, had already been forced to resign after making and doubling down on misogynistic comments. Amid national protests, at least 1,000 Olympic volunteers quit before Mori was forced out.
Chelsea Szendi Schieder, historian and faculty member at Aoyama Gakuin University, remarked:
Proposing to cast Watanabe Naomi, the most charismatic talent working in Japan today, as the “Olympig” in the opening ceremonies is insulting, and sadly on-brand for Tokyo 2020.
Others noted that Sasaki's proposal seemed to exemplify an out-of-touch gerontocracy that is in charge of both the Olympics and Japan itself, a country recently ranked 120th in the world for gender equity. Freelance journalist Thoton Akimoto said:
— Thoton Akimoto (@thoton9) March 17, 2021
Who on earth could think dressing up Watanabe Naomi as a pig, and then making her say “I'm an Olympig” would ever be a good idea for the opening ceremony of the Olympics? It's not only demeaning to Watanabe, but also to anyone self-conscious of their own appearance. The idea could also be perceived as being anti-women. It's as though Sasaki confused the Olympics with a vulgar variety television show with a 60s or 70s sensibility.
In an official statement, Watanabe said there were no plans for her to participate in the opening ceremonies after the Olympics had been postponed last year, and that she was unaware of Sasaki's remarks.
Watanabe also said:
As Naomi Watanabe, a person in the public eye, it is true that there are times when people have told me my physique is large, and I have been working with the understanding that there will be times when I will be taunted for it.
In reality, I am very happy with my figure. Therefore, I want to continue to express myself not only as someone who is large but as ‘Naomi Watanabe.’
However, as one human being, I truly hope from the bottom of my heart that the world can become a joyous place where each person’s individuality and ideas are respected and accepted by all.
Amid ongoing controversies, celebrities and other prominent people continue to pull out of the torch relay, which kicked off on March 25 in Fukushima prefecture. Most celebrities, such as beloved entertainer and television host Shofukutei Tsurube and gentleman crooner Itsuki Hiroshi cited “scheduling conflicts” when pulling out of the torch relay.
They are likely responding to public sentiments about the Games. A recent poll by news agency Kyodo found that 80 per cent of Japanese people think the Olympics should be either canceled, or postponed again due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The poll was conducted following Mori Yoshiro's earlier misogynistic remarks in January and February, which also prompted the exodus of Olympic volunteers.
Despite the setbacks and seeming low public support for the Tokyo Olympics, organizers have insisted the Olympic torch relay will continue as planned (a “men-only” stage was canceled after public outrage) even as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in cities along the route, including Osaka and Tokyo.
Meanwhile, Japan, with a population of 126 million people, has entered its “fourth wave” of COVID-19. More than 1 million COVID-19 cases have been identified in the country since the start of the pandemic in February 2020, and infection numbers in some parts of the country continue to increase week over week.
By the beginning of April this year, the seven-day average in Tokyo, with a population of 15 million people, identified 440 new cases of COVID-19 per day, compared to 376 and 303 on the previous two Fridays.
On April 1, Osaka prefecture, with a population of 8.8 million, logged its highest daily case count of COVID-19 since January 23, with 559 new cases. Japan's central government, which retains overall control over regional COVID-19 management measures, has been forced to re-enact stronger measures to reduce infections.
Rising numbers of infections have alarmed not only the Japanese government but others as well. The U.S. military, which itself was implicated with the initial spread of COVID-19 throughout Japan, has identified “red zones” in the country:
It's interesting to contrast what the US Marine Corps regards as Covid “Red Zones” in Japan with the much more casual approach taken by the Suga government. You might think that they are talking about two different countries. (MP) #USMarines #Covid #Japan #YoshihideSuga pic.twitter.com/H1UZ2C0O8v
— SNA Japan (@ShingetsuNews) April 2, 2021
Vaccines may not offer an easy exit from COVID-19. While speeding up, Japan's vaccination program is off to a slow start, with less than one per cent of the population vaccinated so far. The government has signed deals with vaccine providers, and is focusing on healthcare workers and seniors first.
In the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Japanese government has decided to host an “athletes-only” Olympic Games. Theoretically, this would limit the number of overseas visitors to just 15,000. However, the rule would also allow families, coaches, media and sponsors—potentially 100,000 to 200,000 people—to enter Japan from overseas.
Japan's decision to close its borders to anyone but its citizens has left some foreign residents of Japan stranded overseas. The situation is especially difficult for foreign students, many of whom have been unable to enter Japan for more than a year. While re-entry restrictions have been relaxed, it can still be difficult for students and some workers to receive permission to enter the country.
There are fears Japan will not admit foreigners, including students, visitors, and visa-holders until at least September 2021—after the Olympic Games have concluded.
The Japan Olympic Organizing Committee appears unwilling to acknowledge howregular gaffes, a pattern of outright misogyny among senior leadership and the sense the COVID-19 pandemic is being ignored have all resulted in low public support for the Games.
Instead, after news magazine Shukan Bunshun reported on the Sasaki Hiroshi's “Olympig” comments that resulted in his resignation, Hashimoto Seiko, who replaced Mori Yoshiro on the new Organizing Committee, demanded the publication retract the story and pull all physical copies from circulation.
Shukan Bunshun bluntly refused, causing yet a new controversy for the Tokyo Olympics. Besides noting that it is in the public interest to report on a taxpayer-funded event, Shukan Bunshan concluded its response with this question:
Who are the Tokyo Olympics for? It shouldn't just be an “Olympics for some people,” such as the organizing committee, Dentsu, and politicians.