Things are going from bad to worse for Tokyo’s cursed Olympics. Just a month after Yoshiro Mori, the former PM, and ex-head of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee was forced to quit for suggesting female members should have their speaking time rationed, along comes another storm in a green tea cup, and yet another resignation.
The latest fiasco concerns comments made by Hiroshi Sasaki, the now former creative director of the opening and closing ceremonies about the actress, comedian and fashion designer Naomi Watanabe. Watanabe, a ubiquitous presence on the inane and exhaustingly upbeat variety shows that dominate TV here, is known as the ‘Japanese Beyoncé’ for the impressions of the American singer, which brought her to prominence.
The nickname is somewhat ironic, however. There is no physical resemblance. Watanabe is a larger lady, who has become a figurehead of the ‘pochakawaii’ movement (chubby and cute). She is something of a standard bearer for plus sized Japanese girls, and is often filmed in TV commercials surrounded by svelte beauties, making the point — again and again — that she belongs in such company and has nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a powerful message in a body image obsessed society and has won her legions of followers on social media.
Sasaki clearly thought she was a good choice to take part in the opening ceremony, but his first idea for how to use her sounds like something Alan Partridge might record into his dictaphone while jogging through Norwich. Sasaki apparently mentioned to friends in a group chat on the Line messaging app that he imagined Watanabe descending from the sky into the stadium dressed as a pig ‘Olympig’. He reported this in an interview with weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, but explained that he had merely floated the idea, and that it had been instantly and roundly condemned by his group.
As soon as the Olympic organizing committee heard about it, all hell broke loose. An apology was issued by Mori’s replacement as Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto, who declared: ‘I was shocked when I read the headline’. Soon after Sasaki announced his intention to resign.
All this may bemuse ordinary Japanese people, as such sensitivity to identity issues is still rather new here. Many, especially the older generation, seem to be unaware of what is expected of them. Yoshihiro Mori, 83, did himself no favors by appearing not to understand why people objected to his comments when he made a ham-fisted apology; and Sasaki, 66, seemed blissfully unaware when he gave the interview that it might unleash a Twitter storm and lead to his demise.
No doubt Sasaki, like Mori, will be banished from polite society, but not everyone will see that as proportionate, or progressive. Mori may have been impolitic in his remarks, but even the woman who believes she inspired them Yuko Inazawa, admitted that he had never acted in a sexist manner towards her — it was just poorly chosen words. Watanabe too was slow to react to the insult against her, and doesn’t appear to be too bothered, saying only that she was ‘surprised’ by Sasaki’s comments.
Most believe Mori was an effective sports administrator and a decent sort. It emerged after he quit the Olympic committee that he had only taken the job on the understanding that he would be paid the minimum salary (he had initially asked for no salary but was told this was impossible). And it is rumored he used the money he did receive to treat his fellow committee members to drinks and lunches.
Sasaki too will be a loss. Whatever his views on larger women, he is acknowledged as a very talented director of TV commercials. He was expected to do a good job with the Olympics. His exit just months before the start of the games adds another layer of difficulty for the already overworked organizers. And it is not altogether clear whether his bizarre idea for Watanabe’s grand entrance was meant seriously or was just a poor taste joke in a private conversation.
Until recently, Japan had been like Switzerland in the culture wars, a sanctuary in which fear of offending minority groups didn’t stalk everyone in public life and public shamings for purely verbal indiscretions were rare. When Yoshihiro Mori was prime minister he used to make a new gaffe every other day. Nobody much minded.
And I’m not convinced anyone much minds now. I’ve yet to meet a single person here in Tokyo who was offended by Mori’s silly comments. Few will think Sasaki’s unpleasant porcine inspiration is worth a moment of their time either.
But things are evidently changing. Even in staid conservative Japan, a noisy minority is starting to control the social-media narrative, attract the interest of the foreign press, and drive people from their jobs.
How long before Tokyo becomes Wokeyo?
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.