Hashimoto appointment a delicate balancing act behind the scenes

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Seiko Hashimoto, center, leaves the Prime Minister’s Office after submitting her resignation as Olympic minister to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday.

Seiko Hashimoto’s appointment as president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee Thursday has finally defused the wrangling over who would take over this vital position just five months ahead of the Games. However, the committee, the Japanese government and the Tokyo metropolitan government had to tread carefully to ensure the veracity of the appointment process was beyond question.

Fujio Mitarai, who chaired the committee’s selection panel, was delighted with Hashimoto’s appointment.

“I watched her press conference after her appointment online on my computer, and she spoke extremely well,” Mitarai, who is honorary president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, said at a press conference. “She has participated in seven Olympic Games and is the ideal person for this role.”

The previous president, Yoshiro Mori, resigned on Feb. 12 after making remarks widely considered as disrespectful toward women. Mori then tapped Saburo Kawabuchi, an executive adviser at the Japan Football Association, to replace him, which triggered fierce criticism of a “backroom deal.” Kawabuchi withdrew from the race and about one week after Mori stepped down, Hashimoto landed the job.

By Feb. 12, the government had already settled on an “ideal” proposal to have Hashimoto head the organizing committee and Tamayo Marukawa replace her as Olympic minister. “We had two women with experience as cabinet ministers and all the necessary skills. They were perfectly qualified,” a close aide to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said. Hashimoto has extensive connections with Japanese Olympic Committee officials and is well-acquainted with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.

However, government officials were concerned that any impression the government was spearheading personnel appointments would inevitably spark further backlash among the public. Many government officials were uncertain how discussions by the selection panel would pan out. “It was hotly contested. We didn’t know what would happen,” a government source told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Consequently, high-ranking government officials met behind the scenes with senior organizing committee officials and worked closely with them to build a consensus. Suga tried to stay detached from the process. “I shouldn’t speak at all on this matter,” Suga said at a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting Wednesday.

Tokyo govt backed Hashimoto

The central government has frequently been at odds with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike over the running of the Games. However, both sides ultimately were in agreement on having Hashimoto head the organizing committee.

Tokyo Vice Gov. Mitsuchika Tarao joined the selection panel. Tarao held talks with Koike and other officials before attending panel meetings, where he conveyed their views. According to metropolitan government sources, Hashimoto was among several candidates the Tokyo government suggested to become Mori’s replacement.

Soon after being reappointed Olympic minister when the Suga administration was launched in September, Hashimoto made a courtesy call to Koike. “There are many matters I would like your advice on,” Hashimoto said. “Having you here is very reassuring,” Koike replied, before the two women smiled and shared a fist bump.

Hashimoto and Koike have stayed in direct contact through telephone calls. A senior Tokyo government official welcomed Hashimoto’s appointment, saying, “Now that Ms. Hashimoto is organizing committee president, she will communicate even more closely with the governor.”

Skeleton in the closet

Attendees at selection panel meetings held over three days from Tuesday spoke their minds freely. The four female members unanimously insisted a woman should not be chosen as the new president just for the sake of it.

Nevertheless, supporters lined up behind Hashimoto at Wednesday’s meeting. Nine people who met the criteria were named on a short list, but the panel reached a conclusion in just 1½ hours.

“The government and organizing committee worked together, but even so, there was no better candidate than Hashimoto,” a committee source said. “Everything really just fell into place.”

However, Hashimoto’s appointment has not been completely plain sailing. For instance, a weekly magazine reported that Hashimoto got drunk at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games and forcibly kissed a male figure skater. At Thursday’s press conference, Hashimoto said she “deeply regretted” her “careless actions,” but some government officials reportedly are concerned this issue could flare up again.