TOKYO — The Tokyo Olympic organizing committee on Thursday appointed Seiko Hashimoto, Japan’s cabinet minister in charge of the Olympics and gender equality, to replace Yoshiro Mori, 83, who resigned last week in the wake of an international firestorm over sexist remarks.
The selection of Ms. Hashimoto, 56, an Olympic medalist in speedskating, represents a stark generational and gender shift for the committee, which had initially planned to name another octogenarian male leader, Saburo Kawabuchi, a former head of the governing body for Japanese soccer, as Mr. Mori’s replacement.
Although the choice did not stray far from the establishment, both Mr. Mori’s resignation and Ms. Hashimoto’s appointment reflected the growing power of social media and Japanese activists to sway the course of what was seen as an important symbolic decision.
“In the past, he should have been just criticized, and then the issue would have ended,” said Kazuyo Katsuma, a former businesswoman and prominent author of best-selling books on gender and work-life balance, speaking about Mr. Mori. “But this time he had to resign because of a lot of criticism from women who raised their voices.”
A public outcry on social media also prodded the organizing committee to abandon its original choice of a successor. Last week, after Mr. Kawabuchi, 84, told reporters that he was prepared to accept an offer to succeed Mr. Mori, the organizing committee swiftly changed plans after critics pointed to Mr. Kawabuchi’s age, his apparent support for corporal punishment of children and the fact that he had been handpicked by Mr. Mori himself.
After Mr. Mori’s resignation last Friday, Toshiro Muto, chief executive of the organizing committee, announced the formation of a new selection committee, comprised half of men and half of women, to choose a successor just five months before the Games are scheduled to open in July.
A number of names had surfaced in the Japanese media, but Ms. Hashimoto always seemed to be the clear leader.
Ms. Hashimoto is a member of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s governing Liberal Democratic Party and has served in the upper house of Japan’s Parliament since 1995. In accepting the job as president of the Olympic organizing committee, Ms. Hashimoto gives up her cabinet post, halving the number of women in Mr. Suga’s cabinet.
Speaking on Thursday afternoon after she was officially appointed by the executive board of the Tokyo organizing committee, Ms. Hashimoto said her first priority would be to implement measures to protect against the coronavirus at the Summer Games so that “both the Japanese people and people from abroad will think that the Tokyo Games are safe and secure.”
But she acknowledged that she was taking up the post after a scandal stemming from her predecessor’s sexist remarks — comments that had raised questions about the organizing committee’s commitment to gender equality.
She said she would work to establish a “gender equality promotion team” within the month.
Ms. Hashimoto is not a stranger to being a pioneer as a woman in male-dominated spaces. She was the second member of Parliament to give birth while in office, and in order to accommodate her, Parliament changed its rules to allow members to take time off for childbirth. Ms. Hashimoto took a week’s leave when her daughter was born.
As an Olympian, Ms. Hashimoto competed in a total of seven Summer and Winter Olympic Games in the 1980s and ’90s, competing in speedskating and cycling. She won a bronze medal in the 1,500-meter speedskating event at the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, in 1992.
Ms. Hashimoto entered politics when Mr. Mori was secretary-general of the Liberal Democrats, and she joined his political faction, one of a handful of influential groupings that can determine the careers of lawmakers in Japan.
“I think Ms. Hashimoto was selected so that Mr. Mori’s influence can be maintained,” said Atsuo Ito, an independent political analyst and former staff member for both the Liberal Democrats and the opposition Democratic Party. “She’s a puppet of Mr. Mori.”
Kazuko Fukuda, a women’s rights activist and one of the authors of a Change.org petition that had criticized Mr. Mori’s remarks, said she was glad the Olympic committee had ultimately “really valued the people’s voices” and changed course after its initial selection to replace Mr. Mori.
“It seemed like it was already decided without any meeting or discussion,” Ms. Fukuda said. “For a long time, everything was decided at the dinner table after work, so that many people who have to do care work, mainly women, could not join the important decision-making process, which really disservices women.”
Japanese women who have been watching the scandal unfold said they saw some hope in the choice of Ms. Hashimoto — or at least the retreat from another aged man.
“It’s a step in the right direction because we’re talking about it,” said Robin Narimatsu, 45. “Just growing up in Tokyo, all these misogynistic views are so entrenched in our society that most people don’t notice it.”
“It’s so normal for all the decision makers to be middle-aged or old men,” said Ms. Narimatsu, who sits on the board of her father’s restaurant and real estate business and is raising two teenagers. “I feel like people are finally recognizing and seeing it as a potential problem.”
Makiko Inoueand Hisako Uenocontributed reporting.