Tokyo 2020 – a diversity and inclusion fiasco of Olympic proportions

Tokyo 2020 – a diversity and inclusion fiasco of Olympic proportions

Amid the challenges of hosting the biggest sporting event in the World during a global pandemic, the disgraceful comments of Yoshiro Mori have cast a shadow over an already struggling event.

The discriminatory comments and eventual resignation of former Japanese PM Yoshiro Mori, until two weeks ago the head of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee, have been widely reported and, rightly, caused outrage from all corners of the globe. His resignation will have stemmed some of the criticism the Tokyo Olympics was receiving for the comments, but it highlights the challenges being faced in addressing all types of Diversity and Inclusion.

Here Nick Lindsay and Kate Owen, two of our governance experts, look at some of the underlying issues and challenges for organisations that are serious about addressing Diversity and Inclusion.

Yoshiro Mori and the Tokyo Olympics

Yoshiro Mori reportedly said, ‘If we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying,’

‘We have about seven women at the organising committee, but everyone understands their place.’

He made these comments at a meeting of the Japanese Olympic Committee on 3 February 2021. He later retracted these comments, but the pressure to resign continued to mount both from within Japan and internationally. Sponsors even started to express their concern and, finally, on 12 February 2021 (a week and a half later) he announced his resignation.

Isn’t this just the view of someone who belongs to a bygone era?A lot could be said (and has been said by many other writers) about these comments, what it says about the Tokyo Olympics, and about Japanese Corporate Governance.  The clearly inappropriate views of a Japanese octogenarian may not immediately seem relevant to UK governance, but lessons can be learned.

Thankfully, it is rare to hear such discriminatory views aired in public in the UK by an individual in a position of power. But it would be naïve to suggest that there aren’t comments aired in private at meetings of UK companies that could cause a media storm if they came to light. These are the same leaders that are tasked with improving diversity and inclusion within their organisations and so it matters how they act both in private and in public.

In 2019, the Tokyo Olympics organising committee had set itself a target of increasing the number of female directors to 40%, and the Olympics claim that sport is ‘one of the most powerful platforms for promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls.’ The Tokyo Olympics organising committee would have signed up to a myriad of diversity policies, targets and statements. In fact, immediately following Yoshiro Mori’s comments, the IOC released a statement setting out how important inclusion, diversity and gender equality are to them, including 11 decisions, achievements and commitments in this respect.

Yet, all of this clearly did not change the views of the boss.

Governance and gender diversity in the UK

Progress has been slow but largely positive in the UK. Hereon we focus on gender diversity as this was the focus of Yoshiro Mori and because it is the area that probably has the clearest targets and reporting. The Davies Report in February 2011 set a target for 30% of the directors of FTSE companies being women, and over the subsequent years, the representation of women on boards has steadily increased. Some industries have struggled, such as Finance, although the Women in Finance Charter is an example of a positive Government initiative in this area.

Large companies are now required to report on the gender pay gap, and this has led to a lot of publicity and, hopefully, an attempt to narrow this in many cases.

These are just some of the examples of progress. Nonetheless, there are still issues.

The dreaded tick box

Diversity and inclusion is not just a tick box exercise. How many times have these words been echoed, often with the best of intentions?

However, all too often, it is treated as such, and all these targets, charters and reporting can lead to a focus on hitting the target or making sure the report looks right. This doesn’t mean that these targets and initiatives are a bad thing; they do drive progress. It does sometimes mean that conversation in the board room are often limited to this area because this is the immediate issue that needs to be addressed.

Admit there is a problem

So, what is the answer?

There is no simple or single answer – if there was, it would have been found long ago. However, a good start would be to admit there is a problem at the top. Too many organisations don’t seem to think there is one or at least don’t want to admit it. Perhaps, because things are getting better on the face of it, they believe this is enough. Or, perhaps because those making the decisions have not personally been impacted themselves, they struggle to see the problem.

There are still too many organisations that only address the specific reporting requirements when it comes to diversity and don’t address diversity and inclusion because it’s the right thing to do.

However, as demonstrated by the Olympics incident, Boards need to go beyond what can be measured. Boards need to demonstrate the right culture and set the right ‘tone from the top’ by championing equality and diversity in all its forms.

The language and approach to these issues need to change. We have no doubt that the Tokyo Olympics organising committee had all of these tick boxes and considered all of the right aspects of Diversity and Inclusion. We seriously doubt, though, that they admitted they had a problem until a few weeks ago.

Get over the fear

For those organisations that do want to improve Diversity and Inclusion, there can still be a huge fear of talking about it, as Daisy Auger-Dominguez has written about in the Harvard Business Review. One example she gave was the fear faced by managers in addressing the Black Lives Matter movement’s issues. However, this fear applies in many other circumstances.

There is a fear amongst many women that speaking out about gender discrimination, even examples as flagrant as Mr Mori’s statements, can lead to their views being dismissed. There is also a fear amongst many men that speaking out might put them in the spotlight on an uncomfortable topic.

This fear is understandable and can be faced by people who are genuinely trying to do the right thing. This fear can lead to an inadvertent focus on the tick box, on the target, or on the government initiative. This is because focusing on these things is safe and doesn’t require a difficult conversation.

However, only by starting the conversation, asking proper questions and people feeling safe enough to undertake this exercise, are we going to improve understanding. This surely is the only way to move beyond the tick box.

Few other organisations evoke as lofty ideals as the Olympics movement; however, what this recent Tokyo fiasco has shown is that despite an organisation having the right stated values and policies in place, change still needs to be led from the top and tough conversations still need to happen.


About Elemental

Elemental Cosec is an integrated professional services firm offering joined-up support across corporate governance services, compliance, and accounting. Elemental partners with boards, law firms and in-house legal and accounting teams. We have represented over 1,600 clients from over 100 countries, including a number of listed companies. Elemental advises a number of Boards and committees on implementing governance frameworks and best practice.


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