The Olympics as a Force for Change: Potential Victory for Women in Japan’s Old Boy’s Bastion of Golf?

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Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe City, Japan. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” – Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter

Principle 6 was challenged by Russia in the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics when:

  • a Russian judge would not allow construction of a Pride House, which is where athletes who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) can gather during an Olympic Games, and
  • a law was passed that banned “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors, which was perceived to outlaw any reference to LGBT.

The associated homophobic violence in Russia and the uproar in media outside of Russia left the IOC wondering what they could do to give teeth to Principle 6. But it’s likely they only really started considering the seriousness of the situation when a group of over 50 current and former Olympians banded together to start a campaign asking the Russian government to reconsider the law on “gay propaganda”. They called this campaign, the Principle 6 Campaign.

The IOC got the message. According to The Guardian, the IOC established a new clause to the host city contract. So when a city bids for an Olympic Games, their bid mush show they are complying with this clause: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.”

Perhaps unfortunately, the host city contract did not have these “teeth” in 2007 when Sochi won the bid for 2014. But any city wanting to bid in the future have to show their country is not blatantly exercising discrimination.

Japan is not a country that blatantly discriminates. While it is considered one of the most meritocratic countries in the world, there are times when non-Japanese have various cultural or legal issues, or females wonder whether they are getting treated fairly. But it is subtle and discussion today is more common and open on the issues and how to improve them.

Which brings us to golf.

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Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, has asked the proposed course for the golf tournament at the 2020 Olympics, Kasumigaseki Country Club, to admit women members Credit: Aflo/REX/Shutterstock

For the first time in history, Tokyo has a female governor, Yuriko Koike. In addition to taking a microscope to the ballooning Tokyo2020 budget, she poked the ribs of an organization that does not allow women to enjoy full membership – the Kasumigaseki Country Club. Under ordinary circumstances, it is unlikely that a governor would want to take on a private association over female membership as a top ten priority. But Japan will be hosting the 2020 Summer Games, and Kasumigaeki CC is slated to be the venue for golf. Suddenly, the country club became an easy target.

Why?

Because the governor can exercise what is known in Japan as “gai-atsu”, or the tactic of getting a foreign entity to put pressure on a Japanese organization to drive change that is perceived as necessary but is stuck due to inertia or equally strong parties who cannot agree on direction.

The IOC stands for equality and forbids discrimination. Even though Tokyo’s winning bid in 2013 did not have an anti-discrimination clause in their host city contract, Governor Koike, thought she could make a stand, stating, that she felt “very uncomfortable that women cannot become full members in the 21st century. It should be a venue open to everyone.” Then the Japanese Olympic Committee, the International Golf Federation and the Japan Golf Association requested that the Kasumagaseki CC board open up full membership to women.

On Tuesday, February 7, the board members of the country club met to discuss the possibility of making it possible for women to become full members (which would among other things allow them to play on Sundays). But it has been reported that the board did not make a decision to change the membership rules. As these quotes from the Japan Times indicate, there is a clash of values at play, which will make it hard to reach a required unanimous agreement:

All 15 board members have to agree to a change according to the club’s by-laws. Kiichi Kimura, the chairman of the board, expressed bewilderment at the predicament.

“We discussed how we ought to respond as we ask our members how they feel,” Kimura said. “It’s extremely annoying the situation has evolved into what it is so quickly. Right now, we’re confused.”

According to one source with knowledge of the talks, some board members opposed changing the club’s policies, with one saying, “I do take issue with changing it just because we’ve been told to do so.”

Will Kasumageski Country Club change with the times? Or will TOCOG be using a sand wedge to blast out of this bunker, and land in a nice venue acceptable to all?