Seiko Hashimoto accepts the challenge_TBS N Star News

Mori Redux

It was June 26, 2003 and Seiko Hashimoto, a junior member of Japan’s leading political party, was on a panel with then former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who said this, according to AP:

Welfare is supposed to take care of and reward those women who have lots of children. It is truly strange to say we have to use tax money to take care of women who don’t even give birth once, who grow old living their lives selfishly and singing the praises of freedom.

Eighteen years later, Mori made another derogatory statement about women, but this time it led to his reluctant resignation from the presidency of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee.

His successor is Seiko Hashimoto.

An independent succession committee made up primarily of former Japanese Olympians and Paralympians and led by the well-respected chairman and CEO of Canon, Fujio Mitarai honed very quickly on one candidate – the Olympic speedskater and cyclist from Hayakita, Hokkaido. It’s hard to argue that anyone else in Japan has had more Olympic experience or embodies the Olympic spirit than Hashimoto.

Iron Lady

Born on October 5, 1964, 5 days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hashimoto was given the name Seiko, a play on the Japanese characters for the word “seika,” or Olympic flame. Hashimoto started her Olympic career at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, and competed as a speed skater in the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Winter Games, winning a bronze medal in the 1500 meter speedskating finals in Albertville. More incredibly, Hashimoto competed as a cyclist at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics.

That’s 7 Olympiads in 12 years! If there is one reason the Japanese press have started calling her the Iron Lady, it was her ability to persistently and  intensely train at high performance levels. Her Olympic run is unprecedented and frankly, astounding.

Hashimoto would go on to become the head of the Japanese Olympic team delegation, or the chef de mission at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, and then the first female to lead a Japan delegation at a Summer Olympics when she was appointed chef de mission at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Pioneering Parliamentarian

There is no rest in Hashimoto. Following her appearance in the 1994 Albertville Olympics, bronze medal in hand, she competed for a seat in the upper house of the Japanese Parliament in 1995, and won. While learning the ropes as a rookie politician, every day she trained for her final Olympics from 3am and worked at the Diet building from 8am. She was likely the only elected official competing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and certainly a first such double-hatter for Japan.

When Hashimoto gave birth to a daughter in 2000, she was first upper house legislator in Japan to give birth to a child while in office. As Hashimoto would have to rely on staff to watch over her daughter, she saw that others had a similar need, and would go on to establish a child care facility in the basement of a then newly built Second House of the House of Representatives. Not only lawmakers and staff could use the facilities, but also residents in the neighborhood of Nagatacho’s newest nursery.

The Challenges

Upon accepting the request of the selection committee to assume the role of President of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Hashimoto resigned from her cabinet level position as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. She had to resign from her government role for legal as well as ethical reasons. But there will likely be whispers of undue influence by the former president of the committee, Yoshiro Mori.

Mori, who was Japan’s prime minister from April 2000 to April 2001, has been for a long time a mentor and supporter of Hashimoto’s political  career. Hashimoto has often publicly referred to Mori as “father,” and likewise, Mori has referred to Hashimoto as “daughter.”

Additionally, Hashimoto has been, ironically, accused of sexual harassment, primarily due to a public incident where Hashimoto may have had too much to drink at a celebration one evening at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and where, on camera, Hashimoto repeatedly kissed Japan figure skater Daisuke Takahashi.

But clearly, the biggest challenge is leading the organization that is expected to successfully run the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics, amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic, with only 5 months to go. The day before Hashimoto assumed leadership, the governor of Shimane prefecture, explained with emotion in his voice about the frustration with the response to the COVID-19 crisis by the Japanese central government as well as the Tokyo2020 organizers. He even expressed the possibility of cancelling the Shimane portion of the Olympic torch relay, scheduled for mid May.

“It’s difficult to cooperate with the holding of the Tokyo Olympics and the torch relay,” said governor Tatsuya Maruyama. “I want to make the decision (to cancel the torch relay) based on whether or not the response of the central government and the Tokyo government to the coronavirus improves.”

So Hashimoto has a mountain to climb. But if anyone has the energy and determination needed, the Iron Lady from Hokkaido does.

 Seiko Hashimoto, one of only two athletes to have competed in two different Olympic Games in the same year (Albertville and Barcelona in 1992)

Seiko Hashimoto, one of only two athletes to have competed in two different Olympic Games in the same year (Albertville and Barcelona in 1992)

The War for Talent is fierce in the industrialized world, and it is fiercest in Japan, where the demand in particular for global, bilingual talent is sky high. The bad news is that Japanese organizations and government have not figured out how to best utilize half that talent pool, women.

In August of this year, the Japanese government signed off on legislation that requires companies with 301 or more employees to share statistical data on what percentage of female hires and managers, as well as to set targets. There is a broader goal set by the government to have 30% of all managerial roles in Japan filled by women by 2020. According to a Goldman Sachs report mentioned in this Wall Street Journal article, figuring out how to fill the gender gap could result in an increase in GDP by about 13%. That’s what is meant by Womenomics.

But for women to achieve, they have to want to achieve. And very often it is the very lack of role models that keep the number of female managers and leaders down.

Enter Seiko Hashimoto. No one in Team Japan has participated in more Olympic Games than the woman from Hokkaido. Hashimoto, now Ishizaki, has appeared in the Winter Games of Sarajevo (1984), Calgary (1988), Albertville (1992), as well as Lillehammer in 1994, competing as a speed skater. She also used her powerful legs to compete as a cycling sprinter in the Summer Games of Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992), and Atlanta (1996). That’s seven Olympic Games from 1984 to 1996!

Hashimoto, who is also a member of the House of Councillors in the Japanese government, has been named as the chef de mission of the Japan Olympic team for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. The chef de mission, according to the IOC, is the main liaison between the National Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee, and has the responsibility for all the competitors, officials and staff members of that particular national team. Hashimoto, as well as Kitty Chiller in Australia who was also named chef for Rio, are the first female chef de missions in the history of the Olympic Games.

Kitty Chiller, Australian pentathlete in the 2000 Sydney Games
Kitty Chiller, Australian pentathlete in the 2000 Sydney Games

The chef de mission of an Olympic team is the sole spokesperson, in a way, like the CEO, who represents the team not only to the IOC, but to the public. Most commonly, it is the chef de mission who has to put on the brave face when athletes or officials misbehave, but they also have the potential to rally the troops and inspire.

Why has it taken so long for women to lead an Olympic team? There are multiple reasons. Hopefully, the examples of Hashimoto and Chiller will be another step in breaking barriers and allowing talented women to show the world that leadership is far more abundant than previously believed…if only gender is ignored.