Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said on Friday the Olympic Games were facing a "major issue" after the head of the organising committee made sexist remarks and as criticism of his comments showed no sign of abating.
Yoshiro Mori, 83, set off a firestorm on social media both at home and abroad this week with comments that women talked too much, remarks made in a meeting with the Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) that he later retracted and apologised for but refused to resign over.
The row casts an additional shadow over the Tokyo Games, postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, especially with less than half a year left before the opening ceremony.
"The mission of the metropolis and the organising committee is to prepare for a safe and secure Games, and we are facing a major issue," Koike said.
She also said she'd heard the Tokyo government was fielding complaint calls from city residents.
"I myself was struck speechless by his comments, which should not have been made."
Anger over Mori's comments is likely to further alienate a Japanese public wary of Tokyo's attempts to hold the Games during a pandemic. Nearly 80 percent of the public opposes holding the Games in July, according to the most recent poll.
The International Olympic Committee said on Thursday that Mori's apology had settled the issue, but criticism of Mori, a former Japanese prime minister, continued on Friday.
Yasuhiro Yamashita, head of the JOC, said Mori's comments went against the Olympic spirit and were inappropriate, Kyodo news agency reported.
"There's all kinds of criticism. I would hope that people grasp the fact that (preparation for) the Games must proceed with the understanding and cooperation of people around the world," Japan's top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato told a news conference.
He said the government's understanding was that the IOC considered the matter closed.
Angry and frustrated Japanese athletes, activists and ordinary women see Mori's remarks as a clear signal that gender equality in Japanese sports, and society as a whole, remains a distant dream.
"This is the reality of what women in Japan are facing every day. Old guys with outdated mindsets continue to hold power and are making decisions," said a female staffer at the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, who declined to be identified because she was not authorized to speak to the media.
"Unfortunately in this country, social pressure prohibits women from speaking out about inequality - which makes yesterday's sexism row even more significant for Japan."
Japan persistently trails its peers on promoting gender equality, ranking 121 out of 153 nations surveyed in the 2020 global gender gap report of the World Economic Forum.
"I felt anger for the first time in a while," pro soccer player Shiho Shimoyamada said in a tweet.
"It's absolutely meaningless to retract remarks that are already out in the open. Unless you actually acknowledge prejudice and take steps against it, I believe the same thing will just happen again."
An online petition begun by Change.org calling for "Looking into dealing with Mori and preventing recurrences" had gained 12,000 signatures by noon on Friday.
The Nikkei said in a Feb. 5 editorial that Mori's withdrawal of the remarks was not enough and more had to be done to regain trust, especially with the Games so close.
"Mori's ill-considered remarks have undermined trust in the head of the organizing committee at this critical time," it said. "It could dampen momentum toward holding the games themselves and hamper international support for this challenging endeavor."