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© Reuters. Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori in Tokyo

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TOKYO (Reuters) – 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 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.

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.

“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, but added: “It’s a comment that shouldn’t have been made”.

Angry and frustrated Japanese athletes and activists see his remarks as a clear signal that gender equality in Japanese sports, and society as a whole, remains a distant dream.

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.

Other cabinet ministers also called Mori out.

Takuya Hirai, cabinet minister in charge of digital transformation, was quoted by Kyodo news agency as saying: “I can’t imagine what led him to make that kind of comment. It’s unacceptable”.

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