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Japan Olympics Official Quits After Demeaning Remark About Female Entertainer

A man and a woman stand with a backdrop of the Olympic rings floating in the water in Tokyo on Thursday.
Eugene Hoshiko
A man and a woman stand with a backdrop of the Olympic rings floating in the water in Tokyo on Thursday.

The official in charge of ceremonies for the long-delayed Tokyo Olympics has stepped down following a report that he made disparaging remarks about a Japanese female entertainer.

Hiroshi Sasaki resigned as the creative director of the opening and closing ceremonies for the Games after a magazine on Wednesday revealed that he had suggested in a group chat with fellow planners that actor and comedian Naomi Watanabe, who is scheduled to perform in July's opening ceremony, should appear as an "Olympig."

"I tend to joke often, so I said it just as something that slipped out of my mouth," Sasaki was quoted by the magazine, Shukan Bunshun, as saying, according to Mainichi. The remark was "immediately reprimanded by male staff," he said, adding that he felt "remorse" for it.

Sasaki's exit is the latest setback for the embattled Games, which were to be held in 2020 but were delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, Yoshiro Mori, a former Japanese prime minister, quit as organizing committee president amid outrage over sexist remarks he made.

In a statement on Thursday published by Mainichi, Sasaki acknowledged "a very inappropriate expression in my ideas and remarks."

"I sincerely apologize to [Watanabe] and people who have felt discomfort with such contents," he said.

Watanabe said Thursday that she is "honestly surprised" by Sasaki's reported remark.

"It is true that I am told I have a large body, and I accept jobs with the understanding that I may be ridiculed for how I look," she said in a statement relayed by her agent, according to Nippon.com. "But I am actually happy with this body shape, so I want to continue expressing myself as 'Naomi Watanabe' without focusing only on being fat."

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said she was "shocked" by the magazine report. She said the organizing committee had accepted Sasaki's resignation.

"It should have never happened. That's how I communicated with him," she said at a news conference, relating a phone call with Sasaki.

"Gender equality and representation have been a priority since I was appointed president," Hashimoto said. "These things should not and cannot be allowed to happen."

Sasaki, a leading figure in Japan's advertising industry, designed the Tokyo handover ceremony at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared as the video game character Mario. He was initially appointed to oversee the 2020 Paralympic ceremonies, but was also put in charge of the Olympic ceremonies when actor Nomura Mansai stepped down after the Games were pushed back by the pandemic.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.