The creative director for Tokyo’s Olympic ceremonies announced his resignation on Thursday for proposing a plus-size female comedian appear as a pig, just weeks after the postponed Games’ chief stepped down in a sexism row.
Hiroshi Sasaki announced his decision after a report on Wednesday revealed his suggestion about Naomi Watanabe, a hugely popular celebrity, for the opening ceremony.
It is just the latest headache for organisers of the coronavirus-delayed Games, who are struggling for public support mid-pandemic and were left reeling by former chief Yoshiro Mori’s sexist remarks last month.
In a statement released early Thursday, Sasaki apologised to Watanabe and said he understood his proposal had been inappropriate.
“My idea would be a huge insult to Ms. Naomi Watanabe. This can’t be taken back,” he said.
“I regret this from the bottom of my heart, and I deeply apologise to her and everyone who felt discomfort over this,” he added.
Sasaki said he had spoken to Tokyo Olympics chief Seiko Hashimoto, who replaced Mori last month, to inform her he would be stepping down.
The scandal erupted on Wednesday evening, when a local magazine reported that Sasaki last year suggested to colleagues that Watanabe could appear at the Olympic opening ceremony as an “Olympig”, wearing pig ears.
The proposal, made in a group chat, was immediately rejected by Sasaki’s colleagues, who told him it was inappropriate.
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Sasaki was initially appointed to take charge of the Paralympics opening and closing ceremonies, but became creative director for the Olympic extravaganzas in December.
Watanabe is a feted celebrity in Japan, and is known to international fans in part thanks to an appearance on the celebrated makeover show “Queer Eye”.
The comedian and model, who fronts campaigns for products from clothing to skincare, has more than nine million followers on Instagram.
She is one of the few prominent plus-size figures among Japan’s celebrities, and has faced insults in the past. She has not yet commented on the latest row.
There was also no immediate comment from the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, though Hashimoto is expected to address the issue at a press conference on Thursday.
The row comes at a sensitive time for the Games after the firestorm that erupted when former Tokyo 2020 chief Mori said women speak too much in meetings.
Mori eventually stepped down, with former Olympic minister Hashimoto appointed his successor, but the scandal was hugely damaging for organisers, who have now moved to improve the gender balance on their board.
It was the latest in a number of public relations setbacks for the Olympics, including a plagiarism row over the Games’ original logo and public anger over a $2 billion design for the main stadium, which was later scaled back.
In 2019, the head of Japan’s Olympic committee, Tsunekazu Takeda, stepped down after he was charged by French magistrates probing $2.3 million in payments made before and after Tokyo secured hosting rights.
Organisers are facing public scepticism over holding the Games this year, and are due to make a key decision on whether to allow foreign fans to attend.
They are widely expected to announce next week that overseas spectators will be barred, with limits on domestic fans still to be decided.
Organisers insist the Games can still go ahead, and have released a series of rulebooks they say will ensure virus safety.
The Olympic torch relay is due to kick off on March 25, though spectators are barred from the launch ceremony and first leg, with those lining the route elsewhere banned from cheering and crowding, and required to wear masks.