Japan's Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto emerged Wednesday as the most likely candidate to take the helm of the country's organizing committee to stage the Tokyo Games this summer after Yoshiro Mori announced his resignation last week over sexist comments, sources familiar with the matter said.
The organizing body's panel tasked with selecting the next president held its second meeting at a Tokyo hotel in the morning and decided to ask Hashimoto to take over the top job, according to the sources.
If Hashimoto, a seven-time Olympian who serves in the ministerial post in Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's Cabinet, accepts the request, executives of the organizing committee will likely endorse her as its new chief.
The third session of the panel, headed by Canon Inc. Chairman Fujio Mitarai, and a meeting of the committee's executive board will be convened on Thursday, the committee said.
Talking to reporters on Wednesday evening, Hashimoto, a 56-year-old lawmaker of the Liberal Democratic Party, declined to comment.
"The organizing committee has set up a selection panel and has been in the process (of deciding on a candidate), so I do not have anything else to say at the moment as it is a personnel matter," she said.
Hashimoto has expressed reluctance to serve as president, people close to the matter said Tuesday. She would be required to resign from her post as Olympic minister if she decides to head the organizing committee.
During its first meeting on Tuesday, the panel agreed on five criteria for selecting a new president. The criteria include having experience on the global stage and an understanding of the current state of preparations for the Tokyo Games, due to begin in July after they were postponed for one year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mori announced his resignation on Friday after drawing worldwide criticism over the remarks he made during a Japanese Olympic Committee gathering on Feb. 3 about women talking too much during meetings.
Hashimoto appeared at seven Olympics between 1984 and 1996, competing in speed skating at four Winter Games and cycling at three Summer Games. She became the first Japanese female to win a medal in speed skating after finishing third in the women's 1,500-meter race at the 1992 Games in Albertville, France.
Hashimoto opened her career as a lawmaker in 1995. She currently doubles as the minister in charge of gender equality and women's empowerment.
Born in Hokkaido just five days before the opening of the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo, her first name Seiko comes from "seika," meaning the Olympic flame in Japanese.
JOC chief Yasuhiro Yamashita, 63, a gold medalist in judo at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and Mikako Kotani, 54, a former artistic swimmer and currently the sports director for the games, were considered as possible successors to Mori, according to several sources.
While the committee has pledged to ensure transparency in the selection process, the meetings of the panel are being held behind closed doors. The committee has also refused to officially confirm the identities of the panel's members, although they have been widely reported.
Suga and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike have called for openness in the process after Mori attempted to pick his successor behind the scenes.
But Suga also told a parliamentary session Wednesday that the matter was "not something that I should interfere in. The organizing committee will decide itself."
Yamashita and Japan Sports Agency Commissioner Koji Murofushi are among the members of the selection panel, which consists of an equal number of women and men.