SSF: After competing as a speed skater at the 1984 and 1988 Winter Games in Sarajevo and Calgary, you announced that you would seek to qualify for the Summer Games as a track cyclist. You’ve since represented Japan at the 1988, 1992, and 1996 Summer Games in Seoul, Barcelona, and Atlanta, as well as two more Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer.
SEIKO HASHIMOTO: People were quite surprised when I said I was going to compete in cycling. Some saw me as a newcomer to the sport and criticized me for hurting the chances of other athletes who had been training long and hard as a cyclist. But for me, the Olympics are open to all those who qualify, so if I had the best times, why shouldn’t I be allowed to compete? It was as if I had to overcome not just my rivals but disapproving opinion as well. And I thought, “This is what’s keeping Japan from being more competitive at the world level.” I set my sights on winning a medal at my first two Winter Games in Sarajevo and Calgary, but there were many who thought that Japan couldn’t possibly earn a winter medal.
The delegations of internationally competitive countries will include team physicians and personnel to provide well-balanced meals, such as nutritionists and cooks. Japan, though, often didn’t even have trainers accompanying the athletes. These things had to change in order to win, I thought, but if you said so out loud, you were likely to be seen as being self-centered.
Ever since becoming the youngest Japanese athlete ever to compete at the World Allround Speed Skating Championships in 1981 when I was 16, I’ve felt sorry for the older athletes who were compelled to keep those sentiments to themselves. To get people to listen to my reform ideas, I had to first win their respect, not just as an athlete but also as a human being. So I pushed myself really hard in practice and, at the same time, tried to be as supportive as I could toward others. I wanted to start by reforming myself, link those efforts to my performance, and ultimately create a more open environment where athletes in Japan could freely say what was on their minds.
SSF: You became a member of the National Diet in the 1995 House of Councillors election while still active as an Olympic athlete.
HASHIMOTO: I was 30 at the time and training for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The media was quite hostile toward my candidacy, perhaps because I was a woman, but I decided to run because I felt we needed politicians who understood the necessity for reform. Having seen how freely other countries’ athletes were conducting themselves, I knew that Japan had to open up. My decision to enter politics was motivated by a desire to implement reforms and change the status quo in sports.
I also surprised many people when I became the first female Diet member to get married while in office. And they were shocked when I announced my intentions to give birth without resigning. I was the first incumbent Diet member to go through childbirth in 50 years and the first-ever upper house member. The only reasons for which we were allowed to skip sessions of the house at the time were “official duties,” “illness,” and “other circumstance of a temporary nature.” So I worked with my Diet colleagues on a nonpartisan basis to have the Committee on Rules and Administration add “delivery of a baby” to the rules of the House of Councillors as a fourth reason for which nonattendance was recognized.
Given Japan’s falling birthrate and aging population, a growing number of employers were introducing systems of maternity and childcare leave. But many women still faced noninstitutional barriers to taking time off while remaining in the workforce. Some of my Diet colleagues privately thought I should relinquish my seat if I couldn’t carry out my political responsibilities, so I was back at work within a week after giving birth. At the same time, there were people who argued that I, as a Diet member, should set an example and take a longer leave of absence. For me, though, amending the house rules to include childbirth as a legitimate reason for nonattendance was victory enough. It opened the door for Diet members to take maternity leave, so it was a big step forward.
SSF: From your vantage point as a politician with a sports background, how has the status of sports in society changed over the years?
HASHIMOTO: When I was first elected to the Diet, the prevailing view of the Olympics and the domestic National Sports Festival was that they were contests for people whose enjoyment of sports as a hobby had taken a slightly more serious turn. The business sector had a large presence in sports while the Japanese economy was booming, with corporate teams employing many athletes. But after the bubble burst in the early 1990s, one company after another disbanded their teams. The development was disconcerting enough to trigger debate, even in the Diet, on measures to address the situation, which gradually led to fuller engagement by the state in sports promotion.
One result was the opening in 2007 of the National Training Center as a core facility to develop competitive athletes. The Japan Institute of Sports Sciences had been operating since 2001 to offer medical insights that could lead to improved international performance, and these two institutions have played a central role in bolstering the standing of Japanese athletes at recent Olympic Games. In 2019, Indoor Training Center East opened as a para-sports facility where Olympic and Paralympic athletes can train alongside one another. Data and other findings collected at these venues can be helpful when analyzed and fed back to the athletes, but I think there would be benefits if they can also be shared with the broader public.
SSF: How can sports make additional contributions to positive social change going forward?
HASHIMOTO: We know that exercise is extremely important for young children in building the foundations for future growth. And in a super-aged society like Japan’s, exercise is indispensable to staying healthy longer and minimizing end-of-life care. On these issues, the sports world has lots to offer, given the research conducted and discoveries made on ways to optimize our physical resources.
Having served as vice president of the Japan Olympic Committee, I feel that the body can do much more to improve the quality of life of people in the community—not just develop top athletes and improve their performance, which is the JOC’s focus at the moment. The first step should be for each sports association to formulate clear goals for the next 50 to 100 years. The JOC should then integrate these goals into a uniform vision that can be shared by all associations, so rather than working separately, they can better coordinate their activities. Having such a vision of how the sporting world can contribute to a brighter future for Japan would surely elevate the value of sports in society.
SSF: The city of Sapporo is hoping to host the 2030 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
HASHIMOTO: I think local residents and the people of Japan will support Sapporo’s bid if the goals of hosting the Games are clearly outlined. Sapporo is considered the front-runner among the candidate cities at the moment, so I believe it has a strong shot at being selected if it can make a compelling case to the Japanese public.
Translated from an interview conducted in Japanese on December 22, 2021. Read part 1 of the Interview with Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto.