The creative director for Tokyo's Olympic ceremonies resigned on Thursday for suggesting a female comedian appear as a pig, just weeks after the Games' chief stepped down over insulting remarks about women.
Hiroshi Sasaki announced his decision after a report on Wednesday revealed his proposal that Naomi Watanabe, a popular celebrity and plus-size model, appear as an "Olympig" wearing pig ears at the opening ceremony.
It is just the latest headache for the coronavirus-delayed Games, which are struggling for public support mid-pandemic and were left reeling by former chief Yoshiro Mori's sexist comments last month.
In a statement released early Thursday, Sasaki apologised to Watanabe and said he understood his suggestion was 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.
Watanabe, in a statement issued through her agency, said she was "surprised" by the remarks
"I'm happy with my body shape," she added, calling for a world where "individuals can respect" each other.
Tokyo Olympic chief Seiko Hashimoto, who replaced Mori last month, told reporters she was "shocked" by Sasaki's remarks.
"To joke about appearance is very, very inappropriate," Hashimoto said, adding she would work to find a replacement for Sasaki quickly.
The scandal erupted on Wednesday evening, when a local magazine reported that Sasaki suggested to colleagues last year that Watanabe could dress up as an "Olympig".
The proposal, made in a group chat, was immediately rejected by Sasaki's colleagues, who told him it was inappropriate.
- 'Should never have happened' -
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 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.
The incident 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 damaging for organisers, who have now moved to improve the gender balance on their board.
Hashimoto said she had spoken to the International Olympic Committee after the story broke yesterday and that they were "quite concerned".
"This kind of problem should never have happened," she added.
Japan's government also weighed in on the row, with deputy spokesman Naoki Okada calling Sasaki's suggestion "completely inappropriate".
It is the latest in a series of public-relations setbacks for the Olympics, including a plagiarism row over the Games' original logo and 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 widely expected to announce next week that overseas spectators will be barred, with limits on domestic fans still to be decided.
But 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.