Tokyo Olympics sacks opening ceremony director over Holocaust joke

Tokyo 2020 has fired the director of its opening ceremony a day before it takes place after footage of him joking about the Holocaust appeared on social media.

The departure of Kentaro Kobayashi, who made the reference during a 1998 comedy routine, threw the opening ceremony into further chaos, following the resignation of composer Keigo Oyamada over past remarks about bullying a disabled classmate.

The development left organisers forced to contemplate modifying the opening ceremony with just hours left to rehearse after they cut four minutes of Oyamada’s music from the programme earlier this week. The sacking also marked yet another embarrassment for Japan as it stumbles towards the start of the Games on Friday.

Seiko Hashimoto, president of Tokyo 2020, said Kobayashi had “made fun of tragic history” and that the committee had sacked him before the remarks could become a diplomatic problem.

A person close to the opening ceremony said that technical and full rehearsals were complete and that it would be almost impossible to make further changes. “All the people, music and lights are co-ordinated down to the second and changing anything now would create too much chaos,” the person said.

The sacking came as Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported that former prime minister Shinzo Abe would not attend the opening ceremony. Abe was central to Tokyo’s campaign to host the 2020 Games, appearing at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro dressed as Super Mario.

Abe’s office was closed for a national holiday and he could not be reached for comment. But NHK said his decision not to attend was in the light of a ruling from the Olympics organisers to have no spectators in the stadiums and Tokyo’s state of emergency for Covid.

Kentaro Kobayashi © AP

Kobayashi, 48, was part of a comedy duo called Rahmens in the 1990s and 2000s. In the clip that surfaced online, the pair make a joke that used a reference to Holocaust victims to set up a punchline.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a US-based Jewish human rights group, condemned the joke: “Any person, no matter how creative, does not have the right to mock the victims of the Nazi genocide.”

In a statement released through the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, Kobayashi said that the incident occurred at a time when he made shallow jokes that he had since reconsidered. “My job is to entertain people and making people feel unpleasant is not acceptable,” he said. “I understand and regret that my foolish choice of words at the time was wrong.”

Japanese television has historically relied on “stables” of comedians to fill out the casts of variety shows. Their jokes draw little attention in Japan but would often be deemed offensive by modern audiences in Europe or the US — worlds now brought together by the Olympics.

Kobayashi is the second creative Olympics director to resign after Hiroshi Sasaki quit in March following reports that he had proposed a plus-sized female comedian should appear in the opening ceremony as an “Olympig”.

Oyamada, the musician, quit after the remarks he made in magazine interviews in the 1990s re-emerged in which he had boasted about bullying disabled classmates when he was in school.

The latest scandal over the opening ceremony came as organisers reported 12 more positive tests for Covid-19, taking the total to 91. The positive tests included two athletes and two others residents in the Olympic Village.

Tokyo 2020 said the rate of positive tests among those travelling to Japan was extremely low. “It’s 20 out of 32,000 — a 0.06 per cent positive rate,” said operations chief Hidemasa Nakamura. He said the usual rate in airport tests was 0.4 per cent, showing that visitors were following the rules.

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