In the latest blow to the Tokyo Games, organizers have dismissed the director of the Olympics opening ceremony, just a day before the extravaganza, over a past comedy sketch making light of the Holocaust.
The Tokyo Organising Committee announced Thursday that Kentaro Kobayashi was removed from his post right after the sketch came to the attention of organizers.
His dismissal follows the resignation of musician Keigo Oyamada, also known as Cornelius, from the opening ceremony’s creative team earlier this week after it came to wider attention that he had previously admitted to abusing schoolmates with disabilities.
The new scandal is a further drag on public enthusiasm toward the Games, which have already drawn strong opposition amid concerns about coronavirus infection risks and incidents surrounding their preparation.
In the wake of the latest scandal, Tokyo Organising Committee President Seiko Hashimoto offered an apology for any offense and anguish the incident may have caused those involved in the Olympic Games, as well as to the citizens of Japan and people around the world.
In the sketch, Kobayashi turns to his comedy partner and, referring to some crumpled paper doll cutouts, says they are “the ones from that time you said, ‘let’s play the Holocaust,'” sparking laughter from the audience. About 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis in the genocide.
In explaining the decision to remove Kobayashi from his role, Hashimoto said that the remarks “pertain to a diplomatic controversy.”
Kobayashi’s sketch has drawn flak nationwide. The news prompted Yasuhide Nakayama, the state minister of defense, to report it to the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), a Jewish human rights organization that investigates anti-Semitic incidents, Nakayama said on Twitter.
The center condemned Kobayashi’s behavior and called his joke anti-Semitic.
“Any person, no matter how creative, does not have the right to mock the victims of the Nazi genocide,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, SWC associate dean and global social action director, said in a statement. “The Nazi regime also gassed Germans with disabilities. Any association of this person to the Tokyo Olympics would insult the memory of 6 million Jews and make a cruel mockery of the Paralympics.”
The organizing committee said it was not aware of Kobayashi’s past actions and began considering disciplinary action as soon as the news reached them by early Thursday.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday called the line from the sketch “inexcusable.”
The 48-year-old former comedian was notified of his dismissal Thursday morning.
In a comment read out by Hashimoto, Kobayashi apologized profusely and expressed his remorse over his previous actions, admitting that his lines used in his sketch were inappropriate and that he had realized his choice of words was a mistake.
“I would like to apologize to those who were offended. I apologize for any offense I may have caused,” he said in a statement.
“I think it was a time when I couldn’t make people laugh as much as I wanted, and I was trying to attract people’s attention in a shallow way,” Kobayashi said, referring to criticism his past work has drawn.
“As a person whose job is to entertain people, I should never make people feel uncomfortable,” he said. “After that, I realized that it was not good for me and I had a change of heart.”
He said he later tried to correct his actions, adding, “(I) started to aim for laughter that does not hurt people.”
As Kobayashi was responsible for overseeing the program for the opening ceremony and related preparations, the organizers said they are reviewing the program so it can be delivered in such a way that the scandal does not eclipse the concept and message of the event.
The organizers have already been forced to remove a roughly four-minute composition by Oyamada, who resigned Monday, which was supposed to be played at the start of the ceremony, and consider an alternative plan. Initially, the committee had defended the musician.
Hashimoto said on behalf of the organizing committee that she felt responsible for the failure to check the history of people such as Kobayashi and Oyamada.
“In addition to the controversy surrounding (the behavior) of Mr. Oyamada, such conduct is unacceptable and led us to the decision that (Kobayashi) should be subject to dismissal,” she said, referring to Kobayashi’s harmful actions. “We view it as a tremendous problem.”
Hashimoto assumed her position in February, replacing 84-year-old Yoshiro Mori in the wake of a sexism furor — another scandal that contributed to the unpopularity of the Olympics.
The scandals are not the only concerns that have spurred opposition from the public and calls for the cancellation of the Games — Japan has also failed to prevent the coronavirus from spreading despite measures targeted at Olympic delegations and strict quarantine protocols. As of Thursday, 91 people linked to the Olympics had tested positive for COVID-19, casting a shadow over their participation in the event and raising concerns about the further spread of the virus.
When asked if going ahead with the Olympics was wise amid the ongoing pandemic and scandals rocking the Games before they even started, Hashimoto said that she had not considered canceling them.
Hashimoto said she is hopeful the Olympics will serve as a symbol of recovery, diversity and harmony.
“Those are the most important values and role of the Games we can send out, especially now,” she said. “We want everyone to remember the Tokyo Olympics as a way of overcoming the challenges we’ve faced.”
She added that she was hopeful the Games will be a success.
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