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Back in 1998 a young comedian named Kentaro Kobayashi was building a career that led over the years through film, novels, manga and anime to his appointment as director of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony. It is interesting that in his novice phase he was drawn to the Holocaust as a source of humor, rather than to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an atrocity closer to home.

Interesting, too, that his high-spirited gag about “(trying) to play Holocaust with these human-shaped papers for a kids’ TV show” apparently aroused no outrage at the time — or for decades afterward. Standards are changing, perhaps.

His abrupt dismissal 23 years later raises many questions: What’s funny and what’s not? What’s offensive and what’s not? How tasteful can humor be without being humorless? How tasteful must humor be if it is not to degenerate into cruel mockery of victims, sufferers, people who are different?

The Jewish human rights group Simon Wiesenthal Center passed swift judgment on Kobayashi. “Any person, no matter how creative, does not have the right to mock the victims of the Nazi genocide,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean and global social action director. Alluding to the Paralympics, he added, “The Nazi regime also gassed Germans with disabilities.”

Kobayashi himself apologized profusely. “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,” he said.

Shallow enough. Still — so what? says, in effect, columnist Carolina Landsmann of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Addressing Tokyo Organising Committee President Seiko Hashimoto, she writes: “And now, in all seriousness, Hashimoto, tell us. Have you gone crazy?” For 80-odd years Jews have made, laughed at and deplored jokes about the Holocaust — as for hundreds if not thousands of years they have about the assorted other calamities history has heaped on them.

“That is why decent Jews must raise a cry that can be heard as far away as Japan,” Landsmann concludes — “we weren’t hurt! We don’t care about a joke told in 1998 … Bring back Kobayashi and climb down from the rooftops.”

What’s funny, what’s not funny? To the ancient Greek comic poet Aristophanes, everything was funny — in the hands of a master comic. He is the first comic writer whose works survive, the gadfly of classical Athens. To him, nothing was sacred. In his plays, staged mainly at the spring festival of the wine and fertility god Dionysus, he lampooned peace, war (this at a time when Athens was at war, and losing), politics, politicians, philosophy, philosophers, excretion, secretion — and Dionysus himself, whom he portrays (tastelessly) as a rank buffoon. He was hauled into court at least once — by a politician who’d felt his sting — but basically he got away with it. More than that, he won prizes, to say nothing of an immortal name.

Laughter and pain may or may not be strange bedfellows, but they certainly are bedfellows. They are inseparable. The September issue of PHP magazine offers a small but telling example. Its overall theme is how to cultivate “an easy mind” in the face of the many challenges to that enviable state. One contribution is by a musician and writer named Sekaikan Ozaki. How does he cope with the leaden blues? With laughter.

You first must discover that life is funny, even — maybe especially — when it seems anything but. At 36, he’s had his ups and downs. His singing career finally launched, he’s on stage one night when he loses his voice. Can anything worse happen to a singer? He broke down in tears. Then he went at himself with violence, punching himself so hard in the neck that he suffered whiplash. Suddenly he saw this for what it was, if you can only see it that way — hysterically, idiotically funny.

What’s funny, what’s not? In December 2010 the British national broadcaster BBC had a spectacularly acute attack of tastelessness — for which it subsequently apologized — making sport of a “double hibakusha,” a survivor of both atomic bombings. Visiting Hiroshima when the first bomb fell, engineer Tsutomu Yamaguchi returned home to Nagasaki immediately. Panelists on the BBC comedy quiz show “QI” wondered, amid much mirth, whether Yamaguchi was the luckiest man in the world — for surviving; or the unluckiest — for his two-fold brush with the modern apocalypse.

“Was it funny,” asked the current affairs journal The Diplomat in March 2011, “for the show’s panelists to joke about radioactivity, and that the bomb had ‘landed on Yamaguchi and bounced off’?”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has rebuked Japan before, once in 2011 after the rock group Kishidan performed — just for the hell of it? — in Nazi gear. “As someone who has visited Japan over 30 times,” said Rabbi Cooper at the time, “I am fully aware that many young Japanese are woefully uneducated about the crimes against humanity committed during World War II by Imperial Japan in occupied Asia, let alone about Nazi Germany’s genocidal ‘Final Solution’ against the Jews in Europe.”

Some laugh because they’re not aware, others because they are. The question “What’s funny?” — or even what funniness is — remains unresolved.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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