Preparations for the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics have been thrown into further turmoil after the show’s director was sacked over a joke about the Holocaust he made in the late 1990s.
Kentaro Kobayashi, a popular entertainer, was dismissed after a video clip resurfaced online of a skit in which he joked about a game he called “let’s play massacre the Jews”, prompting laughter in the audience.
The 1998 skit, made when he was one half of the Rahmens comedy duo, was a parody of a popular TV educational programme and showed Kobayashi and his partner recounting a discussion with their producer about ideas for the show using paper cutouts of human figures.
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It isn’t clear how Kobayashi’s resignation will affect the Games’ curtain-raiser – usually an opportunity to build anticipation for the fortnight of sport that follow, but which in Tokyo will be held amid unprecedented disruption and, due to the coronavirus, in a near-empty main stadium.
Kobayashi apologised in a statement carried by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, saying that as a young comedian he had been seeking “cheap laughs” but quickly recognised he was at fault.
“It should never be the job of an entertainer to make people feel uncomfortable,” he said. “I understand that my choice of words at the time was wrong, and I regret it. I would like to apologise for making people feel uncomfortable. I am very sorry.”
The Tokyo 2020 organising committee confirmed it had relieved Kobayashi of his duties. “In the short time remaining before the opening ceremony, we offer our deepest apologies for any offence and anguish this matter may have caused to the many people involved in the Olympic Games, as well as to the citizens of Japan and the world,” it said in a statement.
The head of the organising committee, Seiko Hashimoto, apologised for the latest scandal to hit preparations, adding that officials were “still considering” what form the ceremony would take, just over 24 hours before it is due to begin.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a US-based Jewish human rights organisation, condemned Kobayashi for making “malicious and antisemitic jokes”.
“Any person, no matter how creative, does not have the right to mock the victims of the Nazi genocide,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the centre’s global social action director, said in a statement.
Kobayashi is the third high-profile artist connected with the ceremony to have resigned over discriminatory remarks and, in one case, abusive behaviour.
Its creative director, Hiroshi Sasaki, quit in March after he likened the popular female celebrity Naomi Watanabe to a pig. Sasaki apologised, describing his remarks as “unforgivable”.
On Monday, one of the event’s composers, Keigo Oyamada, resigned after old magazine interviews resurfaced in which he joked about bullying other children at school, including classmates with intellectual disabilities.
Oyamada told Quick Japan magazine in 1995 how he had confined a classmate in a cardboard box and forced a boy with an intellectual disability to eat his own faeces and masturbate in front of other children. He made similar comments in another magazine interview a year earlier.
Olympic organisers condemned the 52-year-old’s actions and remarks but initially said they would continue to work with him with so little time left before the opening ceremony. Oyamada apologised, saying he felt “deep regret” over his actions and subsequent comments.
While Kobayashi drew fierce criticism on social media, some defended the skit as a youthful lapse in judgment.
Ken Mogi, a prominent neuroscientist and broadcaster, said the comedian did not deserve to be vilified for a brief comment made more than two decades ago.
“He has constantly been making shows that focus on the good and loving nature of humans,” Mogi said in a YouTube commentary.
“He has never advocated discrimination, he has always been considerate of minorities and he himself is a really wonderful, loving and considerate person. So, this particular clip that surfaced within the last few hours is inappropriate … I wish he hadn’t done that, but anyone can be careless for a brief moment.”
Kobayashi’s dismissal is the latest in a series of setbacks for organisers, who are also contending with Games-related coronavirus cases and the decision by Toyota and other Japanese sponsors to skip the opening ceremony amid lukewarm public support for the Olympics.