LONDON — The Tokyo Olympics organizing committee fired the director of the opening ceremony on Thursday over a joke he made about the Holocaust as a comedian in 1998.
A video clip resurfaced online of Kentaro Kobayashi’s performance during a comedy show more than 20 years ago, in which he joked about a game he called: “Let’s play Holocaust.” Criticism of Kobayashi, a former member of the popular Japanese comedy duo Rahmens, quickly spread on social media. Then Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, announced on the eve of the opening ceremony that Kobayashi has been dismissed.
“We found out that Mr. Kobayashi, in his own performance, has used a phrase ridiculing a historical tragedy,” Hashimoto said during a press conference Thursday. “We deeply apologize for causing such a development the day before the opening ceremony and for causing troubles and concerns to many involved parties as well as the people in Tokyo and the rest of the country.”
Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu said the government, “for its part, will continue to do everything in its power to ensure that the Tokyo 2020 Games will truly represent the Olympic and Paralympic spirit.”
“The tragedy of the Holocaust was an unprecedented atrocity in human history,” Toshimitsu said in a statement Thursday. “Remarks made by Mr. Kobayashi, regardless of their context or situation, are deeply offensive and unacceptable. Such remarks also go completely against the value of unity that the Olympic and Paralympic Games strive for, and against our goal of realizing a society where everyone can live in harmony.”
Kobayashi’s dismissal is the latest scandal to plague the Tokyo Games. On Monday, Keigo Oyamada, a Japanese composer working on the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, submitted his resignation after coming under fire for bullying classmates — including those with disabilities — during his childhood.
Earlier this year, Hashimoto’s predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, was forced to resign over sexist comments he made suggesting women talk too much in meetings. Hiroshi Sasaki also stepped down as creative director for the opening and closing ceremonies after suggesting Naomi Watanabe, a Japanese actress, comedian and plus-size fashion designer, could wear pig ears at the opening ceremony while performing as what he called an “Olympig.”
“Maybe these negative incidents will impact the positive message we wanted to deliver to the world,” Toshiro Muto, CEO of the Tokyo organizing committee, said during the press conference Thursday.
The organizing committee and the Japanese government have also sparked controversy for pushing ahead with the already-delayed 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, despite public health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic. Recent polls have shown that a majority of the Japanese public want the Tokyo Games to be postponed further or outright cancelled as the capital city and other regions grapple with a resurgence in COVID-19 infections. Meanwhile, Japan’s top medical experts, including some of the government’s advisers on COVID-19, have warned that holding the Games now could help spread the virus both at home and abroad.
The Nomura Research Institute, a Tokyo-based economic research and consulting firm, estimates that cancelling the Games would cost Japan around $17 billion.
At least 91 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at the Tokyo Games so far. Four of those cases are people staying at the Olympic and Paralympic Village in the Harumi waterfront district of Tokyo. Two are athletes, according to data released Thursday by the Tokyo organizing committee.
The Tokyo metropolitan government reported 1,979 newly confirmed cases in the city on Thursday, up from 671 last Thursday.
Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared another state of emergency in Tokyo due to rising infections. The declaration lasts through Aug. 22, meaning the Olympics, which officially kick off on Friday, will be held entirely under emergency measures. The Paralympics will open on Aug. 24.
Various measures and restrictions, including a ban on all spectators from Olympic venues in Tokyo, are in place during the Games in an effort to reduce the risk of infection.
“We have been preparing for the last year to send a positive message,” Hashimoto told reporters Thursday. “Toward the very end now there are so many incidents that give a negative image toward Tokyo 2020.”