TOKYO — As if the most chaotic Olympics ever needed more controversy before they officially begin here on Friday, the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee dismissed its Opening Ceremony director less than 48 hours before the event, citing comedic comments that the director made over two decades ago about the Holocaust.
Kentaro Kobayashi, a former Japanese comedian, had been in charge of the Opening Ceremony's program since 2019. In recent days, as the Tokyo Olympics get set to begin, news media called attention to a 1998 comedic act in which Kobayashi made light of Nazi Germany's mass murder of millions of Jews.
Since video of Kobayashi's comedic routine swept through Japanese media earlier this week, Jewish groups denounced the "anti-Semitic jokes." In the clip, from 1998, Kobayashi joked about "playing Holocaust" as a “let’s massacre Jewish people game.”
On Thursday, at a nearly hour-long news conference, Tokyo 2020 organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto announced that Kobayashi had been dismissed, leaving organizers to frantically "review" the Opening Ceremony's entire script. It is scheduled to begin Friday at 8 p.m. local time (7 a.m ET) at the Olympic Stadium.
Hashimoto said she had not been aware of Kobayashi's comments until learning about them through Japanese media earlier this week. "As soon as possible, we decided we will have to address the issue, and we decided on the dismissal," she said.
Hashimoto apologized to the Japanese public, and then read a statement that she said was from Kobayashi. In the statement, Kobayashi acknowledged that the comedy routine was "not appropriate," and deeply apologized to those he'd offended.
The Opening Ceremony has already been riddled with upheaval and controversy. On Monday, the musician responsible for the ceremony's musical interlude, Keigo Oyamada, resigned from his post after admitting that he bullied children with disabilities years ago.
The organizing committee's core has also previously been rocked by scandal. In February, Yoshiro Mori stepped down as president after saying that women talked too much in meetings. A month later, the organizing committee's creative chief resigned after suggesting that a popular plus-size entertainer wear pig ears at the Opening Ceremony and take on the role of "Olympig."
And in general, these Olympics are massively unpopular. Local media pressed organizers at Thursday's news conference about Kobayashi's dismissal, but also about COVID protocols and their handling of countless logistical issues. Some journalists, in asking questions, prefaced them by accusing Hashimoto and Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto of organizational "problems." The criticism forced organizers to admit: “We are facing a lot of challenges right now.”
And because the Games are so unpopular, business leaders have been pulling out of appearances at the Opening Ceremony. Many athletes, due to COVID fears, are choosing not to attend. Hashimoto insisted the Ceremony would go on, but now, some 30 hours before it begins, it is without the man in charge of coordinating it.
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