The director of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics has been dismissed, the organisers have said following news reports that he had previously made jokes about the Holocaust.
Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto told a briefing on Thursday that Kentaro Kobayashi, who was part of a comedy act in the 1990s, had been dismissed because of comments that made fun of the tragedy.
In a video clip of his 1998 act, Kobayashi was seen joking about a game he called “let’s play massacre the Jews”, prompting laughter in the audience.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organisation, earlier released a statement condemning Kobayashi’s past behaviour.
“Any association of this person to the Tokyo Olympics would insult the memory of six million Jews and make a cruel mockery of the Paralympics,” said Abraham Cooper, a rabbi, associate dean and global social action director of the centre.
Kobayashi himself said he regretted what he called a “stupid choice” of words.
The news is the latest in a series of embarrassments for Tokyo organisers that have sparked outrage at home and abroad and comes just days after a well-known musician was forced to step down as composer for the ceremony after old reports of his bullying and abusive behaviour also surfaced.
In February, Yoshiro Mori, who as once Japanese prime minister, was forced to quit over sexist remarks. A month later, the Games creative head, Hiroshi Sasaki, also had to resign after making derogatory comments about a popular Japanese female entertainer.
Abe to skip ceremony
Meanwhile, public broadcaster NHK reported that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided against attending the ceremony.
The Japanese government had earlier declared a state of emergency and virus restrictions over Tokyo, in an effort to minimise health risks among residents and visitors.
Abe’s office could not immediately be reached on Thursday, a public holiday in Japan.
Abe, who famously dressed up as the titular plumber from the video game Super Mario at the Rio Games to represent Japan, played an outsized role in attracting the Olympics to Tokyo.
At the time, Abe and his supporters hoped the Olympics would parallel the 1964 Tokyo Games heralding the nation’s revival after decades of economic stagnation and also mark its recovery from a devastating Fukushima nuclear and natural disaster in 2011.
Instead, the Games, delayed for a year because of the global pandemic, have faced a series of scandals and setbacks.
— #Tokyo2020 (@Tokyo2020) July 22, 2021
The opening ceremony on Friday, which normally stands as an important showcase of the host nation, is set to be a subdued affair, with Japanese media reporting that less than 950 people – including only about 15 global leaders – are set to attend.
Jill Biden, the first lady of the United States, is expected to land in Tokyo on Thursday afternoon for the ceremony, raising expectations she might also use her attendance to discuss vaccines with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Biden has been travelling across the US urging more people in the country to get inoculated.
Only a third of Japanese have had at least one dose of the vaccine, raising public concerns that the Olympics could become a super-spreader event.
Already dozens of attendees have tested positive for COVID-19, forcing athlete withdrawals and teammates into isolation.
COVID-19 infections have jumped in the capital and are projected to spike further, straining healthcare providers.
In a recent poll in the Asahi newspaper, 68 percent of respondents expressed doubt about the ability of Olympic organisers to control coronavirus infections, with 55 percent saying they opposed the Games going ahead.
Olympics competition has already begun, with the Japanese women’s softball team getting the hosts off to a winning start on Wednesday, while Sweden beat the US in women’s football.