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Friday, September 24, 2021

Explained: Why the director of the Olympics’ opening ceremony was fired

Kentaro Kobayashi, who is a renowned Japanese comedian and actor, stepped down after he was widely criticised for a sketch he performed over two decades ago, in which he appeared to have made jokes about the Holocaust.

By: Explained Desk | Panaji |
Updated: July 24, 2021 9:10:56 am
Hiroshi Sasaki, 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games creative director, displays a portrait of Olympics opening ceremony show director Kentaro Kobayashi during a news conference in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: Reuters)

Just a day before the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony was set to take place, the show’s creative director, Kentaro Kobayashi, was fired from his role after footage of him performing an offensive comedy routine in 1998 surfaced.

Japan’s Olympic chief Seiko Hashimoto said the video ridiculed “painful facts of history”. “In the short time remaining before the Opening Ceremony, we offer our deepest apologies for any offense 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,” the organising committee said in a statement.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been mired in controversy from the very beginning — from the Japanese government facing widespread criticism for its decision to host the Games in the first place despite a surge in Covid cases, to a string of dismissals of top officials involved in planning the iconic sporting event.

Why was Kentaro Kobayashi fired?

Kobayashi, who is a renowned Japanese comedian and actor, stepped down after he was widely criticised for a sketch he performed over two decades ago, in which he appeared to have made jokes about the Holocaust.

In the comedy sketch, he and another comedian pretended to be the hosts of a children’s educational programme. In one scene, while referring to some paper doll cutouts, Kobayashi described them as “the ones from that time you said ‘let’s play the Holocaust,’” AFP reported.

The footage resurfaced online recently, sparking widespread condemnation. Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called Kobayashi’s joke “outrageous and unacceptable”.

Kobayashi was relieved of his duties just a day ahead of the opening ceremony on Friday. The actor-comedian later apologised for his comments on a local news channel: “Indeed, as pointed out, in the video software that was released in 1998 to introduce young comedians, a skit script I wrote contained an extremely inappropriate expression.”

“I understand that my foolish choice of words at the time was a mistake, and I regret it,” he said, adding that he was grateful to have been associated with the Olympics.

Is Kobayashi the only organiser who has been asked to step down?

No, several officials have been forced to step down from Tokyo 2020.

In fact, Kobayashi’s termination comes just days after the composer for both the opening and closing ceremonies, Japanese musician Keigo Oyamada, announced he was stepping down after old interviews in which he admitted to bullying behaviour emerged.

In March, the Games’ Creative Chief Hiroshi Sasaki was terminated after he said that plus-size comedian Naomi Watanabe could play a role as an “Olympic” on a group chat with a planning group.

In February, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was forced to quit over sexist remarks. He allegedly said that women talked too much, and meeting with female board directors would “take a lot of time”, BBC reported.

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Why is the dismissal of Kobayashi significant?

“Unity in Diversity” was the slogan adopted by the Tokyo Games. The organisers hoped that the event would highlight the best of Japan’s culture — including its long-standing tradition of politeness and hospitality. Hence, the dismissal of Kobayashi, Sasaki and Mori for making offensive comments is particularly embarrassing.

Some believe that with the global spotlight now on Japan due to the Olympics, the country is witnessing a reckoning of sorts. Organisers of the event are being forced to acknowledge discriminatory statements and acts by top officials, which may have otherwise been brushed under the rug.

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