TOKYO — The director of the Tokyo Olympics’ opening ceremony was fired Thursday over a Holocaust joke he made during a comedy show in 1998.
Kentaro Kobayashi was ousted just a day before the pandemic-delayed Games were set to officially kickoff Friday with an elaborate ceremony he helped create, the latest in a long list of setbacks to hit the event.
Kobayashi was fired “after a joke he had made in the past about a painful historical event was brought to light,” the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee said in a statement.
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Kobayashi used the phrase “Let’s play Holocaust” in the act, organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto said in a statement.
“We found out that Mr. Kobayashi, in his own performance, had used a phrase ridiculing a historical tragedy,” Hashimoto said.
“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.”
Kobayashi said Thursday he regretted the incident.
"Entertainment should not make people feel uncomfortable. I understand that my stupid choice of words at that time was wrong, and I regret it," he said in a statement.
Kobayashi, 48, is a former member of a comedy duo called "Rahmens" and his recently unearthed attempt at Holocaust humor drew immediate condemnation from Jewish groups like the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles after it surfaced on Twitter.
Kobayashi is shown cutting up paper figures of human beings while talking about coming up with a “let’s massacre Jewish people game” in the skit.
It was not immediately clear who first posted the video footage online.
"Any person, no matter how creative, does not have the right to mock the victims of the Nazi genocide," said the group’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who said the Nazis also sent disabled Germans to the gas chambers.
"Any association of this person to the Tokyo Olympics would insult the memory of 6 million Jews and make a cruel mockery of the Paralympics," he said.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has faced criticism for the decision to hold the Games in the midst of the pandemic, told reporters Thursday that the incident was "utterly outrageous and completely unacceptable."
Kobayashi helped craft an opening ceremony at Tokyo's Olympic Stadium that will get underway at 7 a.m. ET Friday with no fans in the stands because of the Covid-19 crisis and the current state of emergency in Tokyo.
While the stadium can seat 68,000 people, there will be less than a thousand officials on hand to cheer on the athletes from more than 200 countries. Dignitaries will include first lady Jill Biden, who is leading the American delegation, and Japanese Emperor Naruhito.
The ouster of Kobayashi came just days after another key member of the creative group that put together the opening ceremony, musician Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada, was fired after boasts that he bullied disabled classmates surfaced online.
Oyamada apologized and both he and his music were removed from the program.
The Olympics have been beset by several other scandals over the past year, too.
In February, the president of the committee, Yoshiro Mori, was forced out after he said female sports officials talk too much during meetings. A month later, the Games' original creative director, Hiroshi Sasaki, was ousted for comparing Japanese celebrity Naomi Watanabe to a pig.
The pandemic derailed the Olympics last year and in the run-up to Friday's official kickoff the Tokyo 2020 organizers have had to contend with a troubling increase in new Covid-19 cases and opposition from the Japanese public, a majority of whom fear the influx of athletes and others from abroad could turn the Games into a superspreader event.
Even before Kobayashi's departure was announced Friday, the national newspaper Asahi Shimbun blasted the committee, writing that is has been "dogged by a series of missteps."
"The 'Festival of Peace' is going to open amid this pathetic mess nobody even imagined possible," the newspaper wrote, referring to one of the themes of the opening ceremony.
Olympics officials acknowledged the troubles but said they remained determined to press ahead.
“We are going to have the opening ceremony tomorrow and, yes, I am sure there are a lot of people who are not feeling easy about the opening of the Games,” Hashimoto said. “But we are going to open the Games tomorrow under this difficult situation.”