Friday’s opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics has been plunged into further chaos following the dismissal of its show director.
Games organisers fired Kentaro Kobayashi on Thursday over a joke he made about the Holocaust as part of a comedy act in the 1990s that recently resurfaced in domestic media. “I offer my deep apology for causing trouble and worry for many people concerned as well as Tokyo residents and Japanese people when the opening ceremony is almost upon us,” said a sombre Seiko Hashimoto, who heads the organising committee.
Earlier, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organisation, released a statement saying Kobayashi's association with the Olympics would “insult the memory” of the 6 million Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said comments by the show director were “outrageous and unacceptable” but that the opening ceremony should proceed as planned.
Kobayashi apologised for his past comments in a statement.
The show’s composer Keigo Oyamada was forced to resign earlier this week after footage emerged of interviews in which he admitted bullying disabled children during his schooldays.
And its executive creative director Hiroshi Sasaki stepped down in March following criticism of his suggestion that plus-size model Naomi Watanabe dress up as a pig during the ceremony.
No fans and fewer than 1,000 VIPs will be present in the 68,000 capacity Tokyo Olympic Stadium, with a string of heads of major corporations such as Toyota and Panasonic announcing publicly that they would withdraw, citing concerns over the public’s perception of the Games.
Japanese media have reported that Emperor Naruhito will be present at the ceremony, but will pointedly refrain from using the word “celebrate”.
Former PM Abe, who famously dressed up as the titular plumber from video game Super Mario at the Rio Games to represent Japan, played an outsized role in attracting the Olympics to Tokyo.
At the time of the bid, 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 massive earthquake and nuclear disaster in 2011.
But the spectacle of last-minute personnel changes, the resurfacing of old abusive comments and the looming presence of the pandemic threatened to turn it into a “PR disaster,” said Bob Pickard, a veteran PR executive at Signal Leadership Communication.
“Tokyo 2020 was supposed to be a global platform for the launch of a new Japan facing an international future with confidence. Instead, what we see here is the legacy of the old Japan's insular attitudes mired in past prejudices and dated stereotypes,” he said.
NHK said Abe decided against attending the opening ceremony after the Japanese government declared a state of emergency and virus restrictions over Tokyo. Abe's office could not immediately be reached on Thursday, a public holiday in Japan.
On Thursday, Tokyo reported 1,979 new coronavirus cases in the capital, the highest since January 15 and up by more than 600 cases compared with the same day last week.
US First Lady Jill Biden arrived in Tokyo on Thursday afternoon for the Games' opening ceremony, raising expectations she might also use her attendance to discuss vaccines with Suga.
Biden, who is set to dine with Suga and his wife later in the day, has been travelling across the United States urging more people to get inoculated.
Only a third of Japanese have had at least one dose of the vaccine, fuelling public concerns that the Olympics could become a super-spreader event.
“This kind of stuff keeps happening, Tokyo residents are really sick of it,” said 64-year-old retiree Shio Watanabe on Thursday after news of further personnel changes.
In a recent poll, 68 per cent of respondents expressed doubt about the ability of Olympic organisers to control coronavirus infections, with 55 per cent saying they opposed the Games going ahead.
Already 87 Olympic-related personnel, including athletes, have tested positive for Covid-19, prompting the US gymnastics team to relocate to a hotel. – Additional reporting: Reuters