TOKYO — Another ouster of a person involved in staging the Tokyo Olympics — this one over an antisemitic joke more than two decades ago — is the latest incident in which the Games have exposed uncomfortable truths in a country where many feel discrimination often passes without consequence.
So there was considerable embarrassment Thursday when organizers were forced to fire Kentaro Kobayashi, director of the Opening Ceremonies, just a day before the event is scheduled to take place.
Local organizers hoped the Olympics would highlight many of Japan’s best qualities, from its traditions of politeness and hospitality to its extremely low crime rate and clean, well-ordered cities. Instead, the Games have shown that many members of its largely male and often elderly elite continue to peddle views that brought sharp backlash as offensive.
“The exposure of these male leaders [it must be pointed out] exposes the acceptance of these attitudes and actions in Japanese society, when they don’t stand a moment of scrutiny in the global glare — or the flame of the Olympic torch, if you prefer,” Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch in New York, wrote in an email.
It has been a string of disclosures, dismissals and apologies: from the former president of the organizing committee, Yoshiro Mori, complaining that he felt women talk too much at meetings to the Opening Ceremonies’ creative director, Hiroshi Sasaki, suggesting a plus-size woman appear dressed as an “Olympig” to its music composer, Keigo Oyamada, being exposed for bullying classmates with disabilities.
In years past, such comments in Japan may have been shrugged off. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso praised Hitler in 2017 and two years later blamed the country’s low birthrate on women. In both cases, he walked back the remarks and kept his job.
But the recent controversies have led to resignations, albeit not immediately, with the world’s attention on the preparations of the Games — delayed a year by the pandemic.
Each was preceded by a torrent of social media outrage, often led by younger Japanese people who found the officials’ public apologies insufficient, combined with fierce attention from global media and the scrutiny the Olympics bring.
Previous Olympics have had their fair share of controversy and corruption scandals, but Tokyo’s revolving door of senior officials has been unparalleled.
Now, advocates say, comes the hard part: whether there will be lasting cultural change in Japan.
“How do we move forward from here? At the end of the day, the Olympics are one moment in time,” said Mark Bookman, an advocate for people with disabilities and a postdoctoral fellow at Tokyo College studying the history of disability policy and activism. “It’s not just the Games themselves but the aftermath. What are the legacies of these Games?”
The latest scandal broke when a video surfaced of Kobayashi, a comedian, director and manga artist, making a joke referencing the Holocaust.
He and another comedian suggested staging a baseball game with a paper bat and ball. The other comedian rushed to one side of the stage supposedly to get a collection of paper-cutout human figures, at which point Kobayashi said: “Ah, from that time you said, ‘Let’s play the Holocaust.’”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the joke malicious and antisemitic, and it cited media reports that Kobayashi had made distasteful remarks about disabled individuals.
“Any person, no matter how creative, does not have the right to mock the victims of the Nazi genocide,” the Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean and global social action director, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, said in a statement. “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.”
Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu said in a statement that Kobayashi’s remarks, “regardless of their context or situation, are deeply offensive and unacceptable. Such remarks also go completely against the value of unity that the Olympic and Paralympic Games strive for, and against our goal of realizing a society where everyone can live in harmony.”
“The Government of Japan, for its part, will continue to do everything in its power to ensure that the Tokyo 2020 Games will truly represent the Olympic and Paralympic spirit,” Toshimitsu said.
Kobayashi, who was to oversee all the elements of the ceremonies, issued a statement of apology, which Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto read after announcing his ouster.
“Looking back, I was not able to bring the smiles to the people, so that’s why I was not really thinking deep,” he was quoted as saying. “But I was actually making fun of the historical facts, and after that I regretted it.”
But Worden said the succession of scandals reflected deeper aspects in a country that ranked 120th in the World Economic Forum’s latest gender gap rankings, the worst position among the Group of Seven major industrialized nations.
In May, the governing Liberal Democratic Party gave up on plans to introduce a law against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender after opposition from its own lawmakers. The insensitivity of some conservative lawmakers was exposed when one reportedly told a party meeting that LGBT people go against “the preservation of the species.”
“These scandals are not ‘one-offs’ or bad apples, but a consequence of not having basic systems to protect human rights in the country,” Worden wrote. “There are no national human rights institutions or a commission, as is common across Asia.”
Yet some activists also saw signs of progress in Japan in recent years and rays of hope amid the flurry of bad news.
Bookman, the historian of disability policy, said Japan’s understanding of and accommodations for those with disabilities are changing but that gaps remain in terms of awareness and resources.
“All these issues get showcased when you have something like the Olympics that has really driven a force for change but almost driven it too fast,” Bookman said. “In terms of these awareness issues, in terms of the resurgence of past problems, on the one hand … the failures have come into light. But it’s also not necessarily a bad thing.”
Gon Matsunaka, founder and president of Pride House Tokyo Legacy, which works to raise awareness of LGBTQ communities, said sports was starting to help generate change, with 163 out LGBTQ athletes in the Tokyo Games, nearly three times the number from the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.
“The sports arena is the most difficult field [for the LGBTQ community]; we call it the final frontier,” he said. “Lots of discrimination and prejudice against the LGBTQ community is happening.” He expressed hope that the Games, despite the scandals, would become “a powerful agent for society to know about diversity and inclusion.”
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The Tokyo Olympics have come to a close.