The Tokyo Olympics is not off to a good start. The creative director of the opening ceremony was fired on Thursday, the day before the big event is to take place.
Kentaro Kobayashi was fired by the Olympic Organizing Committee when video surfaced of him making a joke about the Holocaust in a comedy routine in the 1990s. Kobayashi was part of a popular comedy duo in Japan when he made the inappropriate joke about “massacring Jews” while miming the act. His job as creative director of the opening ceremony entailed developing the overall theme for the ceremony and weaving it into the various acts.
“We deeply apologize for causing such a development the day before the opening ceremony,” Olympic Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto said, according to the Associated Press, “and for causing troubles and concerns to many involved parties as well as the people in Tokyo and the rest of the country.”
Kobayashi is not alone. Many officials connected to the Tokyo Games—particularly those involved in the creative development of the event—have resigned or been fired in recent months. Composer Keigo Oyamada, who had written music that was meant to be used at the opening ceremony, was forced to resign after bragging to the press about how he had bullied people in the past, including making fun of a student with disabilities and confining a classmate to a cardboard box.
Hiroshi Sasaki, who served as the executive creative director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Paralympic Games, was forced to resign after fat-shaming comedian and fashion designer Naomi Watanabe in March, proposing she appear at the ceremony as a pig. The month before, Organizing Committee President Yoshiro Mori was forced to resign after he made sexist remarks.
These scandals are coming to light now largely because foreign media has focused on Japan in the lead-up to the Olympics. Scholars have also pointed out that Japan is an insular, homogenous society that tends to be less progressive that the United States and Europe when it comes to issues around gender equality, ethnic and religious sensitivity, and size inclusivity.
These high-profile departures are taking place at a time when the Games already face tremendous criticism. Japan has seen a spike in coronavirus cases, resulting in several neighborhoods in Tokyo and Osaka issuing stay-at-home orders. Meanwhile, the country’s vaccination campaign has been slow, with only 29% of the population fully vaccinated. Many athletes who were headed to the Olympics have tested positive for COVID-19, including U.S. tennis star Coco Gauff and volleyball player Taylor Crabb.
In May, a poll found that 83% of the Japanese public said they did not want Tokyo to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association, which represents 6,000 primary care doctors, wrote an open letter to the Japanese Prime Minister strongly requesting that authorities cancel the event.
Countries compete to host the Olympics because of the promise that the event will lead to an avalanche of tourism spending and broadcast revenue from television rights fees. But these benefits often don’t pan out. Since the 1960s, all the Olympics, except the 1984 Los Angeles Games, have seen major cost overruns, which taxpayers in the country need to pay off. And since the ’90s, the International Olympic Committee has taken a greater share of the profits from broadcasting rights. The Games are also seen as an opportunity to invest in underdeveloped areas of a host city and build infrastructure. While all of this construction benefits wealthy developers, historically cities hosting the Olympics have displaced poor and unhoused people.
It appears that the Tokyo Games will be a particularly stark example of how hosting the Olympics can do a country more harm than good. As Japan attempts to execute the Games in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, the Olympic Organizing Committee has made the difficult decision to ban spectators from attending the event, which will result in estimated financial losses of $2.7 billion.
Still, the world will tune in remotely to watch the opening ceremony on Friday. Unfortunately, these last-minute departures of the creative leadership that helped organize the event casts yet another shadow on what was already going to be a difficult and troubled Olympics.