On the eve of the Tokyo Games, organizers fired the director of the opening ceremony over comments about the Holocaust, while media reported that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a memorable advocate of the Tokyo Games, would skip the showpiece.
The news is the latest in a series of embarrassments for organizers in Tokyo that have sparked outrage at home and abroad, and comes just days after a well-known musician was forced to step down as composer for the ceremony over old reports of bullying and abusive behavior have surfaced.
Abe, who was famous as a plumber from the video game Super Mario during the Rio Games to represent Japan, played an outrageous role in attracting the Olympics to Tokyo.
Speaking to a banquet hall packed with members of the International Olympic Committee in 2013, he said the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster was “under control” and that his country was a “passionate, proud and strong believer” in the Olympics.
At the time, Abe and his supporters hoped the Olympics would parallel the Tokyo Games in 1964, heralding the country’s resurgence after decades of economic stagnation and also marking the recovery from a devastating nuclear and natural disaster in 2011.
Instead, the Games, which have been postponed for a year due to the global pandemic, have faced a series of setbacks, including the departure of Yoshiro Mori, the former head of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, who resigned after making sexist claims. comments. That was soon followed by the resignation of Hiroshi Sasaki, creative head of the Tokyo Olympics, after he made derogatory comments about a popular Japanese female entertainer.
The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee said Kentaro Kobayashi, who is listed as show director for the Games’ opening event, was fired after a joke he made about the Holocaust as part of his comedic act resurfaced in domestic media in 1998.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization, had previously released a statement condemning Kobayashi’s past behavior.
“Any association of this person with the Tokyo Olympics would insult the memory of six million Jews and be a cruel mockery of the Paralympic Games,” said Abraham Cooper, a rabbi and associate dean and director of the Center for Global Social Action.
The opening ceremony on Friday, which is normally a major showcase for the host country, will be an understated affair, with Japanese media reporting that fewer than 950 people – including only about 15 world leaders – will be in attendance.
First Lady Jill Biden is expected to land in Tokyo on Thursday afternoon for the opening ceremony of the Games, raising hopes that she could also use her presence to discuss vaccines with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Biden has traveled across the United States urging more people in the country to get vaccinated.
Only a third of Japanese people have had at least one dose of the vaccine, raising public concern that the Olympics could become a super-dissemination event. Dozens of attendees have already tested positive for COVID-19, forcing withdrawals of athletes and teammates into isolation.
NHK said Abe decided not to attend the ceremony after the Japanese government declared a state of emergency and virus restrictions over Tokyo in an effort to minimize health risks to residents and visitors. Abe’s office was not immediately available on Thursday, a holiday in Japan.
COVID-19 infections have risen in the capital and are expected to increase further, putting pressure on health care providers.
In a recent poll in the newspaper Asahi, 68% of respondents expressed doubts about the ability of Olympic organizers to control coronavirus infections, with 55% saying they were against the Games going ahead.
The Olympic competition has already started, with the Japanese women’s softball team giving the hosts a winning start on Wednesday, while the highly regarded US women’s soccer team was upset by Sweden.
The second day of softball started early Thursday under a cloudy sky in Fukushima, with the United States beating Canada by taking a 2-0 point in the standings. Japan will later face Mexico.