JSRC Editor note:
The article below is reprinted from Unseen Japan. Please note: Kentaro Kobayashi, a comedian turned director of the Olympics opening ceremony was fired from his post, on July 22, after footage of him making holocaust jokes resurfaced. Kobayashi, made fun of the murder over 6 million Jews by the Nazis in a comedy skit in 1998. “Let’s play Holocaust (ホロコーストごっこしよう)” was one of the lines.
“Any person, no matter how creative, does not have the right to mock the victims of the Nazi genocide. The Nazi regime also gassed Germans with disabilities. 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,” stated SWC Associate Dean and Global Social Action Director, Rabbi Abraham Cooper.
It should also be noted that, as we reported here, the composer chosen to score the opening ceremony, Keigo Oyamada, had tortured, bullied, and sexually abused disabled children for many years while growing up, and bragged about in magazine interviews as an adult. He resigned before this scandal.
Holocaust Joke Lands Olympics Opening Director in Hot Water
by Noah Oskow
This piece originally appeared on Unseen Japan and a section has been printed here with their permission
Recently, I’ve gotten used to waking up, opening Twitter, and immediately seeing some new controversy erupting from the oncoming Tokyo Olympics. These daily scandals are often enumerated on the trending ticker to the right of the screen; most recent was the story of the Olympic Village being like “Medieval Japan,” with tiny rooms without internet, TV, or enough toilets. Much more serious was the furor over opening and closing ceremonies composer Oyamada Keigo (famed internationally by his stage name, Cornelious); a twenty-something Oyamada had bragged, back in the ’90s, of physically, sexually, and emotionally torturing disabled classmates during his school years.
Some time ago, Minister of Finance Aso Taro muttered that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were “cursed.” (This was essentially in the same breath that he claimed that the low rate of COVID infection in Japan was due to the country’s superior “level of cultural standards.”). Of course, a global pandemic causing the entire games to be postponed a year and to suffer low levels of public support is enough reason to feel this way. Between these facts on the ground and sexist utterings from the head of the Japanese Olympic Committee, IOC President Bach calling the Japanese people “Chinese,” claims of logo plagiarism, and a seemingly ever-increasing list of controversies (voluminous enough to warrant an entire Wikipedia page), it seems Aso might be right.
Still, when I woke up this morning and groggily glanced at Twitter, I never quite expected to see the Holocaust come into play. There, in the trending section, the word 「ユダヤ人」(yudaya-jin, Jewish person) shone out like a worrisome beacon. I was immediately concerned, even before I even had time to read and comprehend the whole phrase. Seeing “Jewish” trend rarely seems to mean anything good. And why would it be trending in Japan, a country with such limited awareness of anything Jewish? I refocused on the topic tag, and apprehensively read it out: 「ユダヤ人大量惨殺ごっこ」. “Playing at the Holocaust,” or, to literally read out the academic term used, “playing at the great massacre of Jewish people.” And above the phrase, portentously indicating the trending subject, was the word “Olympics.”
A Laughing Matter?
Kobayashi Kentaro is half of the popular gag comedy duo “Rahmens.” Outside of Japan, his most famous work is most likley his legendary series of comedy shorts entitled “The Japanese Tradition.” The videos, which humorously lampoon aspects of Japanese culture, building from the believable to the outright surreal, were a staple in my high school Japanese class. (Their “Sushi” video is especially beloved; I can’t count the number of times I’ve shared it with friends.) Kobayashi is also the director of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony, entitled “United by Emotion,” which will air Friday night, Tokyo time (early morning PST).
The issue causing the hubbub over on Twitter doesn’t have anything, in particular, to do with the Olympics, other than perhaps causing some to be “United in Anger.” Much like the (substantially worse) Oyamada scandal, it involves something the principal said more than two decades ago. Nonetheless, it’s the sort of thing that demonstrates a lack of awareness towards the realities of other human beings; something which seems antithetical to the stated ideals of the Olympics.
“Playing at the Holocaust”
The controversy in question stems from a skit Rahmens put on in the years directly before gaining national fame. In the sketch, released on VHS collection by Colombia in 1998, the duo parody the children’s educational show 「できるかな」(Do You Think You Can Do It?) The Japanese show, which was also popular in Latin America, taught children how to make paper crafts using scissors and tape.
In the skit, Kobayashi is portraying protagonist Noppo-san, while his partner is the show’s anthropomorphic gopher, Gonta. They’re discussing ways to play with paper; Kobayashi talks about how they could wrap up a newspaper into a cone and pretend it’s a baseball bat; a rolled-up newspaper sphere could be their baseball. As for the crowds, all they would need are a bunch of cut-outs of people to place on paper bleachers.
Katagiri Jin, playing Gonta, says he has just the right sort of collection of human paper cut-outs. He rushes off to grab the imagined paper figures. Kobayashi replies, “ah, from that time you said ‘let’s play the Holocaust.’” The audience laughs uproariously at this out-of-left-field joke. Kobayashi follows up with “Koda-san was really angry about this one. Said, ‘do you think we could air that?!’” Then, looking at the imagined paper cut-outs, he says, “wow, you made this many?”The skit in question.
The Brewing Storm
The sudden retrieval of this mostly-forgotten joke from decades ago and attendant media coverage resulted in a myriad of responses. Chief among these were those who expressed shocked disbelief.
“Ah, I didn’t know about this skit. This is no good. It’s like if you did a sketch where the joke was the atomic bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or about the Battle of Okinawa, or the Kobe or Great East Japan Earthquakes. The Genocide of the Jews isn’t a subject to be used in such a carefree manner. Much less to be made the subject of a gag.”
“In the latter half of the 1990s, the same decade where the Goldhagen controversy burned through Europe, the Holocaust could still be used as a “funny gag,” and even be packaged and put into circulation on a VHS without a single issue. As a Japanese researcher of modern German history, this is really something I need to come to grips with…”
A Real Controversy, or No?
Of course, there were also those for whom the joke, unearthed from decades past, was old news. Both topically, as a single joke, and as something for whom statutes of limitations may have passed, it seemed like an empty controversy…..
For the rest of the article, please click here at Unseen Japan
Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has previously contributed to Japan Subculture Research Center.