Holocaust Joke Lands Olympics Opening Director in Hot Water

Holocaust Joke Lands Olympics Opening Director in Hot Water

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Shoes symbolizing the massacre of people shot at the river Danube in Budapest
An old Holocaust joke comes back to haunt the famed comedian acting as the director of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics opening ceremonies.


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.”

“Playing at the Holocaust” trending on Japanese-language Twitter. Associated trending terms are “Rahmens” and “Kobayashi Kentaro.”

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?”

日没 on Twitter: “「 五輪開会式演出・小林賢太郎が演じた『ホロコーストいじり』ネタ」https://t.co/gqgkGbaxEGラーメンズ小林賢太郎のホロコーストをコントの笑いのネタにした部分。流れがわかるようにしたら長くなったがユダヤ人大量惨殺という部分を見たければ最後の10秒くらいだけでいい pic.twitter.com/DwOyQDBZ8d / Twitter”

「 五輪開会式演出・小林賢太郎が演じた『ホロコーストいじり』ネタ」https://t.co/gqgkGbaxEGラーメンズ小林賢太郎のホロコーストをコントの笑いのネタにした部分。流れがわかるようにしたら長くなったがユダヤ人大量惨殺という部分を見たければ最後の10秒くらいだけでいい pic.twitter.com/DwOyQDBZ8d

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.

“This article is about how Kobayashi Kentaro of Rahmens, show director of the opening and ending ceremonies, made a joke about Jews during a skit more than twenty years ago. ….You’re going to drag out a twenty-plus-year-old skit and bash him over it?”

Reactions were not limited to outrage or reaction against outrage; others reacted with a degree of knowing level-headedness.

“In terms of this Holocaust incident, I’ve seen fans who’ve known the skit say ‘I like Rahmens, but I can’t deny that there are those who are criticizing the joke from an ethical standpoint.’ They reacted cooly without randomly flying into a rage and attacking others; I feel like that’s what separates them from otaku, who when criticized immediately feel their blood boiling up to their heads.”

A Victimless Crime?

One response stuck out to me:

“There are fans of Rahmens saying ‘they assumed no Jew would ever see this joke, and they’re the type of people who would never have done this if they thought otherwise. So forgive them.’ But this is an issue of having an awareness towards human rights. Whether or not a Jewish person would ever see the joke is beyond the point.”

This, I feel, may be the most salient point. Personally, I’m not sure if I’d call for Kobayashi’s resignation over a twenty-year-old gag. However, the reality of this joke seems to be “we can joke about a genocide, because it’s simply an academic fact.” As the tweet above shows, no one at the time (or even today) would imagine that a Jewish person would be watching a comedy show in Japan. As far as Kobayashi was concerned, living Jews may as well not have even existed. Indeed, that is often how the word “Jewish” seems to be perceived – as a term for a historical group, mostly associated with the Holocaust or the ancient Kingdom of Israel. That there might be Jews in Japan (or even a historical Jewish community) is forgotten.

There still remains an idea in Japan that what is produced and broadcast in the country is on a closed-loop; that it’s made entirely for a single ethnic Japanese audience, and no one else will ever see it. The fact that minority groups exist in Japan, and especially that they might be part of the audience, is rarely considered. So, in a situation like this, the Holocaust is just some terrible thing people have heard of. It isn’t a real, existing and continuative source of trauma. It’s just something in a history book.

Japan is far from the only place where this occurs, but the perceived homogeneity of the country and assumptions about the impossibility of learning Japanese (often thought of as uniquely difficult) make such incidents more likely. Harm probably isn’t intended; after all, how can you harm someone who will never know you said something? But here we have it – I’m Jewish. I lived in Japan for many years and participated in the Jewish community spread across locations like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe. And now I know about this joke, made by a comedian whose work I’d previously loved.

It’s not a great feeling, but one I feel more ambivalence about than rage. It echoes many of my experiences with how people perceive Jews in Japan (if they do so at all). So, instead of calling for Kobayashi’s resignation, I’d rather this become a moment for reflection – on the fact that all sorts of communities exist in Japan. Japan, nor anywhere else, is a closed-loop, and people are listening.

Update: According to the Mainichi Shimbun, Kobayashi has been dismissed from his position as director as of the 22nd.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy