The Olympics look very different from inside Japan – and not in a good way

The country obliged to put up with the 2020 circus doesn’t find the Olympian jokes funny – fictional ‘anti-sex beds’ included

Cezary Jan Strusiewicz
Friday 23 July 2021 14:27
<p>Anti-Olympics protesters gather in Tokyo</p>

Anti-Olympics protesters gather in Tokyo

Following the Tokyo Olympics on social media from outside Japan looks like a lot of fun, especially during the last few days when the internet lost its mind over the games’ “anti-sex beds”. Made from cardboard, they were supposedly official Olympic creations that could barely support the weight of one person in order to stop athletes from having sex and curb the spread of Covid-19. That’s, of course, completely wrong because the beds were first revealed back in 2019 and were meant to be a recyclable way for Tokyo to stay eco-friendly during the biggest sporting event on the planet.

In Japan, though, the “anti-sex beds” were barely a story. And while we’re on the topic of the Olympics and wrong jokes, the firing of the opening ceremony director over a recently-resurfaced comedy sketch he made in the 1990s – where he referred to the Holocaust as a “let’s massacre Jewish people game” – also received relatively little coverage. That’s because, while Kentaro Kobayashi’s joke was rightfully condemned, it didn’t even crack the Top 10 things that most worry the average Japanese resident about the Olympics.

As of this writing, Tokyo is nearing 2,000 new Covid-19 cases a day, with the total number of fully vaccinated people hovering around just 23 per cent of the population. The vaccination numbers are getting better each day, but on the whole, the entire rollout has been very poorly managed. In fact, one of the most trusted sources on available vaccination spots for foreigners right now is Find a Doc – a database that programmer LaShawn Toyoda created in her own time.

It’s no surprise then that around 80 per cent of Japanese people oppose the Olympics, and it has nothing to do with any joke surrounding the games. But I’m not a Japanese policy expert, nor have I been following the Olympics that long. I’m a pop-culture writer and translator who’s lived in Yokohama for more than a decade now, and I have some experience performing stand-up in Tokyo, in English and Japanese. So, putting aside my personal worries about hosting a massive sporting event in the middle of a pandemic, what ultimately bothers me the most about the Tokyo Olympics is that all the jokes about it aren’t actually funny. Worse yet, they give you a misleading impression of what Japan is actually like.

The story of the “anti-sex beds,” for example, plays way too easily into the stereotype of a simultaneously weird and repressed country, feeding this narrative that Japan is some kind of fantasy land where the normal rules don’t apply. This may sound innocent, and has probably been good for tourism every now and then, but it sets the country up as a place of “otherness,” reducing it and the people who live their regular lives here to an unfunny punchline.

Speaking of which, while Kobayashi was certainly wrong to make light of the Holocaust, but offensive jokes are actually nothing new in Japanese comedy. A friend of mine, fellow stand-up comedian and semi-professional baseball writer Kazuto Yamazaki, agrees: “Yeah I’d say a good chunk of Japanese humor [that] I’ve seen is mean-spirited.” Japanese comedy has got a reputation for being primarily based around puns and slapstick, and that is definitely a part of the comedy scene in the country, but it’s far from the whole story. In fact, some of the raunchiest, bluest comedy routines that I’ve ever heard in my life came from Japanese performers.

Maybe that’s why the biggest problem a lot of Japanese stand-up comics have with Kobayashi’s joke was that it simply wasn’t funny to them. I have similar thoughts about the scandal of the sexist “Olympig” joke. Back in March, it was reported that Hiroshi Sasaki, the since-resigned creative director of the Tokyo Olympics, “jokingly” proposed that popular plus-size entertainer Naomi Watanabe appear during the opening ceremony dressed as a pig mascot, called “the Olympig.” There are so many things wrong with this idea, but the one that instantly stands out to me, as a comic, is just how uninspired it is, especially given Japan’s impressive track record in the field of creating beautifully bizarre and impressively imaginative mascots. Mascots like, say, Matagi no Momiji-chan from Hokkaido, an adorable pink deer with a rifle that it uses to hunt hunters.

But these are the thoughts and impressions of a comedian. They don’t reflect the worries of regular people who are primarily concerned with just two Olympic jokes: the lack of clear messaging and guidelines from the government or the reportedly ineffective Covid-19 bubble down at the Olympic village.

And yet… despite everyone’s justified worries, there is a sense of excitement and anticipation sweeping Japan on the opening day of the Olympics. Even when their circumstances are far from perfect, the games still bring out this belief that everything will be alright in people all over the world. Let’s just hope that in Japan’s case, that belief turns out to be justified.

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