Cyberbullying and casual death threats
I started watching Terrace House (a Japanese reality television show) when I moved to Japan three years ago. I enjoyed watching the stories of people who developed themselves by overcoming various emotional challenges and personal struggles. It was inspiring and enlightening to see the intersections of Japanese language and culture amongst people in my age group with diverse aspirations and backgrounds. Starting with the second to last season, Terrace House started to try to become more racially diverse, with progressively more and more non-Japanese and mixed-race members on the show. But there was something different to me about the most recent series, where it seemed the drama was more exaggerated.
Terrace House was a reality show on Netflix that documented the supposedly unscripted lives of 6 people (three males and three females) as they shared a house somewhere in Japan. Unlike reality shows in America or most other parts of the world, the pacing was slow, and drama was minimal. Members go about their lives, work part-time jobs, form friendships and relationships at a calm pace. In the latest season, this all changed. During this last season, one of the members was Hana Kimura, an up and coming professional wrestler with mixed Indonesian/Japanese descent. Hana Kimura was 22 years old when she took her own life three months ago, on May 23rd this year, after receiving hundreds of direct messages on social media criticizing her actions in the show and telling her to disappear.
Traditionally in Japan, there is a 49 day period of mourning after someone has passed away. People do not participate in any form of celebration or entertainment during this period. Following this tradition, Hana’s mother has only become very vocal about the incident since mid-July. She was featured on several Japanese television programs and news broadcasts, and she has since filed an ethics complaint with a broadcasting ethics organization in Japan. She is also pursuing legal action against the cyberbullies who sent direct messages to her daughter’s social media accounts. Given the developing nature of this incident and its aftermath and personal feelings about the cultural implications that led to this, I felt unsure about publishing my thoughts. However, I have been unable to stop thinking about what this exemplifies concerning the experiences of mixed-race people in Japan.
On social media in Japan, there is a trend of using death threats as direct messages to respond to various controversies. I’m not entirely sure why that is. However, based on my experience with both English and Japanese, I believe that with the absence of English-equivalent types of profanity in the Japanese language, the death threat and similar “death wordplay” are typically used in place to enunciate harsh criticism. Add this to the culture of “tatemae” (public behaviors and opinions) and “honne” (true feelings and beliefs), and social media has become one of the few mediums where Japanese people can truly express themselves using negative criticism. Thus, Japanese cyberbullying has become very extreme because it manifests as a rare opportunity for Japanese people to unleash their genuine critical opinions (along with being able to remain anonymous). These conditions create an environment with rampant use of extreme language, including death threats. Moreover, Hana Kimura’s ethnic background was primarily targeted, mixing this already toxic online environment with the bigotry and discrimination experienced daily by mixed-race people in Japan.
The latest Terrace House season centered heavily on two specific members, Hana Kimura and Kai Kobayashi, and their relationship. Despite initially forming a friendship that later turned into romantic interest, Hana and Kai’s relationship eventually came to a head with an altercation stemming from presumed resentment and the damage of one of Hana’s professional wrestling outfits. Kai had not noticed that Hana left her items in the machine and proceeded to wash his laundry, so he was blamed for the damage. This seemingly resulted in a verbal fight, in which Hana smacked the hat off his head after shouting at him.
Terrace House claims to lack a script, so we, the viewers, presume that we are watching recordings of real people and honest interactions. However, it’s clear from the statements made by Kai and Hana’s mother since her suicide that this event in the show was intentionally manipulated to maximize audience reactions. With these recent revelations that the drama is fake and planned, we can now better understand what happened. If the purported lack of a script is false, we must conclude that we are watching a set of intentionally designed scenarios. A team of producers made decisions to show us a narrative they thought the show’s viewers would have strong reactions to. But the harmful nature of these choices was hidden by the production team through careless manipulative editing of footage. As far as the audience could tell, this was happening for real.
Along with that engineered falsehood, it is now evident that they ignored the warning signs of her deteriorating emotional state. The production team intentionally overlooked the potential repercussions of their choices (in terms of both mental health and social fallout) on their participants to boost entertainment value. They ignored the underlying issues of potential identity anxiety and emotional instability that were quickly developing. Sadly, facing these issues can only start now, after the designed illusion has shattered.
Throughout the show’s history, there has never been an instance of violent confrontation to this degree in any prior Terrace House episode (at least, shown on screen). Why was it that this dramatic incident, which had an exponential cyberbullying ripple effect, happen to place the two non-white passing, mixed-race members in an altercation? By controlling the narrative of this “reality” television scene, the show played into existing anti-foreigner sentiments in Japanese culture. In Japan, concepts about Japanese racial superiority and white supremacy exist side by side, particularly in the entertainment industry, popular culture, and broader social attitudes. These concepts influence the production’s decision making. It seems to me that it was an attempt to validate stereotypes in Japan about racial proclivity to confrontational behavior, a kind of validation of any previously held beliefs in Japan about dark-skinned foreigners.
You might think that half-Japanese people would be treated fairly in Japan. The truth is that, even if you are born in Japan, if you are not fully ethnically Japanese, you will be judged based on the stereotypes of your non-Japanese half. I believe the decision to make Terrace House more inclusive by adding non-Japanese/mixed-race members failed to face these facts before making the shift. It now feels like a shallow, haphazard attempt, putting a band-aid solution on historical issues of race in Japan. Rather than use the show as a medium to show genuine conversations about these matters of racial identity in a Japanese social context, these new racially diverse members on Terrace House were made to act like superficial versions of themselves to prove stereotypes. Despite obviously having prior experience with these matters of racial identity, these real people were treated like fake movie characters, enduring real identity-based emotional trauma and online bullying as a result.
There was no better opportunity to subtly exemplify Japanese and white racial superiority than to play up a (relatively) minor confrontation between the two dark-skinned mixed-race members. During the altercation itself, three non-mixed race Japanese members calmly observe, and the one blond-haired, blue-eyed white female member sobs for dramatic effect. It was surely an intense situation, but if we now know that it’s all fake drama engineered by producers, why was the most intense verbal altercation reserved for the mixed-race members? Why weren’t any prior tensions or confrontations between any previous members played up in the same way?
It was incorrect to presume that this content comes from an insulated environment. The show is produced by a mainstream Japanese production team and set in a Japanese setting, which means it is an indicator of current social attitudes. This narrative is intentional. The argument has been made that Japan doesn’t have the same history of racial violence and inequality that America has, and is therefore exempt from accusations of having any white supremacist ideologies. Given the treatment of mixed-race and non-Japanese members on the show, these events in Terrace House disprove any claims that Japanese society exists in a post-racial framework. Japanese culture and language perpetuate extreme Japanese ethnic homogeneity, with social media and cyberbullying used as new, highly useful tools. Terrace House is designed to be a positive example of Japanese culture. However, the producers seemed unaware of or unable to reconcile with the negative racial supremacist aspects of Japanese culture. It’s heartbreaking that the cost for this carelessness was so high, robbing a young woman of her life at such a young age.
“Hana Kimura’s Mother Speaks about Her Daughter’s Life, Sends Message to Online Attackers.” Mainichi Daily News, 10 July 2020. Mainichi Daily News, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20200710/p2a/00m/0et/018000c.
Hasnain, Farrah. “Hana Kimura’s Legacy Is One of Inclusion and Acceptance.” The Japan Times, 11 June 2020, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2020/06/11/tv/hana-kimuras-legacy/.
Margolis, Eric. “The Fall of ‘Terrace House.’” The New York Times, 17 July 2020. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/arts/television/terrace-house-suicide.html.
NEWS, KYODO. “Fuji TV Says Cyberbullying of ‘Terrace House’ Star Was Unforeseen.” Kyodo News+, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2020/08/a5aa31ebe456-fuji-tv-says-cyberbullying-of-terrace-house-star-was-unforeseen.html. Accessed 23 Aug. 2020.
---. “Mother of ‘Terrace House’ Star to Press Charges against Cyberbullies.” Kyodo News+, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2020/08/8c39d6addacd-mother-of-terrace-house-star-to-press-charges-against-cyberbullies.html. Accessed 23 Aug. 2020.
Submission, Internal. “Mother of ‘Terrace House’ Star Hana Kimura Files Ethics Complaint over Death.” The Japan Times, 16 July 2020, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/07/16/national/mother-hana-kimura-files-complaint/.