'Terrace House' Is Falling Down
The biggest lie we ever told ourselves about the Japanese reality show was that it wasn't like all the other ones.
Content warning: this blog discusses suicide. If you need help and would like to speak with someone, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Hana Kimura was maybe my favorite Terrace House cast member of all time.
During her time on Terrace House: Tokyo 2019-2020, Hana established herself as a talented, passionate professional wrestler whose persona masked her soft heart and kind nature. Hana had the confidence of a performer but was hilariously juvenile in her interactions with other castmates, cowering from her crush and running away from the doorbell when meeting new house members. She was all the more personable with her pink hair and neon-colored wrestling suits.
My relationship towards Hana, and Terrace House, was pretty straightforward. What I didn’t know was that, in Japan, her half-Indonesian heritage, darker skin, and wrestling persona made her the target of racist attacks online, and that other half-Japanese cast members had received similar treatment. It was the kind of poisonous dynamic I’m usually very clued into when it happens on American or English-language shows, but cultural and linguistic barriers had left me—and, I suspect, a very large number of Western viewers—unaware of what was going on.
The backlash to Hana became especially toxic when, in a Terrace House episode, she flipped the cap of another cast member, Kai Kobayashi, off his head, during a confrontation over ruined laundry.
In my mind, Hana was bubbly and compassionate. But Farrah Hasnain, an Osaka-based translator and researcher, writer for Japan Times, and former Terrace House fan, told me that on social media in Japan, critics depicted Hana with racist cartoons, and called her violent.
“[Comments] were mostly horrible. I saw crude drawings of Hana as a dark-skinned ‘gorilla’ killing Kai. I saw people say that she’d commit domestic violence on her future partner because she was a ‘barbaric’ woman who was a pro-wrestler,” Hasnain said.
“I saw more hate comments than anything positive about Hana in general. She was more appreciated by non-Japanese audiences,” she continued. “The more conventional women on Terrace House were more popular here, and it frustrated me that Hana wasn’t getting as much recognition as she deserved.”
Hana died by apparent suicide on May 23, at the age of 22.
American Terrace House fans mourned online, piecing together messages from other current and former cast members who were posting about Hana. Wrestling fans and other professional wrestlers worldwide shared their grief. In Japan, Hana’s supporters and speculators blamed her death on cyberbullying, including the intense criticism she received following the release of an episode preview showing Hana knocking Kai’s cap, and the following release of the full episode in Japan.
Prior to her death, Hana posted on social media about the backlash she faced in response to the episode and clips of the scene: “I get nearly 100 blunt remarks everyday. I can’t deny feeling hurt. ‘Go die, you’re disgusting, just disappear,” Hana wrote on Instagram. “[I’ve] been always thinking about that myself the most.”
(The episode in question, “Case of The Costume Incident,” hadn’t yet premiered in the U.S., and may never — three days after Hana’s death, Fuji Television, the Tokyo-based network behind the series, canceled the rest of the season. I’ve reached out to Netflix for clarification whether this extends to distributing the remaining available episodes in the U.S.)
In direct response to Hana’s death, Japan’s government announced it would review its cyberbullying laws. This scramble to punish the people who may have influenced Hana with their abusive behavior has manifested in comments across the wrestler’s social media posts, with fans admonishing cyberbullying at large.
But the attacks lobbed by Terrace House viewers may just be a symptom of a larger problem plaguing the show — that the series’ illusion of being beautifully, perfectly “mundane” was predicated on a deceitful production that willfully misled audiences with a charming, funny panel of commentators and manipulated cast members, Hana included. Terrace House’s veneer of authenticity lulled fans into thinking they were watching something shiny and special and wholesome, a particular draw for Western viewers who saw the series as a foil to aggressive, manipulated reality TV shows like the Jersey Shore and Bachelor franchises.
In recent interviews with Japanese publications including the Weekly Bunshun and Yahoo! Japan, Hana’s mother, professional wrestler Kyoko Kimura, has said that Terrace House producers pushed Hana to act aggressively during the scene with Kai, encouraging her to hit him. Her interviews have since been picked up by Japan’s national papers, the Mainichi and the Asahi Shimbun.
According to the Yahoo article, in messages on LINE, a popular call and texting app, Hana told friends that staff told her to lose her temper in front of the cameras, and that they “fueled the fire” before the scene was filmed. Kyoko claimed that Hana told her that the producers wanted her to turn up her pro-wrestler persona from “1 to 100 and make it more entertaining.”
“What emerged was the fact that the root cause of Hana's death was the ‘staged element’ of the TV program,” reads the Yahoo article, according to an English translation from Hasnain which she posted on Twitter over the weekend.
The article also features interviews with anonymous Terrace House staff, former house members, and former Fuji TV staff. In the piece, former members said that production contracts prevented cast members from leaving Terrace House of their own volition, required them to comply with producer requests, and threatened them with financial retribution if they broke the contract or affected the show’s production.
Fuji TV confirmed the contract to Japan Times, but denied that there was ever “coercion” from producers; that they gave emotionally-manipulative instructions to cast members; or that they ordered the cast to fully comply with directions. A network representative also denied that producers encouraged Hana to slap Kai. An investigation from Fuji TV is still pending. (I’ve reached out to Fuji TV for a comment.)
The Yahoo article also says that Hana sent LINE messages to other Terrace House members when a preview clip of the episode premiered, saying she wanted to die. Despite that, Fuji TV aired the episode.
Kyoko Kimura’s cry is clear from the headline’s translation: “Fuji TV Killed My Daughter.”
Terrace House premiered on Fuji TV in 2012. The first season, Boys × Girls Next Door, ran for two years, before ending with the movie Closing Door in 2014. In 2015, Netflix picked up the show for distribution. Since then, 175 episodes of Terrace House have graced Netflix’s media carousel across four seasons: Boys & Girls in the City, Aloha State, Opening New Doors, and its latest season, Tokyo 2019-2020.
In Japan, episodes of Terrace House premiere weekly on Netflix and Fuji TV, and are made available in the U.S. in 12-episode “parts” months after. Prior to its cancellation, the final season was scheduled to run from May 2019 and culminate with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Hana joined the cast in October. When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency during the coronavirus pandemic on April 7, Terrace House suspended production.
The show pegs itself as an unconventional take on reality TV: we take three men and three women and put them in a house together, all with different ambitions and motivations, and they’re allowed to do whatever they want, and leave when they choose, at which point a new cast member will arrive to replace them. Each episode begins with a variation of the following phrase, read by panelist and media personality Yukiko Ehara, known as You: “Terrace House is a show about six strangers living together, and we observe how they interact. All that we’ve prepared is a beautiful home and automobiles. There is no script at all.”
The panel, too, is part of the show’s charm — a group of six entertainers, among them popular Japanese actors, models and comedians, provide colorful commentary to enhance and interpret what’s happening inside the house. When a scene is boring, Ryota Yamasato, known as Yama-chan, confidently exclaims his restlessness. When two cast members show even a hint of interest in each other, You and Yoshimi Tokui pretend to flirt and act out potential dialogue with one another as the cast members themselves.
The cast members are supposed to be regular people, going about their regular lives, and not a group of young, ambitious starlets trying to use their time on the show to leverage their public profile. But Hasnain, the translator who is also a former Terrace House fan, told me that Terrace House heavily recruits for the show, often at universities and through talent agencies, and anyone watching the show will quickly notice that there are a suspicious number of models and actors in the cast at any one time.
The show’s way of eliding this reality is to use the panel. The commentators discern narrative and add levity, but they’ve also gone after cast members who seem disingenuous, people-pleasing, or like they have ulterior motives. Members who are seemingly on the show only to promote their brand get especially dragged.
In Tokyo: 2019-2020, two cast members were on the receiving end of the panel’s ire against “fake” cast members — Ryo Tawatari, a professional basketball player, and Emika Mizukoshi, a student who received especially mean-spirited comments from the panel when she broke down, on the show, for the unnecessarily negative way that she was being portrayed.
By acting as defenders of authenticity, the panelists maintain the show’s appearance of integrity — if we can identify the bad actors, that must mean the rest of us are good.
The show’s contrast with so much of American reality TV, too, is woven through the series. Instead of watching cast members drink and dance at clubs and get into physical fights with one another, we see a group of friends, having a beer at the kitchen table. Instead of watching them compete and undercut each other for cash prizes, we watch individual members go to business meetings or modeling shoots, or see the whole cast attend performances or galleries to support one person.
Even the drama was low-energy. Fans will recall the “meat incident,” when a cast member from Boys and Girls in the City was upset that his girlfriend and fellow cast members cooked and ate a special piece of meat a client had given him as a gift. Or the unfortunate courting of Seina by Shohei during Opening New Doors, when the panel failed to question Shohei’s forceful kiss upon Seina.
And whereas American reality TV is usually filmed ahead of its release, and casts are often sequestered, sometimes without access to the outside world, Terrace House audiences occasionally watch a cast member as they watch themselves in new episodes as they premiere in Japan. In some cases, such as Emika’s, cast members have tried to reckon with these negative portrayals of themselves, along with the backlash they receive online, fueled by the show’s portrayal and the panel’s interpretive commentary. What better way to pretend this show isn’t reality TV than to stare its entire being in the face?
This kind of magic trick isn’t totally unique to Terrace House — witness the gap, for instance, between the seemingly authentic, one-happy-family camaraderie in Bon Appetit’s YouTube videos with the toxic racism going on behind the scenes — but Terrace House’s wizardry was especially brilliant, and its manufactured appeal helped it garner cult-like status in the West (though it remains a relatively niche show in Japan, according to Hasnain). The show’s unofficial Reddit page is 56,000 strong. A handful of podcasts have followed the series, though some shows such as “No Script at all” have discontinued after Hana’s death. Parody social media accounts like “no context terrace house” garner hundreds of likes and retweets per post.
And this obsession with Terrace Houses’ uniqueness is echoed throughout the show’s critical acclaim in America. In 2018, the New York Times called the show “refreshing” compared to the “ubiquitous and hypertrophied” American reality TV. In 2019, the New Republic wrote that watching the show makes you “feel like a dog bemused by its reflection in a mirror, marveling at the sheer fact of existence.”
In late April, after this season went on hiatus, the New Yorker’s Bryan Washington wrote about loving Terrace House during the pandemic: “In a media ecosystem where most successful programming hinges on competition, subterfuge, discourtesy, and obliqueness for obliqueness’s sake, it’s hard to imagine anything bolder.”
Perhaps our desperation to define Terrace House as “different” from the American drivel we revile, and our ease in reinforcing cultural stereotypes about politeness and confrontation in Japan, made it easy for us to believe that the show existed in a vacuum, immune to the forces of entertainment value. But nothing is without intention, and even an unscripted show comes with producers whose goal is to get the best TV out of their cast.
I feel guilty in wanting to have believed this lie — to have willfully ignored the obvious casting, the stilted panelist commentary, and this dissonance between how the cast sees themselves portrayed and how they see themselves in real life. But I’m not sure I’m as guilty as the people who plastered this facade to look the way it does.
Hana’s death broke the show open, and then the entire thing fell apart. First, fans and Japan’s government blamed cyberbullying, scrutinizing the panel’s contribution to anonymous harassment and the show’s inability to assist cast members in mental distress, or to condition formerly non-famous people for life under the magnifying glass.
Kyoko Kimura’s damning interviews were even more destructive to the show’s self-image. “Cast members and producers are not equal. Are they saying that a 22-year-old child could say ‘no’ in that situation?” Kyoko said, according to the Shimbun. “Terrace House calls itself a reality show but the content is not. I want the producers to admit that it was a fiction that invited character assassination.”
When I first pitched this piece, I wanted to know what it would take for Terrace House to return to television. Not because I wanted the show to continue, but because I wanted to know: what could Terrace House have done that might have prevented Hana’s death?
It is, to be clear, an absolutely futile and perhaps even offensive suggestion that, in a different world, things would be different. I also pitched the story weeks before Kyoko began speaking to the press, fighting to defend her daughter’s legacy and seek justice for her death. But I began digging, looking for so-called solutions to the mental health ramifications of sudden fame imposed by reality TV.
The answer, according to several psychologists who’ve worked as consultants for reality TV shows, is something called “aftercare” — essentially, mental health care that seeks to make sure that someone on a reality TV show who isn’t used to mass fame and mass harassment will be OK after their return to the real world.
The Bachelor franchise has done something similar to this for years — they put potential contestants through a mental health screener and weed out anyone who may be a liability for the show, then have a therapist on-site during filming, and require contestants to have an exit interview with the therapist when they leave. Not quite a solution, but an easier fix to help a production cover its ass than to cast a contestant who struggles with suicidal ideation.
In light of recent deaths by suicide for former members of Love Island, it’s clear reality TV productions still have much more to do to protect the vulnerable people they cast for entertainment. According to a 2019 article from Variety, nearly “40 stars from a variety of reality programs” have died internationally.
“We are still in a situation where it is very much up to individual production companies and TV channels to provide support for reality TV participants,” Jo Hemmings, a behavioral psychologist, wrote for NBC News in March.
“However, with budgets being as tight as ever in the TV industry, other companies only provide care when a contestant expresses some concern. This is a really tricky situation for anyone, including a psychologist. It's much easier to take preventative measures for mental health and welfare than it is to patch it up after the problems have kicked in,” Hemmings continued. “In worst case scenarios, no help is asked for or provided, an outcome that we know can have tragic consequences.”
When I asked Fuji TV on May 28 whether they implemented mental health screenings or had mental health protocols during the show’s filming, I received the following response:
“The show’s members have been selected through an audition format. The house members and the production staff, share status updates on a regular basis. As for further details regarding the show’s production, we would like to refrain from answering any more questions.”
Hasnain, however, told me that implementing aftercare at Terrace House would be difficult given Japan’s reservations in embracing mental healthcare, and the continued shame and stigma in being diagnosed with mental illnesses. She also expressed similar frustrations with the government’s willingness to address cyberbullying without also addressing the mental health ramifications of bullying.
As a former public school teacher in Shizuoka and Osaka, Hasnain said that she herself has had three students die by suicide, and several with mental health issues, particularly symptoms of depression, who have expressed reluctance to talk with unequipped school counselors about their situation.
“They’re trying to solve the problem without approaching the solution. Bullying will always happen, and it has always happened. We will always have trauma to work through as human beings. But we all need to build a path to recovery and healing, and the only way to do that is to build an infrastructure with mental healthcare professionals,” Hasnain said. “When Hana died, there were all these news pieces about cyberbullying — in Japanese, it’s called ‘netto rinchi,’ literally ‘Net Lynch.’ But [there’s] little acknowledgement of the lack of mental healthcare resources here.”
I doubt, however, that Terrace House will get a chance to redeem itself, especially given this is the show’s second act. According to the Yahoo article, the show was originally canceled in 2014 following allegations of sexual harassment from a former cast member. Producers were also alleged to have forced cast members say certain lines, pretend to be in relationships, and kiss when instructed to.
Hasnain told me that in Japan, Kyoko’s allegations have emboldened general fans of the show to call for its cancellation. She herself has split from the show’s fandom. Meanwhile, the response among American fans is still mixed, with many expressing disappointment at the show, and a few also calling for the show’s cancellation.
“The comments on my social media feed have gotten a lot more positive over the past week. I think it’s because we’re getting the closure we always needed about the loss of someone we cared about,” Hasnain said. “Terrace House got their chance to redeem themselves with Netflix. But now, someone is dead because they refused to actually change. So I don’t think they can really get that opportunity again… unless they decide to launch it in the next era. But even then, the receipts online are there forever.”
I’ve reached out to Netflix and Fuji TV again about the future of Terrace House. I’ll update this post if they get back to me.
Update, 5:27 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to reflect new information from Hasnain about her experiences dealing with her students’ mental health issues. The post also initially said that Hasnain was a teacher in Tokyo. In fact, she was a teacher in Shizuoka and Osaka.
Update, July 8, 12:24 p.m. ET: Fuji TV responded to my additional request for comment with this statement addressing the allegations of manipulation and the show’s future:
As we have already been stating, we believe that there were no “staged elements” involved. We are currently in the process of verification, so we have to wait for its results before we have the details. Also, there are currently no plans for a new series.
Screenshot via Netflix; Remix by Samantha Grasso