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The Fall of ‘Terrace House’

Hana Kimura, a professional wrestler in Japan, joined the cast of the hit reality show “Terrace House” in September because, as she said, she wanted “to find a wonderful romance.”

It was a common enough goal on “Terrace House,” which follows six young men and women living together in a gorgeous house as they navigate love, life and their careers. Over five seasons on Japan’s Fuji TV and Netflix, which carries it in about 190 countries, the series became a global phenomenon, beloved by fans and critics around the world for its gentle spin on the “strangers-sharing-a-posh-residence” genre, one of the oldest reality TV formats.

Nine months later Kimura was dead. She was found at her home in Tokyo on May 23, along with several suicide notes. A series of foreboding tweets and Instagram stories preceded her death. She was 22 years old.

It is impossible to know why someone would take her own life. But in the weeks leading up to her death, Kimura had become the target of a vicious wave of hatred on social media — much of it inspired by behavior on “Terrace House” that, she told a friend, the show’s producers had instructed her to perform. Hours before Kimura died, she tweeted, “Every day, I receive nearly 100 honest opinions and I cannot deny that I get hurt.”

Her death sparked a national reckoning with cyberbullying in Japan and brought a sudden, tragic end to “Terrace House.” Fuji TV quickly canceled the remainder of the current season and hasn’t said if the show will ever return. (Netflix, which continues to carry existing episodes, including those featuring Kimura, declined to comment for this article.)

ImageKimura had a short but storied career as a professional wrestler, winning multiple championships and awards.
Credit…Nikkan Sports, via Reuters

But those close to Kimura like her mother, Kyoko Kimura, continue to wonder to what extent the gentle reality show set Hana up for a fatal emotional decline. This week she filed a complaint with a Japanese broadcasting ethics watchdog, the Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization, implicating the show in Kimura’s death and alleging that the show depicted Hana as an aggressive and violent person, infringing upon her personal rights.

She remains deeply disappointed with the response to the tragedy — or lack thereof — by Fuji TV, East Entertainment (the production company that works on “Terrace House”) and Netflix.

“I’ve heard a deafening silence,” she said. “She was working so hard. It was all for someone else’s monetary benefit.”

It’s common knowledge that reality shows are heavily produced and edited to create narratives and drama, but many fans believed that the artfully banal “Terrace House” was realer than most. The interactions between the roommates could be endearingly halting and clumsy, and long stretches of time might pass in which hardly anything happened. Both Fuji TV and the show’s “gossip panel” of celebrities, who provided running commentary on the action in the house from a separate studio, repeatedly claimed that there was “no script at all.”

While some former cast members stand behind “Terrace House” as an honest, transparent look into their time and experience in the house, others say that the show was just as manipulated as its crasser reality TV cousins. In interviews, they said Fuji TV staff extensively consulted with participants about their feelings, and told them to have certain conversations or take certain action. They said staff interventions resulted in dates, arguments and some of the show’s most iconic scenes.

Several cast members who spoke with The Times requested anonymity because participants all sign nondisclosure agreements forbidding them from talking about what happens on set. Three of them interviewed by The Times said the show aggressively dictated how some interactions should unfold and how some participants should act.

“I got pulled aside by multiple producers and they went off on me,” said one former “Terrace House” resident. “They put a lot of pressure on me to do things on the show — I was cast to fit a certain role.”

This intervention includes the event that turned Kimura into a pariah. One episode in particular, in which she reacted angrily to a roommate for accidentally ruining one of her prized wrestling costumes, led to a barrage of insults on Twitter and Instagram, including some telling Kimura to “die” and “disappear.” (The most inflammatory messages have since been removed from the platforms.) Since cast members tended to have a more indirect and less confrontational approach to conflict resolution, as is common in Japan, the outburst likely seemed like climactic drama to many viewers.

Credit…Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

A series of messages in LINE (a popular Japanese messaging app) from Kimura to a friend, originally posted by the Japanese magazine Bunshun Online and shared with The Times by Kyoko Kimura, indicate that the scene was staged by producers. According to the texts, staff instructed Kimura to slap the roommate, Kai Kobayashi, and to lose her temper. “It’s not real,” she wrote. “I really feel terrible about it.”

Reiko Hara, a spokeswoman for Fuji TV said “there was no improper staging or instruction given,” and added that “we are in the middle of investigating the situation.”

In a news conference earlier this month, Ryunosuke Endo, the president of Fuji TV, said that show only depicts scenes that accurately represent the feelings of the cast.

Many former “Terrace House” participants look back fondly on their time on the show, remembering it as a meaningful experience as well as a potential career booster. Shohei Uemura, a popular cast member from the “Opening New Doors” season, which ran from 2017-18, credits living in the house as a source of growth for him.

“I had to think outside of my limits,” he said.

Four former cast members also remarked upon how friendly and supportive the staff was. “I really liked everyone involved,” said Chikako Fukuyama, part of the show’s 2016 “Aloha State” season. “They weren’t thinking that we didn’t matter.”

Some former participants dispute claims that the action was engineered by producers. One cast member said she never received any specific instructions. Another explained that while he did not receive any guidance from the staff, the “Terrace House” residents themselves would often act differently on and off camera.

But even those who enjoyed their time on the show acknowledged that the passionate fan base could be cruel. “Commentary on the Kardashians is more lighthearted,” a different cast member said. “I felt like I was the worst person in the world.”

The residents developed coping strategies and in some cases bonded over the online attacks. “We tried to comfort and support one another when new episodes came out,” Uemura said.

Fukuyama said that “it was painful to see someone who you live with get targeted.”

The effect could be exacerbated by the panel of commentators, who over the years have been criticized for their occasionally snide assessments and for cheering on aggressive attempts by male cast members to kiss women, which in some cases have crossed the line from romantic pursuit to harassment.

When Fukuyama first appeared on the show, for example, panelists made multiple overtly sexual comments about her. She “was able to protect myself,” she said, by avoiding watching the show “when I was living there, so I didn’t see how the commentators were talking about me.”

Critics point out that the structure of “Terrace House” may have contributed to the online attacks against Kimura.

“Because we are told that the show is real, the viewer accepts that it is,” said Hiroaki Mizushima, a TV critic for Yahoo News Japan and a literature professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “So when someone does something a viewer doesn’t like, the viewer attacks them as a human being.”

The cast members’ youth and relative inexperience with relationships and intimate partnerships probably made them even more sensitive to such judgment, said Dr. Julie Ancis, the director of cyberpsychology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

The more troublesome aspects of “Terrace House” also shed a light on pressing social issues in Japan. Government authorities have wrestled for years with how to balance online abuse with freedom of expression. After Kimura’s suicide, they renewed the push to punish cyberbullying, and on June 4 an Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry panel proposed that social media operators should be able to be compelled to disclose the names and phone numbers of people who make defamatory posts. The ministry hopes to draw up the final version of the plan in November.

But Japan also suffers from a high-suicide rate, high levels of bullying in schools and limited access to mental health care resources. New cyberbullying laws may mean little without first addressing a more basic lack of mental health care.

“Our research has shown that laws and punishments do not deter cyberbullying aggressors,” said Sameer Hinduja, a criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University and a co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “What seems to matter most is the role of social institutions like the family, community and school in providing instruction and education in areas like empathy and resilience.”

Currently, cyberbullying education in Japan is not sufficient to deal with the breadth of the problem, said Michal Ptaszynsky, a computer science professor at the Kitami Institute of Technology in Hokkaido who researches cyberbullying.

“Kids learn briefly about harassment in classes on society,” he said. “It still does not give them any means of defense in actual cyberbullying situations.”

Kimura came across as another charmingly relatable addition to the “Terrace House” cast, despite a short but storied wrestling career that included multiple championships and awards. Pink-haired and bubbly, she was so shy in her early days on the show that she couldn’t even bear to look at her crush, the basketball player Ryo Tawatari, and covered her face with a pillow instead.

“She was really happy when she first joined the show,” Kyoko Kimura said. But Hana soon began to struggle with social media criticism, even before the costume flap this spring.

“Terrace House” is a relative rarity in Japan television for casting multiracial and occasionally non-Japanese participants. Kimura’s half-Indonesian heritage became a target for racists and cyberbullies.

“I remember seeing crudely drawn comics where she was drawn as a gorilla, mocking her darker complexion,” said Farrah Hasnain, a Japan Times contributor who has been translating Japanese articles and social media posts about Kimura into English for her international fans.

“I was so upset about it, because nobody on Fuji TV or the panel seemed to defend her — it was a free-for-all.”

Credit…Kyodo, via Associated Press

According to her mother, Kimura had been thinking about leaving the show for several months. Then, an explosive outbreak of cruel online comments following “The Costume Incident” episode, which premiered on March 31 on Netflix and May 18 on Fuji TV, significantly contributed to Kimura’s emotional decline. At the time, her mother said, Kimura was living alone in a rented apartment after the pandemic brought a halt to filming, and was unable to meet with her family often as cyberbullying turned from a steady stream into a full-blown onslaught.

In an interview, Kai Kobayashi, the co-star of the costume scene, said that Kimura called him in May, a month and a half after the episode premiered on Netflix, to apologize and tell him that the producers told her to act that way. “I was glad to hear that from her because I didn’t think she was the type of person to react like that,” Kobayashi said.

Kobayashi said the production staff could be coercive. When he declined to go on a trip to Kyoto with some of the other housemates, he said that first one production staff member, then two, and eventually more than four all met with him to convince him to go.

“Under that sort of pressure, it’s hard to say what you want to say, especially if you’re a pure girl like Hana,” he said. “I think they talked her into creating something that didn’t reflect what she was feeling or wanted to do.”

“I think that the only effort the staff made to support Hana was to try to keep her on the show,” he said.

Kyoko Kimura said Fuji TV, East Entertainment and Hana’s agencies, World Wonder Ring Stardom and WALK, deflected responsibility and treated her like a nuisance when she reached out after Hana’s death. “They told me that Hana had never said she wanted to leave the show, but Hana had been talking about wanting to leave since late November,” she said.

World Wonder Ring Stardom and WALK did not respond to requests to comment. (East Entertainment referred queries to Fuji TV.) When asked if they were aware that Hana Kimura may have become depressed by the outbreak of online comments, the Fuji TV representative said the company would not comment out of concern for the bereaved family.

“We are very sorry that comments appearing on social media have become such a problem,” she said.

Such platitudes are no consolation to Hana’s mother, who hopes people, lawmakers and companies around the world, including in the United States, will use this opportunity to reconsider rules and laws around social media and cyberbullying. “We need to change things,” she said.

“Don’t think this isn’t relevant to you,” she added. “It could hurt you or the people you love.” She is currently working on starting a new nonprofit organization in her daughter’s name to help people cope with cyberbullying.

“Hana was so bright, so cheerful — she made everyone laugh,” her mother said. “I want you all to remember that Hana.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).