On May 23, 2020, pro wrestler and former cast member of Japan’s hit reality TV series Terrace House, Hana Kimura (22), was found dead of apparent suicide. Suicide notes found in her home cited cyberbullying and countless cruel messages she had been receiving on social media.
The daughter of Kyoko Kimura, herself a pro wrestler and mixed martial artist, Hana Kimura had only just joined Stardom, one of Japan’s foremost all-women pro wrestling companies. Many wrestlers from across the world took to social media to share their grief and outrage over her passing.
No one will ever know with absolute certainty what Kimura was thinking in those moments, but it is clear from her social media accounts that she was struggling, and making clear cries for help. Though now deleted, Kimura uploaded photos of self-harm shortly before her last posts on Twitter and Instagram. These alarmed her followers enough that attempts were made to contact her, and may have led to the police being sent to her home.
It’s way too easy for people to take their frustrations out online at people they don’t know personally, but cyberbullying has real-world implications.
From her own posts and logs of her accounts, she was inundated with hundreds of hateful messages daily, many of which stemmed from an incident that took place between her and a fellow Terrace House castmate. A lot of the negative comments on Kimura’s Instagram and Twitter have since been deleted or lead to abandoned profiles.
While cyberbullying is not currently a criminal offense in Japan, Kimura’s death has led Japan’s ruling party to consider new legislation. Fuji TV has also decided to terminate further episodes of the current series following the tragedy.
In addition to messages from fellow wrestlers, numerous celebrities addressed their followers, decrying the online trolls and pleading with people to think before they type. Even former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took to his Twitter to call for harsh penalties for those who target individuals with severe online harassment.
The impacts of cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is not a uniquely Japanese problem. Nearly 70% of young people have experienced cyberbullying in one form or another by the time they graduate high school, based on surveys conducted in North America and in the European Union.
According to a study by Ditch The Label, a UK anti-bullying organization, Instagram is the worst social media platform for cyberbullying. Forty-two percent of young adults experience harassment through Instagram alone, and according to her fans, that’s where Kimura allegedly received the brunt of abuse as well.
In Japan, reported cases of bullying in schools (including online) rose to 543,933 in the 2018 academic year, while reported incidences of power harassment (パワハラ) both online and off happen to one in three workers.
Of the third that reported their harassment, nearly half mentioned it deeply impacting their mental health, and some considered suicide over the matter. Generally speaking, bullying and harassment are a daily occurrence across all age groups in Japan and aren’t taken as seriously as they should be until it’s too late.
Japan has been infamous for its high suicide rate for decades now, with 19,959 confirmed suicides in 2019 alone. Though that number is slowly dropping, the number of people attempting or going through with suicide because of cyberbullying and harassment has only gone up, according to various news sources in Japan.
The bullying Hana Kimura endured is happening every few seconds somewhere in the world and is resulting in self-harm/suicides on a near-daily basis, even during this pandemic and its associated lockdowns. Everyone is already under unprecedented levels of stress as it is, so the added weight of cyberbullying can cause even the strongest of people to buckle.
The pressure to fit in
Mental health is a taboo subject in Japan. Leaps and bounds have been made in awareness of stress and depression, (especially since the 3.11 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster), and there are a number of services available should people need them, but there is still a great deal of stigma.
You basically have to fake it, get out of the country, or die.
Being part of the group, or at least going along with standard social conventions, in Japan is something that is strictly enforced from early childhood. Anyone that cannot follow the rules, even because their own brain chemistry won’t let them, will face backlash. “You basically have to fake it, get out of the country, or die. They make it feel like those are your only options,” says T, a 32-year old Japanese school teacher.
People may lose career opportunities, struggle with financial stability, and lose relationships of all types because of lingering stereotypes about mental health. “Depression is a sign of weakness,” “you’re anxious because you don’t work hard enough,” and “borderline personality disorder doesn’t exist, it’s an excuse to be lazy,” are actual quotes from average Japanese citizens.
Reality TV isn’t real
A number of the vicious comments Kimura received online stem from her time on Terrace House.
Terrace House is a reality series that puts six strangers (three men and three women) under one roof and follows their interactions and dating lives. The stars are carefully picked and groomed to make for the perfect cast with just enough drama to titillate. Female cast members especially are expected to make the dating situations as Japanese pop-culture-friendly as possible.
On the show, Kimura lost her temper at fellow housemate Kai, who had shrunk her custom-made wrestling costume because he hadn’t checked the washing machine before doing his own laundry. She admitted she was partly to blame as she hadn’t taken the costume out of the machine in a timely fashion, but was still hurt by Kai’s actions and the disrespect he had shown to her and other housemates.
This triggered an onslaught of fans defending the male co-star including Twitter comments that Kimura should have known better because “females are born to do those chores.” Harassing comments were made in multiple languages as well, thanks to the show’s international distribution via Netflix.
In addition to that, many online messages attacked her appearance and attitude compared with other female cast members. Kimura had pastel pink hair, wore bright colors in Japanese street-style fashion, and wasn’t afraid of speaking her mind. Obviously, this stands in stark contrast to the portrayal of Japanese women being quiet and fragile.
The fact that most of the comments were directed at Hana and not her male co-star is very telling about Japan’s views on women as well.
From an article in Tokyo Keizai by Hiromichi Shizume, a TV producer and adjunct lecturer at Sophia University, TV shows such as Terrace House “secretly harbor a number of dangers” that the general public tends to ignore until tragedies such as this occur.
“One of the main traps is that viewers think they are watching real people falling in love, but these are scripted moments. […] In Hana Kimura’s case, viewers took her actions too seriously and slandered her on the internet.”
Reality stars are playing a part just like any other actor and people need to remember this before taking to the comments section.
Later, Shizume adds that it is the producers and staff that create the characters and impose the necessary behaviors on the individuals in order to make the show more compelling. All of which viewers tend to forget and subsequently ascribe those behaviors to the cast themselves. Reality stars are playing a part just like any other actor and people need to remember this before taking to the comments section.
The world is struggling and on the brink of a global mental health crisis, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and all its associated stressors.
It’s way too easy for people to take their frustrations out online at people they don’t know personally, but cyberbullying has real-world implications. No one should be made to feel that suicide is their only option, nor should it take the death of a young star for people to realize that what they say online has consequences.
Everyone deserves to be treated with basic human decency. Period.
If you are struggling and need help, reach out to TELL, or contact the mental health counselors at Japan Health Info. If you are looking for a therapist in Japan, please contact the International Mental Health Professionals Japan. Or, if you would prefer an online service, try BetterHelp.