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Terrace House reveals dark side of Japan’s attitudes toward consent and women’s sexuality

Seina's quest to find love on reality show Terrace House uncovered some troubling perspectives.

By 10 min read

This article contains spoilers for Terrace House: Opening New Doors up to episode 32.

If you’ve been watching Netflix’s Opening New Doors — the current season of cult Japanese reality show Terrace House, which follows the lives of six attractive strangers living in a house together — you’ll know that it featured the return of one its most popular stars, Seina Shimabukuro.

As one of the series’ original cast members in Boys and Girls Next Door (2012-2014), Seina charmed as the fiercely loyal and honest-to-a-fault party girl and aspiring model.

After making cameos in the second and third seasons, Seina returned once again in the fourth season, Opening New Doors, this time as a house member ostensibly looking for her “last love.” The panelists who offer commentary on the house’s happenings were ecstatic when she returned. Comedian and actor Yoshimi Tokui even threw his hands up and yelled, “Sensei! Sensei! There’s no better Christmas gift!”

They were excited. I mean, weren’t we all? Seina has a reputation for inciting drama in the house and crafting, as the panel calls them, “trendy” scenes for herself, meaning some of the show’s most memorable lines are Seina Shimabukuro originals.

By the end of Opening New Doors: Part 4, despite initially existing on the main plot’s periphery, Seina found herself in the spotlit center of a love triangle and the star of the show once again. However, her compelling story arc did more than entertain — it also revealed Japan’s problematic attitudes toward consent and women’s sexuality.

A house unworthy of the legend

Surprisingly, Seina doesn’t click with her housemates in Opening New Doors, despite being a major player in the original season. The boys initially just see her as a drinking buddy, and some of the girls are noticeably frightened by her. Though the fear wears off, their relationships remain lukewarm. Is it the age gap (at 31, Seina is the eldest), a lack of time spent in the house, or simply personalities that don’t match? Whatever the cause, Seina never has a true confidante.

In what I see as a bid for screen time, Seina begins going on dates with musician Shohei Uemura, whom she had previously characterized as “uncool” offstage. Uncool doesn’t even begin to describe this man. Among other unsavory comments, Shohei takes every opportunity to talk about his housemates’ breasts. Despite his proclivity for mammaries, Shohei eventually finds it in himself to fall in love with our flat-chested heroine. Neither the housemates nor the panelists are shown calling him out on his objectification.

Shohei’s obsession with surface-level beauty comes out once again on a dinner date with Seina. He offers a backhanded compliment: “Until now, I was mostly really drawn to your personality,” then emphasizes that her “beauty has somehow intensified recently.”

Should she feel grateful for this kind of comment? Seina, who usually gives as good as she gets, lowers her gaze as she receives Shohei’s compliments, bowing her head demurely in thanks. In a generous attempt to humor him, Seina tells Shohei that she “likes men who bring out her femininity” and says it’s a great date — in a nearly emotionless voice. Shohei has no idea that Seina is walking the delicate tightrope between disinterest and saving face.

You can see a deleted scene from their date below, where Shohei says he wrote his song “Jungle Love” about Seina.

Kisses out of nowhere

Then came the scene that set both fans and cast members buzzing though in markedly different ways: Shohei’s octopus-like, grab-and-twist kiss out of nowhere and Seina’s shocked and confused reaction to it.

The scene prompted analysis by American culture site Vulture, and international viewers debated online whether or not the kiss qualified as assault. In the panel’s subtitleless audio track, Yu and Reina Triendl comment that Seina isn’t pleased by the kiss, but they later change their minds after learning that there were a few more light kisses in the taxi home. But there’s nowhere to run in a taxi, and we hear that Shohei initiated those kisses as well. Unfortunately, the nuances of consent are lost on both the panel and housemates.

Once Seina and Shohei return to the house and debrief with their respective roommates, news of the kiss is met only with happy excitement. The guys, both in the house and on the panel, agree that Seina “had the look of a woman.” I guess that means freshly ravished, troubled only because some passion slumbering inside her has been awoken. It’s a trope that feels horribly outdated in 2018 and a willfully ignorant interpretation of Seina’s reaction, given the current global climate around sexual harassment. It’s another nugget of proof that the subtleties of #MeToo (and localized offshoot #WeToo) have yet to sink into Japan.

This is a man’s world

But if Terrace House’s vision of femininity is troubling, its image of ideal masculinity is similarly dark.

Shohei mentions that he “couldn’t hold back,” and panel member Tokui assesses that Shohei “must have thought that if he didn’t kiss her, he wouldn’t be seen as a man.” Shohei is pitiable for having been fooled by these misconceptions of sexuality and gender roles, although my pity has its limits. Following these prescriptions certainly doesn’t make Seina happy, nor do they win Shohei his prize.

The “kisses out of nowhere” arc ends with a whimper rather than a bang. After another unwelcome smooch during a camping trip, Seina declines to enter a relationship with Shohei. Shohei demands yet another kiss at his goodbye party in a deleted scene available only on YouTube.

A reluctant and cringing Seina is pressured by the group into eventually receiving a kiss on her forehead. His confession of love, which takes place in a church, is visually over the top but completely lacking in substance.

Shohei has problems with both consent and romance: He fails to see the real personality and wishes of the object of his affection. And, critically, no one else in the house is able to steer him in the right direction. It never even occurs to them.

Male aggression versus female desire

Terrace House scratches the surface of patriarchy’s deep hold on Japanese society. In various forms of entertainment, male aggression is often normalized or even romanticized, such as in the kabedon (cornering a woman against a wall) trend, as well as depictions of assault as erotic.

On the other hand, the stereotype that Japanese men are too passive, especially in romance, is also perpetrated both inside and outside the country. There is a crisis of masculinity in Japan (as there is in any patriarchal society, albeit with its own regional flavor), as Japanese men are given conflicting images of what they supposedly are and what they should be. And, as Terrace House illustrates, women are often collateral damage in men’s messy search for themselves.

as Terrace House illustrates, women are often collateral damage in men’s messy search for themselves.

The Terrace House case is complicated by Seina herself saying, before any kissing happened, that she wished Shohei would be more aggressive as he tries to woo her. To me, it couldn’t be clearer that she meant she wasn’t sexually attracted to him. She tries, awkwardly, to articulate this lack of attraction without saying it outright. Is it more acceptable to say that only Shohei’s actions leave something to be desired, rather than the sum of his parts? In the end, Seina, either unwilling to speak of her own lack of attraction or simply lacking the words, can do no more than fall back on toxic stereotypes.

Her eventual rejection strategy — “I just see you as a friend” — is a near-universally understood euphemism for a lack of sexual attraction, but even then panel members Shono Hayama and Ryota Yamasato resentfully say that wording hurts a guy’s feelings. Thankfully, they are called out, and the panel does realize that “maybe Shohei’s kiss didn’t turn her on sexually” (Tokui) and that “nothing he could have done would have changed that” (Triendl). The saga illustrates just how difficult polite rejection is for women, especially toward a friend or housemate, or when so many people are watching. Because women — not just in Japan — are taught that male feelings take precedence over their own.

“Fine to start things with a kiss”

At this point in the season, airline heir Noah Ishikura starts making moves on Seina. But before the two go on a single date, they share a drunken, off-camera kiss during the late stages of a party. The housemates slowly piece together what happened; Aya Matarai mentions that Seina was the one to initiate the kiss and speculates whether or not anything else had been going on behind the scenes.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of the matter, the housemates put Seina on trial one evening. Yui Tanaka, who had previously shown romantic interest in Noah, conducts a protracted and condescending interrogation regarding the circumstances under which Seina will kiss someone. It’s uncomfortable to watch and comes off as a prudish attempt to police Seina’s sexuality.

Because Seina and Noah turned the Terrace House standard romantic progression of “dates, confession, relationship, and only then physical stuff” on its head, the other housemates assume some sort of lead-up must have been going on behind the scenes. Seina says, “I think it’s fine to start things with a kiss” and insists that the party really was the beginning of their involvement.

This may be a hot take, but I believe her. The only thing going on “behind the scenes” was mutual attraction, which Seina hid out of concern for Yui’s feelings. But now, whether through misunderstanding or fundamentally different approaches to dating, Seina finds herself once again alienated from the other members.

Sometimes, you get what you need

Once their not-a-secret is out and acknowledged by everyone else in the house, there’s no holding Seina and Noah back. The two go out for drinks in a deserted bar. Seina mentions, “My antenna went up when I met you,” another euphemism for attraction. Some drinks later, Seina tells Noah, “I think I like you.” The two maintain eye contact for a moment, then Noah goes in for a kiss, one hand cupping Seina’s face. She reciprocates, with one hand on Noah’s wrist and the other on his thigh. Eventually they head for the nearest hotel. It’s worlds away from the Shohei incident.

Eventually they head for the nearest hotel. It’s worlds away from the Shohei incident.

Seina’s stated reason for returning to the house was to find her “last love.” After she starts dating Noah, her story arc having come to a somewhat logical conclusion, the panel wonders if this is really it. They jokingly agree that “last love” was nothing more than a catchy title. And hey, why should a woman’s love — or lust — stop at 30?

Seina’s story, already curated and commented on by various people before reaching the global viewership, offers a complex image of sexuality in Japan. Whether or not she’s emblematic of her society as it struggles to define and redefine womanhood, there’s no denying that she is a deeply relatable figure. Do women, even the outspoken Seinas of the world, always feel comfortable vocalizing their own feelings and desires? And even if they do so, are they safe from harassment, assault, or the judgement of their peers? Terrace House answers no.

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