Hana Kimura, a wrestler and current cast member of Japanese reality TV show Terrace House, died on May 23rd, 2020, age 22. Although no official cause of death has been announced, worrying posts on social media by Hana before the announcement and the responses posted by those who knew her strongly suggest she took her own life after weeks of intensive bullying and harassment online.
It would be pointless and misguided to go into the details of what happened on the show to spark off the bullying, as though analysing it could provide any kind of answers. There is nothing that can appear on reality TV that can justify hundreds of people telling someone to die. It’s certainly not justified by an incident where a perfectly kind and normal 22 year old girl simply had an argument with another person on the show.
It’s heartbreaking, in so many ways. I have been heartbroken and angry about it since I found out, but now I’m sitting down to write about it, it’s impossible to know what to say. Nothing can make this better. But there are still really, really important issues that need to be discussed.
The first is reality TV itself. To what extent is it harmful to those it features? I don’t think it takes much thought to piece together the damage it can do. Reality TV creates a narrative out of real people, editing them into characters that do not reflect the true depth of their personality and life experience. Viewers then respond to this character as though it is the person themselves, and grow to love or hate people based on these half-truths. And with social media, these viewers can then reach out to the real person with all of their love and vitriol and address them like they are nothing more than the construct they saw on TV.
Terrace House is often touted as the nicest of reality shows, but it has been getting more brutal, more Western, in recent years. Several years ago, when two members of the house had a huge fight, the show chose not to air the footage, instead showing some of the conversation in the build-up and people talking about what happened afterwards. It’s never specified why they did not show the fight itself, as they were clearly filming, but the natural assumption is they decided that it would be harmful for everyone involved. Drama on Terrace House used to be a guy trying to ask a girl on a date and her stubbornly misunderstanding him and suggesting a group trip to Costco. But now, with a more international audience, the show seems to be pushing for that more Western-style reality TV drama, where conflict is overt. And this has consequences. It arguably has even greater consequences in a culture like Japan, where losing your temper is not the done thing, and it’s especially not the done thing for a woman. Add in the fact that Hana Kimura is mixed race, and it seems almost inevitable that she would attract intense criticism for losing her temper, especially as, when I watched it, her greatest crime seemed to be using very masculine language as she spoke.
But social media plays an even bigger role. People in creative and performing industries, including wrestling, are expected to keep social media accounts to promote their brand, but this leaves them open to harassment. And, on the other side of things, viewers feel empowered to spew hate, because it’s only online, because it doesn’t count, because if stars can’t take it they should just log off, even though it’s often a job requirement not to. I won’t pretend to understand the psychology of intense cyberbullying, because honestly, I don’t understand it at all. But its existence is a fact of our reality, and the fact that we just sort of accept it and tell people to work around it is not okay. It kills people.
And honestly, I don’t just count direct harassment in this. Yes, the people directly messaging others with hateful things are the worst in these scenarios, but even if they were not directly sent to the person involved, having people everywhere discussing how much they dislike you has got to hurt. I worry about this even when I agree with the criticism in question, because the internet is an entire inescapable world in your pocket, and we as humans are not built to deal with the idea of hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of people giving their opinions on us. When it turns into a spectator sport of mockery and hate, it is incredibly harmful, and, as proved repeatedly now, people die as a result.
And I wish there was a solution, but I don’t think there is one. We rush to cast judgement, and then to express that judgement, and that isn’t going to stop. After Hana’s death was announced, I saw Japanese comments on the Instagram posts of other Terrace House cast members doing the exact same stuff, telling them they were terrible people and responsible for Hana’s death. Even when someone has literally just died, the only reaction is to channel the hate in a different direction, to find somebody else to judge and blame. Even though these comments were probably not made by the same people who harassed Hana, they continue that cruelty, immediately after seeing its effect. I’m left greatly worried for the health and safety of all the other Terrace House cast members, because no matter what else happens, people will not stop.
Unless social media globally becomes non-anonymous and far more carefully monitored — two things that I do not believe will ever happen, or that we would support happening if they were proposed — these tragedies will keep happening. Is this really the price for us to be able to discuss TV on the internet? The only other solution is for people with any kind of public profile to not personally use social media under their own name, but that’s often similarly impossible for anyone in that middle space where they are famous enough to attract trolls and hate but not famous enough to be able to insist on not using social media without it having a negative impact on their career. And that solution also doesn’t help all the people without any sort of public profile who also get harassed on social media on a daily basis.
I wish there was a solution to this. I wish I believed anything was going to change. But instead, this is an immense tragedy that should not have been allowed to happen but that can and will happen again.
Rest in peace, Hana Kimura.
If you are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please know that there are always people there to help. You can find your country’s national suicide hotline here.