This essay is part of Avidly’s “Too Real” series, guest edited by Carissa M. Harris: a series of short, vivid essays focusing on a single moment, scene, or episode from reality tv that has lodged itself in the writer’s soul and refused to leave.
CN: racism, bullying, suicide
“Are you half?” This question, one with which I’m intimately familiar, inevitably came up during the self-introduction scenes shown on the Japanese reality TV show Terrace House.
While on American reality TV, cast members tear through their new apartments, screaming as they leap into their beds and pop open bottles of champagne, Terrace House depicted its cast members sitting quietly on the living room couch as they took turns asking one another about their ages, occupations, romantic types, and for anyone who might not appear 100% Japanese, ethnic identifications. Through this ritual, anyone who identified as ハーフ(haafu, or half-Japanese) would be folded into the group, their ethnic difference no longer of obvious consequence.
Having watched The Real World as a half-Japanese American growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, I had not realized that Terrace House, which streams internationally on Netflix, was the representation I secretly wanted. Throughout graduate school, the show served as my chosen mindless escape. It presented a world in which the drama never seemed to exceed the question of whether the tomboyish hockey player Tsubasa would get together with her crush, a kindhearted haafu male model named Shion.
At the same time, with its multiracial Asian cast, Terrace House became more than just a guilty pleasure. While studying and teaching at a predominantly white university in the Midwest, far from the large Asian American communities in the San Francisco Bay Area that I considered home, the show allowed me to dream of an alternate life, projecting myself into a fantasy of Japan in which multiracial people seemed to be included. It was the May 2020 suicide of cast member Hana Kimura—a half-Japanese, half-Indonesian professional female wrestler with pink hair and sparkly eyes—that abruptly disrupted the pleasure I took in this fantasy of multiracial inclusion.
Terrace House was once praised for being Japan’s softer, more innocent update on the classic Real World formula. It featured the everyday lives of six young adults—three women and three men—“strangers picked to live in a house… and have their lives taped,” as the opening monologue to The Real World used to go. But rather than illustrate “what happens when people stop being polite,” Terrace House became known for its politeness.
Despite its simple premise, the show rapidly gathered a global cult following after its debut on Netflix in 2015. For audiences accustomed to the excesses of American reality TV, its pace felt slow and its colors muted, the drama of the show contained below the surface of everyday moments: trips to the grocery store and jogs in the park. American viewers described it as “hypnotically boring” yet alluring in its “unusual tranquility.”
In the American responses to the show, I recognized Terrace House’s fulfillment of Orientalist expectations of Japanese serenity and reserve. One critic called it “a lovely, subdued window into people living in a culture completely different than my own.”
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but find myself similarly captivated by its rendition of Japanese society, an image of Japan that appeared kinder and more welcoming than I in fact knew it to be. As the show progressed through multiple casts, Terrace House embraced its growing global popularity and featured an increasing number of haafu and non-Japanese cast members. We symbolized the show’s—and by extension, Japan’s—internationalization. I had trouble looking away.
Although I understood that fetishization conceals a latent violence, there was something about Terrace House’s banality that encouraged me to forget.
In Japan, there has been a long history of discrimination against people perceived to lack “pure” Japanese blood. This includes the marginalization of indigenous groups and ethnic Koreans as well as the stigmatization of “war babies” born to Japanese mothers and American GIs. Although haafu of different ethnic backgrounds have had different experiences—as half-white, I hold a great deal of privilege—there is a shared history of being ostracized and othered. Haafu was originally a racist slur much like “half-breed.” In recent decades, however, haafu have become hypervisible across Japanese popular culture, from internationally famous tennis star Naomi Osaka to the appearance of haafu minor celebrities on variety shows largely unknown outside Japan.
On Terrace House, 22-year-old Hana came across as endearingly naïve in contrast to her kickass persona in the wrestling ring. In one memorable scene, she began to feel so shy while talking to her crush, the basketball player Ryo Tawatari, that she hid her face behind a pillow. In another, she wore a fuzzy sweatshirt that had panda ears on its hood as she cried silently over his interest in another woman, a Russian model.
The purity that characterized these early scenes ended suddenly when Hana argued with a cast member who had accidentally ruined her wrestling costume in the wash. After the episode streamed in Japan on March 31, 2020, she became subject to a flood of abuse on social media, including misogynistic and racist comments that compared her to a gorilla. Several weeks later, distraught and isolated during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hana died by suicide. She had tweeted shortly before, “Every day, I receive nearly 100 honest opinions and I cannot deny that I get hurt.” Her mother Kyoko Kimura, herself a former professional wrestler, now accuses Terrace House producers of staging the scene that led to Hana’s death.
Because Terrace House episodes streamed in Japan several weeks before they arrived in the United States, I never saw the episode in question, which Netflix took down following the incident. Although I could watch it on YouTube if I wanted to, I no longer feel comfortable assuming the role of spectator.
Roland Barthes famously called wrestling a “spectacle of excess,” writing that in a wrestling match “the public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not… it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences.” It seems significant to me now that Hana was born into the world of professional wrestling before pursuing reality TV stardom. Of her role as a villainess in the ring, she said, “I spit on people. I curse old men in the audience. I gloat and I insult my opponent—I must seem like a terrible person… But that’s my role, that’s not me.” Hana lived in worlds where “reality” was no longer supposed to matter, where pain was not supposed to stick.
In both Japan and the United States, multiracial people have long been made into objects of spectacle, viewed as “curiosities” or “freaks.” According to the “tragic mulatta” trope, our outsider status predisposes us to suicide, to dying early and tragic deaths. There is, however, nothing natural or inevitable about this.
These days, I cannot fail to recognize the violence underlying the dream that Terrace House presented, a violence that underlies many dreams of visibility and inclusion. The Orientalist fantasy of Japan as a nation of uncomplicated hospitality is harmful not only to those of us traditionally recognized as Japanese, but also to those of us who exist at its margins. While I never truly believed in Terrace House’s “reality,” I was duped by a different promise—the idea that I could consume a manufactured representation of multiracial harmony without becoming implicated in its failures.
Violence not only takes the sensational forms seen in the wrestling ring, but accumulates in mundane acts of objectification and hate. Terrace House never vacated itself of reality TV’s potential cruelty, it just gave it a gentler aesthetic.
Still, I fantasize about what it might be like to live in a Japanese house with five or six other strangers, to enter into an alternate reality where I might be something other than a racial anomaly. As Hana demonstrated in the wrestling ring, there is nothing wrong with wanting to live out a fantasy, nothing wrong with performing a fantasy so earnestly that the differences between what is “real” and what is not start to lose all coherence.
Sometimes, we desire the spotlight, but with that exposure, we also desire kindness and protection.
Erica Kanesaka is an Assistant Professor of English at Emory University.