How a Japanese Reality Show gave me life.
— Update 07/06/2020 —
It has been revealed that a member of Terrace House has committed suicide. Hana Kimura, who entered the house in the current season took her life after suffering abuse online. Shortly after I published this story I lost time to watch the show any further. After Kenny and Risako left I moved on to other shows I’d been meaning to watch. Hana’s death left a bitter taste in my mouth considering how amazing I thought the show was and all its characters were. Their personalities are all admirable. They should all be proud of who they are. My story talks about Kenny ‘being the worst’ and I’ve decided to leave this story unedited to highlight even well intentioned commentary of reality television has a level of judgement behind it that can be damaging to peoples self esteem.
One of the main things I wanted this story to highlight was how important it is to have conversations with the people around you. To talk openly about your feelings and challenges and goals. Human beings are social creatures and we rely on each other to survive. If you need help, please reach out to your local crisis centre or speak to your friends and family.
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About two weeks ago, my girlfriend for the last year moved to another city to study her PhD.
Suddenly I found myself with hours of free time with nothing to entertain me. My girlfriend and I bonded over a mutual morbid fascination with the Australian version of The Bachelorette.
We both hated the show, although I’d describe it as detested, and the initial episodes of a season are actually kind of harmless enough. I found it fun to laugh at the ludicrous entrances and absurdity of grown men and women all vying for the ‘Love’ of one of the other sex.
I had even begun to ponder if the bad guy of this season, a sexist obnoxious pig who was a politician from the Gold Coast, was some sort of next level social commentary on Australia’s now openly corrupt government on behalf of the writers.
But it devolved quickly. His exit was just tears and drama and bullying and escalation… always, always escalation. Things never resolve. Characters just exit, stage left, leaving a trail of destruction and name calling and usually never having learned any thing. Any credit I gave to the writers exited along with the slime-ball from Noosa.
So I had major trepidation about investing any time into Terrace House, a reality show about six 20–30 something year olds living in a share house in Tokyo, now in its eighth year. Essentially it’s Big Brother without the walls and vapid interviews directly into the camera. It’s six young people, living life and trying to make it. That’s all.
It didn’t help that I lived in Japan for 3 years in the past decade. Since I left I developed a kind of haze? Ambivalence maybe? to re-engaging with that part of myself. Truth be told, it seemed to be that being truly inquisitive about Japan wasn’t worth it anymore. Its surging popularity as a mecca of culture, intelligent design and personality meant that it wasn’t edgy to like it. Muji and Uniqlo were cool in 2011 cause no one knew it outside of Japan. Now they’re just as ubiquitous as Target, in almost every shopping center. Stupid, I know, but hey, that’s how I felt.
Deep down I miss living in Tokyo and feel very nostalgic about it. Daily life was always interesting and different. I was motivated to try something new every day. I felt engaged with the world around me. I was exposed to the meaning of friendship and living a meaningful life. Returning to Australia you can see we don’t embrace that. Australia lacks social cohesion. Often lacks true community engagement. A shared identity. It’s a spread out land with spread out people with individualistic notions of how society should behave, all different and complex and at odds with millions of others.
Recently, I wondered if I developed autism as an adult. Is that even possible? Life seemed empty. Grey. Friendships hollow and distrusting. Conversations would float by without me really listening. Problems didn’t seem all that bad in the grand scheme of things. What did my friend say about their boyfriend? What’s going on with your dad? You told me last time? I’m sorry could you tell me again?
A departure of someone you spend all your time with leaves you with a lot of time to look at the walls of your apartment.
So I turned on a reality TV show.
In the first episode you’re introduced to the six main characters as they all move into the house.
Kenny is a 32 year old musician. He is the eldest in the house and initially seemed hardened most to life. I identify with him the most.
Kaori is a 28 year old freelance illustrator. She’s incredibly talented and seemingly determined to make it work. She has the best haircut and dresses like a minimalist street fashion icon. I identify with her the most.
Shohei is a 25 year old actor/slacker. He recently moved back from Taiwan and lives his life in direct opposition to others. Open to opportunities and isn’t convinced life should be lived with one driving passion to guide you. That all pathways are valid. I identity with him the most.
Haruka is a 24 year old actress and racing car driver? Okay, cool. I identify with her the most.
Ruka is a 21 year old part time retail worker who says he has trouble talking to women but is actually inadvertently charming. He seems lost as to what he wants to do. He has ideas but no plans. I identify with him the most.
And lastly, Risako, a 21 year old but a fitness trainer who also makes parkour looks fucking cool. She does not back down and talks directly. Actually, I identify with her the most.
They maintain their existing lives throughout the course of the show. They continue working their same jobs. They sometimes vanish for weeks going on trips and maintain any of their hobbies or goals.
Romance does serve as a large portion but it's never tacky. Like, it’s actually charming to see people develop feelings and see people mistreat others feelings somewhat delicately. Like, it’s an honest mistake that they try and resolve. They go on dates and get to know each other. No ones even kissed and I’m 11 episodes in.
There is also a panel that dissects important moments in great detail. It’s kind of a trope in Japanese TV to have personalities watch and react. It kind of serves as a vehicle for the audience to know how to react. More so this panel calls out bad behaviour and suggests better ways to handle conversations. I used to skip over them in the early episodes, but now it’s my favourite part. The panel acts in a way as to teach the audience how to move forward positively, even when you are challenged and how better to consider other people's feelings.
They comment on any potential ulterior motives. Does Kenny not want to date anyone because he wants to be seen as attainable to his fans? Is Ruka just playing up his shyness to get close to the other girls? Kenny is wearing his bands merch too often. Shohei is okay with Haruka going on a date, does he not see others as a threat or does he just not care? Kenny sucks at giving advice.
Basically Kenny sucks.
There’s never a cut away from the characters to tell the audience about exactly what we just watched happened to them. There’s not a single ‘I can’t BELIEVE they would do that to me’ being shouted to no one except the producer. Instead, they talk to each other. With a friend, or with the person who they’re upset at. What an astonishing and novel idea! They share how they feel. What hurt them. Why they did something the way they did. They open themselves up and try to understand. They listen.
When did I forget to listen? When did I look at dealing with others as a chore? Why did I look at dealing with others as a chore? Am I Kenny?
I watched about eleven episodes in two weeks. Hey, it’s not a binge if its an episode a day.
Episode eleven is a watershed episode. It’s an episode of self reflection and revelations, interluded with a confusing actual sex scene when Shohei acts out his role in a softcore porn movie.
Ruka reveals his career dream to be a Marvel Superhero, an actor, ashamed as he thinks it’s silly to have that dream. His housemates listen intently and talk to him plainly and honestly as older and wiser Senpais. Yeh, it’s a meme but they literally are. They ask him difficult questions like, is he prepared to move and learn English and audition and all that, forcing him to confront questions about how much he really wants it. It’s not silly to have this dream, but does he really understand what it means to have it.
This is a life lesson.
This isn’t fun, but my eyes are glued to it.
Later, Kaori comes home from having drinks with her friends. She reveals that she feels like a fraud as an illustrator. She thinks the fame of the show is giving her all these opportunities. She feels ashamed that she only studied Industrial Design and not anything artistic. That she emailed her college professor and asked for advice and all she got was the harsh reality. That her drawing technique isn’t world class. The professor didn’t coddle her and she understands why but Kaori is crying.
The house is crying.
Her friends reassure her. Ruka says he admires her. Risako says she’s cool.
She’s so incredibly cool and she doesn’t see it. I identify with Kaori the most.
This is so ridiculous. Where is the 40 year old shirtless fireman crying about someone being a big meanie to him and everyone laughed at him?
Later on, Risako and Kenny sit with Ruka to give him some advice. You see, Kaori and Ruka went out on a date, but Kaori said Ruka was too much like a child to be seen as a partner. Risako forces Ruka to confront his world view. That his actions are actually what dictate how people treat him, not what he’s achieved. That he needs to wake up earlier to be taken as a serious adult. That he should learn to cook.
The next evening, Ruka tries to cook for the first time. A carbonara, but he cracks an egg into the water. I’m now crying from laughter.
This episode, the panel lambastes Kenny for not dishing out decent advice to Kaori. As the eldest in the house they find his comments ‘You’ll be fine’ to be without any real substance. As if he doesn’t care about his friends.
They comment in depth about what it takes to succeed in the modern world. How Ruka’s inclusion in the show is a blessing to the part-time worker. He might find some direction and contribute more to society.
Since I started watching Terrace House I looked inwardly quite a lot.
I reflected on how open the housemates were when the time was right. How the talked so openly about what motivates them and what interests them, and why. None of them embarrassed to do so. It was part of them so why should it?
I reflected on how much friends should be there to help others move forward. To help them succeed and understand the perspective of others. How maybe cooking for them once in a while is a way to get through life with one less thing for them to worry over. How much better we’d all be if we just listened a little harder.
I’m around Kennys age and could relate with the feeling of ambivalence to other peoples dilemmas. I didn’t achieve my goals at their age, how could I encourage them when I couldn’t even do it myself? The panels criticism of him resonated with me. You do move into different stages in your life and you can still help others.
More holistically, the show serves as lessons for Japanese society, culture and entrepreneurship.
It promotes ways to get along with others. How to live a meaningful life with people around you. How to get ahead and how to keep moving forward.
It announces the name of a local cafe they are visiting, or the name of a band or allows local carpentry or mechanics a platform. It promotes start ups and big business alike but it’s never a transparent Marketing departments attempt to appear naturally.
You are never visually bombarded with the McCafe cups made so infamous by The Block.
It’s promoting ways to have a more cohesive and successful society.
How is this coming from a reality TV show?
One thing I noticed was little interjections that the housemates make that’s common in Japanese. The hum’s and eh’s. To show to someone you are listening. When learning Japanese, it was my favourite part, not just cause it was easy sounds to sound fluent, because it reminded me to consider what I just heard, and translate it. Stupid context based language.
So I’ve been trying it out again and I don’t know if it’s my brain that was always preloaded to say ‘Ok’ or ‘Yep’ when listening to someone but suddenly I found myself more present in conversations. Able to give better answers. More assured of what I wanted to say in that moment. More understanding of the other person.
At a party last weekend I noticed something different about how I was approaching conversations. I let them flow naturally and didn’t think it was up to me to fill gaps. I felt confident and assured. Instead of asking what someone did, I asked how they felt about what they did.
I wore a headband because I saw Shohei wear one and I liked how it looked on me and someone at the party said it was cool as f#%k and I didn’t think they were making fun of me and even if they did I didn’t care. It was a surreal feeling after years of anxiety.
It was cool.
I’ll probably grow weary of the show over time. We all do. I’m sure some fans hate the recent season. I’m convinced the show only gets more dramatic from here. Japan isn’t a perfect society by any stretch of the imagination. It has its own problems that the show would never touch. But right now, I’m really enjoying Terrace House.
It’s giving me life.