A series of suicides in the Japanese entertainment world, including reality TV star Kimura Hana in May, actor Miura Haruma in July and actresses Ashina Sei and Takeuchi Yuko in September, have raised questions about not only their specific tragedies, but also conditions in Japanese society as a whole that may have contributed to an upsurge in suicide deaths during the pandemic.
Understanding the mindset of the victims almost too well is Matsubayashi Urara, who starred in the 2017 Ogata Takaomi drama “The Hungry Lion” as a teenager who kills herself after a sex video goes viral and vicious social media bashing begins. Matsubayashi has also produced and stars in this year’s “Kamata Prelude,” a four-part omnibus that examines sexual harassment in the Japanese film industry. “Just imagining the act of killing myself makes my legs tremble,” she tells Variety. “But I have seriously agonized about suicide and actually thought of doing it.”
Matsubayashi says that when she imagines jumping from a high place, “I’m not thinking of the faces of family, friends and those who have helped me; I just want to escape from my present situation and find peace. I want people to be aware of me, to praise me, to care about me…That sort of desire has steadily grown in the isolated society of the coronavirus crisis.”
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The Japanese have long had an image in the West as accepting and even embracing of suicide, with oft-cited examples being the samurai warriors and the kamikaze pilots of WWII. The reality, however, is more complex, with their self-inflicted deaths frequently being compelled rather than chosen.
In modern-day Japan, factors contributing to high suicide rates, by developed world standards, are varied and, in the case of celebrity suicides, motivating factors can range drastically.
In the former category is the death of Kimura, who became the target of harsh social media attacks following her on-air altercation in March with a male participant on the popular reality show “Terrace House,” which found a global audience on Netflix. She posted the message “I’m sorry” with her photo on Instagram and, on May 23, tweeted that “I get nearly 100 honest opinions every day and I admit that I get hurt.” Later that day, she ended her life at age 22. Not long after her death, the Fuji TV network canceled the show.
The suicides of Miura, Ashina and Takeuchi are harder to parse. None left a note and all were physically healthy and professionally in demand at the time of their deaths.
But Takeuchi, who played a female Sherlock Holmes in 2018 HBO series “Miss Sherlock,” had given birth to a baby boy in January, her first child with second husband Taiki Takabayashi, whom she had married in 2019. She also had a 14-year-old son from a previous marriage. “She may have been struggling with postnatal depression, which is not talked about enough in Japan, nor are new mothers given sufficient support,” says Vickie Skorji, director of the TELL Lifeline, a Tokyo-based mental health helpline.
There have been no media reports of Takeuchi, Ashina, Miura or Kimura contacting one of the dozens of helplines in Japan, or otherwise getting professional help, though confidentiality terms could be a factor.
“The stigma and the shame of having a mental health problem is much greater in Japan than many other developed countries, which creates delays and barriers to getting treatment,” Skorji explains. “Everyone’s mental health is taking a battering at the moment, and people in the entertainment industry are no different. Given this is an industry that is already filled with high stressors and lots of media attention, it’s not surprising people may have mental health issues. Add COVID stressors on top of these, and the shame associated with getting support makes this group very vulnerable.”
Some in the industry have opined that Miura, Ashina and Takeuchi lacked emotional support from their respective agencies in dealing with the burdens of stardom, which have intensified during the pandemic. “They ought to give seminars on emotional care to talent managers,” an anonymous agency executive told the Shukan Josei Prime (Women’s Weekly) entertainment news site.
“I believe that talent have a lot of stress, especially if they represent a corporate image, with sponsors’ fees being a big part of their income,” says Miyuki Takamatsu, founder and CEO of Free Stone Productions, a leading industry PR and sales company. “They are not able to freely express themselves in their personal lives or in their opinions, political and otherwise. And the basic structure of the talent management business is not for the sake of the talent.”
But Imaizumi Rikiya, a director who worked with Miura on the 2019 romantic drama “Little Nights, Little Love,” says that talent managers and other staff he knows from Amuse, Stardust and other agencies actually “give priority to emotional care — they’re all good people.”
“They pay close attention to their relationships with talent,” he adds, while advancing no theories of his own about Miura’s death.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government has taken an active role in reducing suicide numbers in recent years. A nine-step plan, announced in 2007, aimed to lower the suicide rate by 20% by 2017. Suicides fell from a peak of 34,427 in 2003 to 20,169 in 2019 — the lowest number since authorities began tracking annual suicide figures in 1978, if still high by international standards.
This progress has been threatened by the pandemic, as the unemployment rate in Japan crept up from 2.4% in February to a 21-year-high of 3% by June. Nonetheless, from February to June, the number of suicides dropped 10% compared with the same period last year, according to statistics compiled by the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI). In August, however, suicides rose by 246 month-on-month to 1,849, with women accounting for 75% of the increase.
In analyzing these numbers, RIETI researcher Fujii Kazuhiko notes that women have borne the brunt of pandemic-driven job losses in the huge personal services sector. In addition, by being forced to spend more time at home, they have experienced more domestic violence. “Women continue to find themselves in situations where stress easily builds,” Fujii wrote in a column for the Business Journal website.
Meanwhile, TELL and dozens of other mental health helplines, which are staffed by volunteers while being chronically underfunded, have been overwhelmed by the surge in demand for their services.
According to an April survey of 55 organizations engaged in suicide prevention work by the government-backed Japan Suicide Countermeasures Promotion Center, 40% reported that they had suspended activities, while 43.6% said they had had to cut hours and staff due to the coronavirus.
Given the lack of industry and social support for mental health problems, the way to survive in the current era, says actor-producer Matsubayashi, is to “stay hungry and not lose sight of yourself.”
“[Suicide] is not a problem that can be solved tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” she continues, “but I am hoping for a society without prejudice, where people can mutually respect and become closer to each other. A society that will be on my side.”