This year was supposed to be a breakout year for Stand-Up Tokyo, an English-language comedy circuit that I helped start here in the city.
It started strong in January, when the cast and crew of the reality show “Terrace House Tokyo 2019-2020” visited. One of the cast members, Kai Kobayashi, had decided to try his hand at stand-up comedy and I was emcee for the evening. For anyone who’s watched the show, you’ll recall he learned that stand-up isn’t as easy as it looks.
I fared better. It turns out that 30 seconds on “Terrace House” equated to more attention than I’ve got from being in three seasons of an NHK World sitcom. The audiences for subsequent Stand-Up Tokyo events shot up, I was interviewed by a newspaper in Singapore and, hey, I was on Netflix — that cameo wound up giving me the biggest exposure of my career.
Three months after the broadcast of that episode, however, and I can’t remember when my last stand-up gig was. The Asagaya venue that the episode was filmed in has shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Terrace House” won’t be returning for the rest of the season and, saddest of all, Hana Kimura — who sat in the back row that night in support of Kobayashi — is also gone.
What a start to the 2020s.
While the cause of Kimura’s death is officially being withheld, media reports suggest that she took her own life after being relentlessly bullied on social media. The pandemic may also have been a factor, a lot of her wrestling gigs had been canceled as a result of stay-at-home measures.
Six weeks or so into a global crisis, one in which we’re cut off from our normal routines and distractions, in some cases our families and friends, many of us have moved almost entirely online. I’m not an expert, but many professionals have pointed out that we’re living in a very stressful moment and it hurts to think of how lonely Kimura must have felt.
I have had my own share of experiences regarding social media nastiness — and I barely use it. Considering the amount of attention I received from my own brief moment on “Terrace House,” I imagine being a star of the show could be absolutely overwhelming. I can’t begin to understand what Kimura or the rest of the cast actually go through, but it certainly can’t be pleasant.
I’m not sure if I have ever been as excited as I was the moments before my NHK show “Home Sweet Tokyo” was first announced. Outside of close friends and family, I hadn’t really told anyone that my dream was coming true and somehow my script had been picked up and was being filmed. I hadn’t even told my day-job employers about it, which I knew would cause all sorts of problems eventually. But it didn’t matter, the show was being announced.
My bubble of anticipation and pride burst pretty quickly, though. With the trailer posted on Facebook, the comments started to roll in and they were not kind. Comments sections are no gentle places to begin with, but going by what I was reading it seemed like I’d made “a horrendous abomination of a show funded by a money-grabbing corporation filled with s— actors giving s— performances that was simultaneously racist toward Western foreigners, non-Western foreigners and the Japanese, as it was purporting tired stereotypes and Orientalist narratives.” Their words, not mine.
My 7-year-old on-screen daughter was called “embarrassing” and my on-screen wife was labeled a “frigid b—-” … and all of this was from a two-minute trailer!
Then, some netizens decided to do a little more research on me. People found videos of my Japanese-language stand-up and began attacking them: I was a “talentless hack and I spoke terrible Japanese” was the verdict (OK, I admit my accent may need some work). They found my Facebook page, took my pictures and posted them on a Reddit thread, concluding that, deep down, I clearly resented the Japanese. On the plus side, everyone seemed to like the performance of the grumpy grandfather in the show, so … some positives, right?
In a sense, I feel lucky that I had my flirtation with fame and the online nastiness that can come with it when I was 36 years old. I had a loving fiancee to lean on (she is now my wife), I had a level of self-confidence that comes from just existing on the planet for almost four decades and I was already hardened from crashing and burning on the stage numerous times in my career. And, it bears repeating: I barely use social media.
So, I just stopped logging on altogether. I asked my younger brother to check my messages for me, and requested that my friends stop defending me publicly as their well-intentioned actions were just boosting the prominence of the negative comments.
I am scared to think what I would’ve experienced if I had been alone, was actually famous, and of an age before I had grown into myself. A British study found that young people are twice as likely to commit self-harm or engage in suicidal behavior if they are cyberbullied. In that sense, I guess I’m lucky that I’m old. The first time I was spotted on the street in Tokyo, it was by a fellow Brit who felt the need to point and say, “That’s the dude from that s— show” to my face. I was able to take that experience and immediately think: I could probably get five minutes of material out of this, it does make for a refreshing change from elementary school kids gaijin-pointing at me.
It’s funny — but not “ha ha” funny — to hear what people think it’s acceptable to say to a person who is in the public eye, especially when they can do it anonymously. Whenever I received a blast of negativity, I would tell myself to roll with it because that’s the price you pay for being somewhat recognizable.
Following Kimura’s death, however, I don’t think any of us can honestly believe that to be true anymore. At least, I hope so.
A few years back one of the members of our own community took their own life and that prompted me to get involved with, and eventually work as a cultural ambassador for, TELL Japan, a counseling and support service that started in Tokyo in 1973 and now serves people in several languages across the country.
If you desperately feel the need to do something anonymously, how about volunteering for the TELL Lifeline? If you have read Kimura’s story and can empathize with how lonely she must have been, how about donating to TELL? If you have a friend who has withdrawn a bit recently, how about reaching out in person and, if needs be, encourage them to contact the organization.
Due to a lack of finances and volunteers, the TELL Lifeline can currently operate only between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. There are a lot of lonely hours in between those times, so any kind of support is appreciated.
The suicide rate in Japan fell to a record low last year to 20,169, but it’s hard to imagine anyone high-fiving themselves over a number that’s still so high, especially seeing as that figure came with the news that suicides by young people are currently on the rise — a 30-year record-breaking high for Japan, in fact. There is so much more we can do. Let’s choose to take more positive steps during this time of crisis and begin to address the way mental health is tackled here. We can start that by being nicer to each other, particularly at a time of so much stress.
I feel guilty now about how things went when the cast of “Terrace House” showed up at my comedy night. Kimura and the other women from the house presented Kobayashi with flowers after his not-so-successful set, and I got a laugh with a quick crack, “It’s as if they knew it was going to be a funeral.” The Japan Times even picked it up, but I kind of regret it now. Sure, I can counter with a lot of excuses: It was just a joke … I was the emcee, I had to warm the audience back up. Still, it was definitely made at the expense of another person at a moment in which they were already feeling terrible.
Kimura and her castmates, Violetta “Vivi” Razdumina and Emika Mizukoshi, kindly posed for a photo with me, too. In a strange bit of foreshadowing, the last thing the production staff said to me after the cameras had packed up was: “Hōsō no mae ni, SNS ni tōkō shinai yō ni onegai-itashimasu” (“Please don’t post it on social media before the broadcast”). However, I’ve included it with this article to remind me of the night and to remind me to be nicer to people.
B.J. Fox is a stand-up comedian based in Tokyo. He is also an Ambassador for TELL Japan, an organization dedicated to providing world-class, effective support and counseling services to Japan’s international community and helping to address the country’s growing mental health care needs. For more information, visit telljp.com