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Warning: This contribution discusses suicide

The death last weekend of professional wrestler and “Terrace House Tokyo 2019-2020” participant Hana Kimura left social media in a tailspin. Within hours of women’s wrestling agency World Wonder Wing Stardom releasing a statement on Kimura’s death on Twitter, much of the internet felt blindsided by the news. Tributes poured in from around the world, with professional wrestlers, “Terrace House” cast members and fans alike expressing shock and grief.

Hana Kimura | GETTY IMAGES / VIA KYODO
Hana Kimura | GETTY IMAGES / VIA KYODO

It also prompted discussion on an array of related topics: mental health in Japan, the ethics of reality TV and the responsibility that entertainment companies have in monitoring the well-being of those they’re working with. “Terrace House,” which was once celebrated for offering a different take on the reality format via a more relaxed approach, suddenly found itself open to a series of probing questions.

In Japan, however, the issue of cyberbullying has emerged as one of the biggest talking points surrounding Kimura’s death. The wrestler apparently committed suicide after receiving countless spiteful messages on social media sites and this prompted a number of people to share their own experiences online.

Within an hour of the news breaking, the Japanese word for slander — hibō chūshō — was trending on Twitter, soon registering more than a million tweets that used the word. A number of celebrities joined the discussion, including Yu Darvish, Keisuke Honda, Dave Spector, Rino Sashihara, among others.

That’s because the celebrities listed above are all well-acquainted with online harassment, and their comments online following the news of Kimura’s death helped others remember that celebrities are also people too.

J-pop performer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has recently been the focus of similar abuse after sharing images of a political nature on her Twitter account. A tweet the artist posted following news of Kimura’s death started to generate its own criticism, which then inspired a hashtag of its own from those who offered support.

Yet the cyberbullying that presumably led to Kimura’s death inspired others to share their experiences with anonymous threats that have been posted online. Such behavior is hardly a revelation — you can find discourse on the subject in English-language media as early back as 2007 — but recent events have motivated people to be more vocal about what they have been facing. This included a post from a relatively small food-centric account that recounted how it was harassed over uploads that attempted to teach people how to make their breakfasts look prettier.

All in all, this represented social media in Japan attempting to reconcile a long-festering problem, with an increasing number now calling for concrete action to be taken against those who attack people online from a veil of anonymity. This could already be happening, with politicians starting to discuss the establishment of a set of rules to prevent cyberbullying.

What happens next on the political front remains to be seen, although Kimura’s death has certainly propelled the issue into the news cycle to such a degree that it currently sits alongside news of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kimura’s death might yet become Japan’s version of what happened last year in South Korea when the deaths of two K-pop artists were found to be connected with cyberbullying. Something similar happened in Canada in 2012 following the death of teenager Amanda Todd. Both cases shocked their respective countries, prompting each government to introduce new cyberbullying laws. Online abuse was already a problem on both sides of the Pacific, but the deaths left both governments in a position where they were forced to act.

Time will tell how this eventually plays out in Japan, but one trend that emerged last weekend offers a little hope that things could change for the better. A number of Twitter users reported that people who had once harassed them online were now sending them direct messages in an attempt to apologize for their past behavior. Many were probably attempting to protect themselves against a potential lawsuit. Naturally, this made many wonder why hurl abuse in the first place, but the action still caught a number of victims by surprise.

Ultimately, the government will need to give police some authority to take action against cyberbullying if it is ever to be stamped out. That said, there’s a definite groundswell of public opinion that’s now calling for such hatred to be confronted and — importantly — a growing awareness that such abuse happens on a daily basis.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 119 in Japan for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit them at telljp.com. For those in other countries, visit www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html for a detailed list of resources and assistance.

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