This Wrestler Wouldn’t Bow to Men, But Trolls Took Her Down
Pink-haired pro wrestler Hana Kimura was a hit on TV until she confronted her male roommate. What happened next says much about misogyny and bullying, and not only in Japan.
TOKYO—Hana Kimura’s bright pink hair, sometimes in semi-dreadlocks, signalled she was a rebel in Japan—a country where students are forced to dye their hair black to attend school, even if their natural hair color is something else entirely. She was a 22-year-old pro wrestler, and her speciality in the ring was the “big boots” kick: the flat of the foot into the opponent’s face.
Japanese professional wrestling is a performance and a sport, just as it is in the United States, and Hana Kimura usually was cast as the villain—“the heel,” as they say here—facing off against a good guy or “baby face.”
“In the arena, 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,” Hana joked with friends. “But that’s my role, that’s not me.”
Even when making fierce faces at her opponents, you could see if you watched her closely a gleeful twinkling in her eye as she flew through the air and landed on her opponent in a very choreographed “missile-kick.”
“She was full of energy as a kid, running around the arena, cheering her Mom, who was also a professional wrestler, laughing and playing,” recalls Kanako Ito, who covered female pro-wrestling for the once legendary sports-weekly Gong. “Hana grew up by the ring-side watching her mother and I was able to watch her grow up to be a beautiful young woman and follow in her mother’s footsteps as a sportswoman. She was very enthusiastic, hard-working, and polite. After the matches, she would wait patiently as a long-line of mostly male fans would wait to get her signature or say hello.”
Robert Maxwell, a fan of Japanese wrestling, remembers how impressed he was when he met Kimura in 2018. “I was buying one of her t-shirts. She tried to use English; I tried to use Japanese. I asked her to autograph one of her shirts for my girlfriend. She commented on how nice it was that I did that for my girlfriend, and proceeded to ask me about my girlfriend. But she seemed nice, and genuinely was interested in her fans as her fans were interested in her. She was probably going to be the biggest female wrestler since The Crush Girls in the ‘80s…. She legitimately was breaking down barriers. She seemed a sensitive person, which made her an excellent pro-wrestler and had a connection with the audience.”
At the age of 18, she entered a pro-wrestling school and made her debut. She quickly gained popularity and in 2019 she joined the popular wrestling organization Stardom, where she became a poster girl for the group. Yet, even as she became famous, she was still lonely and rarely went on dates.
It might seem odd that Kimura was lonely, especially with a legion of male fans. However, pro-wrestling veteran reporter Ito explains that women professional wrestlers in Japan were and still are like "idols," young female entertainers who capitalize on their image of purity and innocence to cater to male fans.
“There were three forbidden things: booze, cigarettes and love,” says Ito. “And while the agencies may have relaxed those rules, the pressure on the girls to stay single and thus virtually ‘available’ may still be there.”
The work is also demanding and it leaves little time for a private life.
“Hana gave 100 percent to her performance,” says Ito, “and I fear that enthusiasm for doing her job, part of which is acting, may have led her to do too much on Terrace House.”
Kimura joined the cast of the popular reality TV show Terrace House in September of 2019. It’s supposed to be an unscripted reality television show about six strangers, three men and three women, who move in together for dramatic romance, courtship and conflicts. A team of studio commentators introduce each episode.
Ito says that she was delighted to see Kimura on television, at first. “It became very uncomfortable to view the show because that Hana on TV, who was emotional, demanding, angry, well that wasn’t the real Hana. That was Hana performing as she was asked to do. I worried that the whole thing might break her. I couldn’t bear to watch it after a while.”
When asked why she wanted to be on Terrace House, while others might have said they wanted romance, Kimura stated her primary reason as, “I hope to get more people to come watch female pro-wrestling.”
A friend of Hana’s who also works in the world of pro-wrestling, agreed to speak with The Daily Beast, but asked for her name to be withheld.
“Hana was a workaholic. She’d practice or compete and then come home and go to sleep. She really enjoyed being on the show and she loved that it brought a lot of young women to see wrestling as well. Some girl fans even dyed their hair pink—that made her smile. She was really kind to her fans and she was also tough. She used to say, ‘I don’t want to be defeated by men. I’m not going to flatter guys or suck up to men to get what I want. The idea that women should be below men sucks.’ We admired her.”
But Hana’s friend also talks about her as a “regular girl” who loved eating tapioca, wanted a kitten, and dreamed of going to watch fireworks or a local festival with a man who loved her. She could be silly, cracked jokes all the time, but was serious about her job. After every fight, she would write down in her notebook what she could do better.
Hana, her friend says, knew that being hated was part of her role in the sports arena but wasn’t prepared to be vilified in the real world by people not bright enough to know that reality TV and reality are two different things.
THE COSTUME INCIDENT
The now notorious “Costume Incident” which triggered much of the abuse that Hana suffered online was captured in an episode released on March 31.
Tension between Hana and flatmate Kai Kobayashi, an aspiring stand-up comedian, had been building as a result of Kai’s lack of consideration for his housemates. The incident was preceded by scenes where Hana and two other female members of the cast discussed Kai’s behavior, his seeming reluctance to work while being in a financially tough spot, relying on the other housemates, and their disappointment in him. One of the female cast members, Violetta Razdumina held a one-on-one intervention with Kai, seeking to relieve the tension in the house and encouraging him to do better.
It was formulaic stuff typical of almost any reality TV show.
The camera shows Kai performing his standup set to a live audience including his two male castmates, and he fails miserably. Meanwhile, back at the house, we are shown that Hana is in tears. She has discovered that not only had she left her custom-made wrestling costume in the washing machine that morning by mistake, but Kai who had used the machine after her, simply added his laundry to hers, washed the costume again and then put it in the dryer.
What emerged was a $1,000 costume designed especially for Hana now shrunken, discolored, and completely ruined, and as she looked at it she grew ever more distraught. “This is as important to me as my life itself,” she moaned on screen.
When the three men return from the standup show: Kai is confronted by Hana about his mishandling of the laundry. Kai quickly apologizes and seems stunned by the outcome of what he thought were pretty innocuous actions. But that infuriates Hana even more, as she launches into a searing critique:
“You just spend your days doing whatever it is you please. You have no idea what hard work is, what it means to endure pain, breaking bones and shedding blood. What it means to earn your living. You couldn’t understand what that feels like.” Then she lands a verbal missile kick. “You say you want to do stand-up because you want to make people happy. But you can’t even bring happiness to the people closest to you. How do you expect to bring laughter to hundreds of thousands of people?”
The confrontation ends with Hana swatting Kai’s cap off his head and leaving the room.
Kai eventually apologizes and Hana graciously accepts the apology and offers some advice. “It’s important to take care of your inner world but it’s equally important to make time for connections and to have empathy for others. I know there’s kindness within you.”
She goes on to reassure him that money is not a problem, she can earn it back and that “she’s let it go.” The conversation ends with her thanking him for taking the time to reflect and Kai, close to tears, thanking her.
It seems that the two have forged a way forward, moving passed it all. Later that night, Kai announces his departure from the house and the next morning he leaves, presenting Hana with a portrait he had been working on. It all seems like a wholesome moment of growth and forgiveness for the young pair. A harmless little lesson in humanity. But that was not the way the audience reacted.
As soon as the costume incident episode was aired on March 31, the backlash online began:
“You make me sick verbally assaulting someone who annoys you without admitting your own faults. I don’t think anyone is going to fall in love with you so please hurry up and leave the show.”
“Everyone would be happy if you disappeared. Seriously fuck off.”
There were comments that seemed to touch on her mixed heritage and certainly insulted her physical appearance.
“After seeing you on Terrace House I knew you were a dumb gorilla. Now I am positive. You’re a gorilla inside and out. Why don’t you go back to the mountains? Lol!”
There were insults about her childhood.
“If you hadn’t been on Terrace House you would’ve had a lowkey but peaceful life with your bottom of the barrel wrestling but you’re over as a human being with your personality. Please stop saying you want a boyfriend, you are so going to make a domestic violence victim out of them. Or maybe you were just raised in a home like that. Upbringing is scary!”
She was receiving up to a hundred of these messages every day, including some that urged her to die.
The producers could not have been oblivious to the hate directed at Hana. Audience opinion has a strong impact on the way the producers steer the stories and characters.
Just when things seemed to quiet down, Fuji Television poured fuel on the simmering fire by rerunning the infamous costume incident on television on May 18—just at the moment Hana Kimura was self-isolating amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They uploaded to YouTube extra footage surrounding the costume incident as well.
Hana’s whole nightmare began over again, but this time, trapped alone at home, the bashing seemed to hit her harder than before.
Some time after the 18th, she cut her wrists and posted the photos of the blood on her furniture with the caption, “I’m sorry.” The final straw may have been the tweet from an anonymous poster named Ken Ken on May 21, which it appears Kimura read. He implied she should kill herself.
Late that evening, Hana took her pet kitten to the Stardom management office, put the kitten in a basket with two pictures of them together and then walked back home. At some point on the night of May 22, she put a written sign—“Toxic gas is being emitted”—on the door to her condominium and locked it. She mixed a container of chemicals together and lay down on her bed to die. Police have omitted some of the details to avoid others imitating the manner of suicide.
When the ambulance arrived at 3:30 a.m, on May 23, Hana Kimura was found to be in a state of cardiac arrest. She was taken to a hospital and confirmed dead. A suicide note was found in the living room of her apartment. It included a farewell to her mother: “I’m sorry. Thank you for giving birth to me.”
When news of her death broke, her fans went into shock. But her tormentors rejoiced online. They had succeeded in killing her with a keyboard. One of them posted a video on YouTube in which he toasted her death.
As the news spread, the press and the public began to ask: could this have been prevented? And now they are also asking: did Fuji Television fail in its fiduciary duty to protect her?
For years there have been reports that Terrace House, which claims to have no script, is actually very much of a staged performance. “There are certainly times when the staff asks the performers to repeat what they just said and steers them towards a desired outcome. Reality TV isn’t reality. Everyone knows this,” said an individual working on the show, who added, “The editing process can turn a hero into a villain. There’s so much to work with that a story can be created out of nothing. But there’s no written script.”
People in the entertainment industry were surprisingly critical of the producers. Beloved character actor Akira Nakao made a guest appearance on TV Asahi’s talk show Good! Morning on May 26: “They pick and choose the juiciest scenes convenient to them and they didn’t offer any support to her,” he said. “It was the duty of the broadcasters to protect her. As a fellow actor I am enraged.” Weekly Bunshun reported that all members of the production crew were asked to sign odious non-disclosure agreements which made it impossible for people to talk about what really happened behind the scenes.
Hiroyuki Nukata in the Fuji Television Corporate Communications Department told The Daily Beast, “We understand that your article is well intentioned. While we would like to discuss who she was and her great personality, we have to respect the feelings of her surviving family members and can’t comment. Of course, there are contracts with all people appearing on the show but we can’t discuss details such as NDAs. The staff and the people appearing on the show did keep in touch and we were appraised of how they were doing. Was there a mental health counseling service provided or something along those lines? We can’t really answer at this time.”
Of course, online bullying is an issue that plagues the internet everywhere, especially if you are a public figure, and many in the West are not particularly sympathetic to the plight of the would-be famous. In Japan people are even less sympathetic. There is a special word related to celebrity harassment that sums up the attitude: it’s called “fame tax” (yumeizei), which is to say it’s just the price you pay. Anyone in the public eye must accept all criticism and even hatred from the public since that’s part of celebrity.
While Britain has now taken steps to protect the mental health and well-being of those who appear on reality TV, that idea doesn’t fly in Japan, where mental health issues are still heavily stigmatized. According to the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor’s 2019 Suicide Counter Measures White Paper Report, the number one cause of death for people between 10 and 39 years of age is suicide. Another MHWL Report on Workplace Stress revealed that only 6 percent of the survey participants had sought professional help to handle their stress.
SPEAKING UP, HAMMERING DOWN
Misogyny also played a significant role in Hana’s case, and that shouldn’t be surprising in a country that ranks 121 out of the 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s annual gender equality ranking.
In an article in Asahi Shimbun, Tohko Tanaka, a professor of media culture theory at Otsuma Women’s University, wrote, “There is an underlying belief in Japanese society that a ‘woman should be submissive.’ There are people who have a problem with the insolence of women simply speaking up, regardless of the opinions they are expressing.”
One twisted example is that of the singer Kyary Pamyu-Pamyu who dared to tweet her opposition to the infamous Prosecutor’s Office Law Bill that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hoped would put a close crony into a top job. She was only one among many celebrities who voiced their opposition, but she was trolled so viciously that she ended up deleting the tweet and issued an apology. Not content with that, Japan’s misogynist trolls have used the death of Hna Kimura to attack the singer again. They ask her perversely: “What if Abe commits suicide because of your attacks on him?”
In a 2019 survey of Japanese high school girls by Girl Scouts Association Japan, 62 percent said they saw or experienced gender based discrimination in daily life; 46 percent said that on the internet they would “pretend to be a man to express any opinion for fear of backlash.” They also reported seeing quantities of abusive comments towards women on YouTube.
The TV producers should have known that Hana Kimura would be subject to cyber-bullying. She was already an exception from what Japanese society deems to be an ideal woman. She was a strong pro-wrestler who lived by her own moral code and frankly spoke her mind; this seemed to rub the misogynists (and the women who internalize those voices) in all the wrong ways.
The slow but steady attacks gradually deepened her depression.
In another post on social media before she took her own life, she wrote, “Every day, up to a 100 ‘honest’ comments. I can’t say that it didn’t hurt. Die, you’re gross, get lost, things I’ve always thought about myself more than anyone else. Thanks mom for giving birth to me. It was a life of wanting to be loved. Thank you to everyone who supported me by my side. I love you. I’m sorry I’m so weak.”
Ito, the family friend says, “I wonder if she hadn’t been isolated at home, due to the coronavirus lockdown, if things might have been different....”
JACKALS AT THE FUNERAL
Where others see tragedy, some see opportunity. Within days of Hana Kimura’s death, an event that received huge publicity, the Abe administration decided the moment had come to justify restrictions on social media. As reported previously in The Daily Beast, Abe found itself in a tough position after an enormous tweet storm about his gambit to manipulate the prosecutor’s office, and his pole rating had plummeted.
“It is readily apparent that they have taken the death of Hana Kimura as a great opportunity to control what people say,”political scientist and author Jin Igarashi told reporters. “They’re going to classify criticism of the government as cyber bullying and lock down voices of dissent.”
Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi has announced plans for legislation that will make it easy to identify anonymous posters and crack down on social networks within the year.
The brutal irony is that Abe’s sexist, misogynist, homophobic and xenophobic administration has aided and abetted the same hostile behavior toward women that fueled the attacks on Hana in the first place. For all his talk of letting women ‘shine’ in the workplace, all his so called ‘womenomics’ has done is to create trickle-down misogyny. What Japan needs is education on gender equality and tolerance, not a heavy hand on free speech.
Civil liberties lawyer and director of Human Rights Now, Kazuko Ito (no relation to the sports journalist Kanako Ito), says that Japan has missed obvious opportunities to make the internet safer for women. In July 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously adopted a resolution to “accelerate efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls, and preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in digital context.”
Ito notes that even though Japan was one of the countries to propose the resolution, the Abe administration has taken no significant action to support the resolution since then.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741