The Japanese Netflix reality show Terrace House, now in its fourth season, is still mostly a cult concern in the U.S. But its popularity has steadily gained off the back of an increasing backlog of “the nicest reality show you’ll ever see” buzzpieces in most every major pop-culture publication out there. And yes, Terrace House is a very nice reality show. Its relaxed tempo and emphasis on the mundanities of co-living make it both a detox from the lurid forced drama of American reality TV for stateside viewers, as well as a fascinating cultural study.
A new batch of episodes of Opening New Doors, the current series set in the picturesque resort town of Karuizawa, arrived on U.S. Netflix on July 31, and devotees, including yours truly, wasted no time gobbling them up. The main event was culmination of the slow-burn love story between hockey player Tsubasa Sato and hafu model Sean Okamoto that has been the skin-crawlingly adorable heart of Opening New Doors. But no sooner had Sean and Tsubasa become an official item, than they departed the house “as a couple,” and their sweet, supportive energy was replaced by a vibe that’s harder to write off as adorable Japanese fluff.
On the final episode of the most recent batch, 31-year-old model and Terrace House veteran Seina Shimabukuro went out for a birthday dinner with 28-year-old “city pop” crooner Shohei Uemura. It was their third solo hang, after their first date making soba noodles and second date picking strawberries (a conscious attempt for the two theretofore drinking buddies to hang out while sober). Shohei, having decided with rather alarming expediency after the departure of housemate Ami Komuro that Seina would be his next crush, had been pulling out all the stops — gushing to her about how beautiful she is with a kind of aggressive insistence, making bento lunches for her. Seina, the house diva, wine connoisseur, and the most TV-savvy of anyone in the house, seemed amused at best by Shohei’s advances — down for whatever, but certainly not with an eye toward romance. She told Tsubasa after her second date with Shohei that she thinks he’s “a little too goody two-shoes,” and that she prefers a man who “takes the lead.”
One bizarre aspect of Terrace House is that the turnaround time is fast enough in Japan that the housemates can watch their own episodes, albeit with a few weeks’ delay. This means that, despite its Western reputation as the supposed least self-aware reality show on TV, it’s actually far more self-aware than most. I am not sure if Shohei had seen that specific conversation with Tsubasa by the time he took Seina out on her birthday, or if he just witnessed the overall lack of heat between them on their earlier, more innocent outings. Whatever his inspiration, as the two wait for a cab outside the restaurant after dinner, Shohei reaches around Seina while she’s mid-sentence and looking away from him, grabs her jaw, and pulls her to him forcibly for a kiss.
There’s a shocked pause for a while, then Seina puts up a hand and pushes him away, shaking with laughter. “Eh—!?” she blurts out — an exclamatory form of “What?” — staring at him incredulously. She’s smiling, but it’s a smile of mortification, not girlish surprise. She covers her face and the opening credits roll, the bright dance-rock theme song “Trying” contrasting wildly with what we’ve just witnessed.
It should be mentioned here that awkward kisses are a bit of a hallmark of Terrace House. It’s hard to top the false-start kiss between Uchi and Minori on the Boys & Girls in the City series; both times, the hopelessly unsmooth Uchi instructs Minori to “close her eyes” as he grabs her chin and pulls her toward him. The first time he tries it in front of her roommates; it’s so horrible that they evacuate the premises instantly, instinctively wanting no part of that scene. He basically does the same move on his second try, but by then Minori’s convinced herself she’s into it, and production supplies the scene with a romantic backing track to affirm that what is happening is a good thing. (Still questionable, seeing as what awful bores the two became after they coupled up, but at least they’re consensual bores.)
It’s easy to mistake Shohei’s awful headlock move as another awkward Terrace House kiss, but as Seina’s reaction plays out, it’s clear that this was outside the bounds of the show’s stilted style of courtship. Seina’s typical normal movie-star smile has evacuated her face as they wait in silence for the cab. She has a (self-perpetuated, unapologetic, and frankly rather wonderful) reputation as a bit of a lush — outspoken and occasionally crude, and a welcome contrast to the more naif-ish young women who pass through the various Terrace Houses. So when that persona falls away, it’s very noticeable. Back at the house, as the roommates question them about their date, Seina stays hunched by the fireplace, her back to Shohei, giving short answers with a polite smile. She looks around the room in a manner that I have absolutely no authority to interpret, but couldn’t help but remind me of the various cast members of The Truman Show, searching for the nearest hidden camera into which to direct their silent plea for intervention.
When something happens on Terrace House that seems ambiguous or inscrutable, one of the show’s greatest assets is its panel of commentators, a peanut gallery of comedians and celebrities who dissect each segment with a frankness that is sometimes refreshing, sometimes absurd and puerile. (I normally love all the hosts, but they’ve been on thin ice with me this season, lately just over their obsession with swimsuit model Mayu’s “assets”.) But their read on Seina and Shohei’s date couldn’t have been more different than mine: Yoshimi Tokui, the excitable father figure of the group, reenacts Seina’s freaked-out fireplace demeanor as a lustful gaze into the distance; resident troll Ryota Yamasato called it her “womanly side.” Reina Triendl was the only commentator to suggest that Seina might not have liked the kiss, but then conceded that, since we later learn Shohei kissed her two more times in the cab, she “must have been okay with it.” To a Western viewer, these comments sound like they come from another planet, one where there is no public discourse about sexual assault, no #MeToo movement. Which is more or less an accurate description of Japan, despite a lot of progress in recent decades in overall cultural respect for women.
It’s hard to know how to talk about what happened to Seina, given the lack of English-language coverage of the show. (The Terrace House subreddit, on the other hand, has been going off, and largely landing on the opinion that what happened was nonconsensual and clueless of Shohei at best.) Scanning the cast members’ social-media accounts I see no obvious acknowledgement of the events of the show, aside from a tweet from Shohei on the Japanese airdate that basically amounts to a collar tug. Seina, dutiful brand ambassador that she is, merely retweeted a recap of the show sans comment, and then resumed tweeting about the outfits and makeup she wore in the episode. Her Instagram shows a photo of them on their date, with a caption thanking him for the birthday celebration. The comments are overflowing, but most of the outcry over Shohei’s behavior comes from English-language commenters.
But it’s harder for me to stop at the conclusion that it’s merely a matter of cultural interpretation, and that if neither party made any comment about it, it wasn’t assault. There isn’t really space for public figures, even those as seemingly inconsequential as reality stars, to discuss such issues in public. Journalist Shiori Ito made headlines when she wrote about being drugged and raped by Shinzo Abe biographer Noriyuki Yamaguchi last year, but she was far more of an outlier in the discourse than similar women in the States who have come out with similar allegations, and the ensuing widespread conversation has not taken off with the same speed and urgency in Japan that it has here. Being associated with anything so sordid can permanently tarnish the career of an aspiring entertainer, regardless of each party’s innocence or guilt. And since Seina, a self-described “drunk old lady” (reminder, she is 31 years old), is not exactly seen as a blushing rose, any blame for such an incident would likely be pinned on her and her “loose behavior.”
I’ve enjoyed my summer of Terrace House immensely, but for me, it’s been equal parts the tranquil brain vacation it’s advertised as, and a chance to get back in touch with all the things that still suck about Japanese culture. The girls’ physical appearances — including a cosmetic procedure Seina gets at one point — are fair game to dissect and mock in minute detail. Their breasts, noses, and eyes and teeth are discussed at length. But nobody comments about what a dork Shohei looks like with his stupid mustache and his protruding ears. Yama-san’s comment about Seina’s “womanly look” isn’t just a difference in facial readings from one culture to another — there is implicit understanding that “ravaged = womanly” — it’s the desultory pout of a Western porn star with way more explicit rape culture at work. Later in the girls’ room, Seina recounts the evening, admitting, “It did feel manly” — the very quality she said she had been looking for. But then she pauses, closing her eyes, and furrowing her brow. “I’m just really shocked,” she mumbles. Yui, the youngest and most virginal of the female cast members (not my take; everyone, including the commentators, talks about how virginal she is), presses for more details, hearing a starry-eyed fairy tale when Seina is describing a nightmare. What’s troubling is that, if nobody addresses it and Shohei continues to go through life headlocking girls, Yui’s read on things may very well wind up being canon.