The pressure to be perfect turns deadly for celebrities in Japan

Japanese actress Yuko Takeuchi died late last month, apparently in a suicide. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (NYTIMES) - From the outside, Yuko Takeuchi seemed to have a golden life. She had won Japan's top acting award three times and had recently given birth to her second child. A graceful beauty, she appeared in a box-office favourite last year and advertisements for a top ramen brand.

Takeuchi, 40, died late last month, apparently in a suicide.

No one can fully know what private torment might have lurked beneath the surface, but in a Japanese society that values "gaman" - endurance or self-denial - many feel pressure to hide their personal struggles.

The burden is compounded for celebrities whose professional success depends on projecting a flawless ideal.

Takeuchi is the latest in a succession of Japanese film and television stars who have taken their own lives this year.

Her death came less than two weeks after the suicide of another actress, Sei Ashina, 36, and two months after Haruma Miura, 30, a popular television actor, was found dead in his home, leaving a suicide note.

Earlier this year, Hana Kimura, a professional wrestler and star of Terrace House, a reality show, took her own life after relentless bullying on social media.

Aside from Kimura, none of the other celebrities who died in suicides had shown any public signs of emotional distress.

Their deaths have been echoed by an alarming rise in suicides within Japan's general public during the coronavirus pandemic, after a decade of hard-won decline from some of the highest rates in the world.

Authorities reported a nearly 16 per cent increase in suicides in August compared with a year earlier, with the number spiking by 74 per cent among teenage girls and women in their 20s and 30s.

"As a society, we feel like we cannot show our weaknesses, that we must hold all of it in," said Yasuyuki Shimizu, director of the Japan Suicide Countermeasures Promotion Centre.

"It's not just that people feel like they can't go to a counsellor or a therapist, but many feel like they cannot even show their weaknesses to the people they are close to."

The reasons for any individual suicide are complex. And many of the strains felt by the Japanese are universal: They, like many others, feel the ruthless demands of social media, where people feel they must cultivate a narrative of eternal success and happiness.

"This can definitely be a cause for spiralling into a depression" if your reality does not match someone else's curated portrait, Shimizu said.

Even away from social media, the Japanese tend to project a positive public front. There is a strict division between "uchi" (the home or inside) and "soto" (outside), with emotions - particularly messy ones - restricted to the private sphere.

People also feel that they must conform to rules and not stand out in ways that could be perceived as burdening others.

During the pandemic, this social tendency has actually helped the country avoid a surge in cases and deaths, because the public followed suggestions about wearing masks, avoiding crowded indoor venues, and practising good hygiene and social distancing without the imposition of a strict lockdown.

"So in this sense, a not-so-great quality was an advantage," said Toshihiko Matsumoto, director of the drug addiction centre at the National Centre of Neurology and Psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health.

"However, this also means that in terms of mental health, people don't want to seek help and stick out from the crowd."

Yet help is exactly what many people have needed during the pandemic: Some have lost work or experienced drastic changes in their jobs, while many others have been unable to spend time with friends or have been cut off from visiting extended family.

Women, especially, have been thrown into stressful situations. During the period when schools were closed and many employees worked from home, families were crammed together in small homes.

While some men who have suddenly spent more time at home have pitched in on housework and child care, others have still left the bulk of it to their wives.

"There are women at home with husbands working at home, and this can be very suffocating for the women," Matsumoto said.

In the 1990s, after a devastating economic recession caused hundreds of thousands of layoffs, suicides in Japan began to rise dramatically as mostly middle-aged men took their lives out of the shame and stress of sudden unemployment.

Now strains have been growing on women, an increasing proportion of whom are juggling work and home life.

The stress may be translating into more suicides among women, said Junko Kitanaka, a medical anthropologist at Keio University.

For celebrities, the normal societal pressures can be magnified by the expectations of millions of fans.

And unlike in the United States, where celebrities now talk more openly about seeking out psychological help, such behaviour is largely taboo in Japan, which has been slower to develop mental health services, despite some improvement.

"If you are a person in the spotlight and the media finds out that you are receiving mental health support, that would play badly for you and your career," said Tamaki Tsuda, a television producer.

"If you go out once for mental illness, that's the image that will be tacked on to your brand forever. And when that happens, fewer and fewer job offers will come in."


  • • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

    • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

    • Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222

    • Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928

    • Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788

    • Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800

The pandemic has been particularly tough for those in show business, as television and film production has been suspended or altered because of virus protection protocols.

"People in the entertainment industry lost their gigs in an instant when the coronavirus hit, so it's been an extreme blow," Tsuda said.

"A lot of these actors were given blank schedules over the past few months from their management companies."

Even a temporary halt in work can fuel insecurity about losing out to a new crop of performers waiting to be minted as the latest stars.

"Unfortunately, with the Japanese mentality, we have the tendency to blame ourselves," said Hiromichi Shizume, another television producer.

The entertainers think "'maybe I'm not getting hired because I'm not good enough.'"

Still, public sympathy can be limited, with stars quickly criticised for any behaviour that fans deem insufficiently grateful for their celebrity.

Even in death, Takeuchi, the award-winning actress, has been subjected to condemnation, including references to her wealth and material comfort.

"As usual until just before, everything was fine," one person wrote on Twitter.

"Would you commit suicide leaving two children behind? Such an irresponsible person cannot be a big actress. It's not even like she had financial issues or chronic illness."

"The rent of Yuko Takeuchi's apartment cost 1.85 million yen," or about S$24,005, another posted. "Does this mean that money can't make us happy?"

At a news conference the day after her death, Katsunobu Kato, chief Cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, said he was concerned that reports of the celebrity suicides themselves might prompt others to take their lives.

"In order for people not to feel isolated with their own worries, we must work together to build a society where we can warmly support and watch over each other," he said.

Experts on suicide said they were wary of vague government promises.

"They say we should create a society where nobody feels lonely," said Michiko Ueda, a professor of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo who has researched suicide.

"But as is typical with any Japanese government plan, there is no concrete plan." She added: "We can't change society in one day."

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