TOKYO – From the outside, Yuko Takeuchi appeared 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 favorite last year, promoting a top ramen brand.
Ms. Takeuchi, 40, died in an apparent suicide late last month. Nobody can be sure of the private torments lurking beneath the surface, but in a Japanese society that values gaman – perseverance or self-denial – many feel the pressure to hide their personal struggles. The burden increases for celebrities, whose professional success depends on the projection of a flawless ideal.
Ms. Takeuchi is the latest in a line of Japanese film and television stars to have committed suicide 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 and left 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 Ms. Kimura, none of the other celebrities who died in suicide had shown any public signs of emotional distress.
Her death was confirmed by an alarming surge in suicides among the Japanese public during the coronavirus pandemic after a decade of hard-won declines from some of the highest rates in the world. Authorities reported a nearly 16 percent increase in suicides in August year over year, with the number of teenage girls and women between the ages of 20 and 30 increasing 74 percent.
“As a society, we feel that we cannot show our weaknesses, that we have to hold onto everything,” said Yasuyuki Shimizu, director of the Japan Suicide Countermeasures Promotion Center. “It is not just that people feel that they cannot go to a counselor or therapist, but many feel that they cannot even show their weaknesses to the people they are close to.”
Other tribes are more universal. The Japanese, like many others, bow to the ruthless demands of social media in which people feel they have to nurture a tale of eternal success and happiness. “This can definitely be a reason to turn into depression,” Shimizu said when your reality doesn’t match someone else’s curated portrait.
Aside from social media, the Japanese also tend to project a positive public front. There is a strict separation between “Uchi” (at home or inside) and “Soto” (outside), with emotions – especially messy – restricted to privacy.
People also feel that they need to obey rules and not stand out in a way that might be perceived as a burden to others.
During the pandemic, this social tendency actually helped the country avoid a surge in cases and deaths as the public followed suggestions about wearing masks, avoiding crowded interiors, and practicing good hygiene and social distancing without a strict lockdown was imposed.
“In that sense, not so good quality was an advantage,” said Toshihiko Matsumoto, director of the drug addiction center at the National Center for Neurology and Psychiatry at the Mental Health Institute. “However, it also means that when it comes to mental health, people don’t seek help and want to stand out from the crowd.”
But help is exactly what many people needed during the pandemic: Some lost their jobs or experienced drastic changes in their job, while many others were unable to spend time with friends or were excluded from visiting extended families.
Women in particular have found themselves in stressful situations. During the time when schools were closed and many employees were working from home, families were crammed into small houses.
While some men who suddenly spent more time at home took care of housework and childcare, others left most of it to their wives. “There are women at home with husbands who work at home and this can be very suffocating for women,” said Dr. Matsumoto.
In the 1990s, after a devastating economic recession caused hundreds of thousands of layoffs, suicides increased dramatically in Japan as most middle-aged men got their lives out of the shame and stress of sudden unemployment.
Now the pressures have increased on women, an increasing proportion of whom balance work and personal life. The stress could lead to more suicides among women, said Junko Kitanaka, a medical anthropologist at Keio University.
For celebrities, normal social pressures can be compounded by the expectations of millions of fans.
And unlike the United States, where celebrities are now speaking more openly about seeking psychological help, such behavior is largely taboo in Japan, which, despite some improvements, has slowed the development of mental health services.
“If you are in the spotlight and the media found out that you were getting mental health support, it would be bad for you and your career,” said Tamaki Tsuda, a television producer. “Once you go out because of a mental illness, this is the image that will stick to your brand forever. And when that happens, there will be fewer and fewer vacancies. “
The pandemic was especially harsh for those in show business as television and movie production was suspended or changed due to virus protection protocols.
“People in the entertainment industry lost their appearances immediately when the coronavirus hit, so it was an extreme blow,” said Ms. Tsuda. “Many of these actors have received empty schedules from their management companies in recent months.”
Even a temporary hiatus from work can stir up uncertainty about losing to a new group of performers waiting to be coined as the newest stars.
“Unfortunately, because of the Japanese mentality, we have a tendency to blame ourselves,” said Hiromichi Shizume, another television producer. The entertainers think, “Maybe I won’t get hired because I’m not good enough.”
Still, public sympathy can be limited, with stars quickly being criticized for any behavior that fans deem inadequately grateful for their fame. Even in death, Ms. Takeuchi, the award-winning actress, was sentenced, including references to her wealth and material comfort.
“As usual until recently, everything was fine,” wrote one person on Twitter. “Would you commit suicide and leave two children behind? Such an irresponsible person cannot be a great actress. It’s not even like she has financial problems or chronic illnesses. “
“Yuko Takeuchi’s apartment rented 1.85 million yen,” or about $ 17,600. “Does that mean money can’t make us happy?”
Speaking at a press conference the day after her death, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Kato, said he was concerned that reports of celebrity suicides could lead others to take their own lives.
“To keep people from feeling isolated with their own worries, we need to work together to build a society where we can support and watch each other,” he said.
Suicide experts said they were suspicious 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 of any Japanese government plan, there is no specific plan.” She added, “We cannot change society in a day.”
If you are thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. In Japan, call TELL Lifeline at 03-5774-0992 or go to telljp.com/lifeline/.