How A Japanese Reality TV Show About Nothing Became A Global Hit

I started watching Terrace House to learn about my motherland and found an international audience that was doing the same.

Even if you've never heard of the Japanese reality TV show Terrace House, you’ll recognize its premise: Six attractive young people live together in a house full of cameras. They fight, hook up, and talk behind each other’s backs. But on Terrace House, all this drama takes place at a much lower volume than it does on American reality shows. Sex, when it happens, stays off-camera and almost always follows weeks of Jane Austen–like courtship, complete with group-engineered alone time and formal confessions of love. Fights — if they can be called that, as they usually happen over inside voices at the dining room table — are just as likely to be about love triangles as about whose dishes are piling up in the bedroom. One of the show’s biggest conflicts, the so-called niku jiken, or “meat incident,” happens when several of the housemates eat the luxury beef one of their friends had been saving in the freezer for a special occasion. The quiet fallout, which includes tears and threatens to break up the season’s first couple, lasts for more than one episode.

“You're almost like, what am I watching? There's nothing here. I just watched 30 minutes of Japanese people being awkward — how do they make this into a show?” says Elliot Gay, a professional video game translator and Japanese pop culture blogger. “But there's something whispering in your ear to keep watching. The lack of anything eventful almost made me want to keep watching to see if anything significant would eventually happen. You have these long stretches of quiet that, in a film or a TV show that's scripted, you would expect to eventually lead to a climax, but on this show, it's almost like it's all build, it's all tease, and you can't get enough of that tease until you get that tiny little moment.”

In short, Terrace House is even more a show about nothing than Seinfeld was in the ’90s. But since Netflix picked it up for a second run, it has slowly been gathering a cult following outside of Japan. The show originally ran from 2012 to 2014 on Fuji Television, and even spawned a feature film, before Netflix signed on as a coproducer to bring it back in 2015. Subtitled Boys & Girls in the City, the first season on Netflix takes place in a fancy, minimalist house in Tokyo and runs for just over a year. During that time, 17 “members” cycle through, always six at a time: three men and three women. (The show may be gentle, but it's not exactly progressive: On top of the gender ratio, which takes for granted that all members will be straight, women also skew younger than men.)

“You're almost like, what am I watching? There's nothing here. I just watched 30 minutes of Japanese people being awkward — how do they make this into a show?”

The first season’s cast includes a tap dancer, a hairstylist, an architect, a hat designer, and several models and actors. They range in age from 18 to 29, and in ambition level from a ballerina who has worked her entire life to turn pro to a self-identified aspiring firefighter who spends a lot of time sleeping on the couch during the day.

They keep up their regular routines while they live at the house, which means we get to see them at work, confiding in non–Terrace House friends — and, once, having dinner with an ex, pleading to get back together. The weight of their dreams and the ordinariness of their lives is both inspiring and unbearable.

Even as the house members break each other’s hearts and steal each other’s food, they mostly look out for each other, showing up for each other’s performances and helping each other through conflicts, which are often clashes of personality: Yuki, the ambitious tap dancer, badgers the more laid-back Mizuki about her career goals until she cries; or Natsumi, blunt bordering on callous, teases the sensitive Misaki in front of the guy she’s trying to impress. One of the most popular members of Boys & Girls in the City, Han-san, becomes something of a legend among housemates and viewers alike because of his mediation skills. He takes some of the edge off Natsumi, for example, gently holding her accountable for her actions while encouraging her to apologize. In the end, regardless of the drama, when each member leaves the house, it’s with a friendly and bittersweet send-off.

This collaborative dynamic is not an accident of casting but a deliberate goal on the part of the producers. “Terrace House pays particular attention to subtleties in the daily lives of the cast,” says Kaata Sakamoto, content manager at Netflix Japan and one of the executive producers of the current season of Terrace House. “Instead of scandalous affairs, fistfights, or verbal abuse, you see more incremental changes in their relationships as well as their hopes and dreams beyond romantic pursuits. To that end, you’ll also notice that the show abstains from using dramatic music and sound effects to emphasize conflicts. The show does use songs, which makes for a more easygoing viewing experience.”

While an “easygoing" approach to reality TV might be new to Americans, it’s typical in Japan. “Terrace House is definitely a window into the Japanese style of reality TV, which is less about creating drama and more about creating camaraderie. The American style of boxing up people in artificial situations until they explode simply isn’t done here,” says Matt Alt, whose company, AltJapan, produces English versions of Japanese video games and other media. A 14-year resident of Japan, Alt also cohosts the NHK World show Japanology Plus and has written about Japanese pop culture for The New Yorker. “Don’t get the wrong idea that Japanese viewers are zombies. They just don’t get off on edgy, aggressive interpersonal dramas in the way Americans seem to.”

The order and sweetness of Terrace House are major parts of its draw for audiences outside Japan. If conflict-based American reality shows provide a roller coaster ride of agitation, Terrace House is the kind of show viewers can turn to for a vicarious sense of accomplishment and calm.

“I think with all the crazy politics in our country right now, it’s a nice respite, almost a suspended reality,” says Naomi Hirahara, a fan of the show and a mystery novelist whose six-book series, the Mas Arai Mysteries, follows an elderly Japanese-American gardener-slash-detective through the underbelly of Los Angeles. “I don’t necessarily see it as an escape, but a time to rest my aching head and lick my wounds. There are activities that would never happen here — the women, with the exception of the episodes with the male chef, are expected to cook and make beautiful bentos. [A] ketchup message on an omelette actually precipitates some movement in the romance department. Americans not exposed to Japanese culture would think it’s crazy. But I get it.”

Like Hirahara, I got into Terrace House because I’m Japanese-American and curious about Japan. But as I fell in love with the show and began looking for others to talk about it with, I found that we were far from alone. Even though the show has yet to really gain traction in the United States, the people who like it are obsessed with it — even those outside of their twenties, or without a connection to Japan. On Reddit, a group of over 4,000 fans trade theories, analyze house members’ social media posts, and share fan art in the form of parody videos and alignment charts. Like the show, many of their comments are sweet and encouraging, defending their underrated favorite house members or rooting for alums in their post–Terrace House careers. “I really wish he would have some social media, I loved him in TH!” writes one Redditor about Yuuki Byrnes, a dancer with the personality of a golden retriever. “Hopefully he’s successful doing whatever he’s doing.”

Even Netflix Japan has been surprised by the eagerness of fans outside of Japan. “Since Terrace House offers a wonderful glimpse into modern Japanese culture, we certainly felt the show would be of strong interest to overseas viewers,” says Sakamoto. “Amazingly, the show has exceeded our expectations in terms of international viewership.” (Netflix doesn’t publicly release its viewer data.)

“I think with all the crazy politics in our country right now, it’s a nice respite, almost a suspended reality.”

In an article for Wired, Davey Alba argues that shows like Terrace House represent the future of Netflix: By picking up shows already popular in their native region, the company captures an established local audience. But if they can get international audiences addicted to these same shows, they essentially become the world’s only dealer of what Alba refers to, invoking no small amount of colonialism, as “obscure overseas morsel[s].”

Earnest Pettie, brand and diversity curation lead at YouTube, envisions a future of TV like this too. He says his job is to “watch things and know things.” He found Terrace House while deep-diving on Netflix. “Because I'm a contrarian at heart, I don't like to just take what gets served up to me,” he said, “so I have these jags where I just will start popping through related movies and series to get deeper into the offerings that Netflix has. For a while I was really getting into foreign Netflix-produced series because I was thinking when I was younger there were these people who were like, ‘I only watch documentaries and foreign films.’ In my mind, the next iteration of that is going to be ‘I only watch foreign Netflix series.’"

In my own life, searching for Terrace House fans has been an exercise in degrees of separation: an old classmate, a friend’s boyfriend, a former coworker’s mom, my mom’s coworker. Described in a list, they sound like a season’s quirky cast: a Peace Corps alum, an amateur MMA fighter, a retiree. Terrace House fans, to totally abuse a Rilke quote, exist in a set of widening circles that expand across the world.

I learned about Terrace House for the first time from my go-to “Japanese stuff” friend, the one with whom I exchange recommendations for Japanese and Japanese-American restaurants, movies, and stores. One of the first times we hung out, we ate udon in LA’s Little Tokyo and saw Miwa Yanagi’s play Zero Hour, which I reviewed for the local Japanese-American community newspaper where I worked at the time. We both grew up with Japanese parents (or in my case, parent: My mom is from Japan; my dad, the US). Though we grew up with different levels of Japanese cultural exposure and language fluency, we both find ourselves, as adults, deeply interested in the country that gave us our parents and our names.

Still, when this friend recommended Terrace House to me, I was skeptical. Aside from shows like What Not to Wear and Project Runway, I’d never really gotten into reality TV. As the oldest of three, I grew up with the strictest version of my parents’ rules. Not only was my mom inherently suspicious of movie theaters, she also hated anything that even hinted at sex. When Heath Ledger knocked Julia Stiles over into the hay at the end of the paintball scene in 10 Things I Hate About You and kissed her, their faces smeared with paint, my mom shouted from behind the couch, “That’s disgusting!” Dawson’s Creek was banned in our house. I only saw movies like American Pie at sleepovers with friends. And MTV shows like Real World were the worst of the worst in my mom’s eyes.

By the time I left home for college, my mom had softened her standards, partly because she learned that my younger brothers had been sneaking cult horror movies home from Blockbuster and watching them in the middle of the night for years. Once she realized how many times they’d seen Ichi the Killer, there was no longer any point in pretending she could control what we watched. Ironically, with all of us at school full-time, she’d also begun watching TV during the day and getting hooked on shows that had formerly been on her “disgusting” list, shows like Charmed, and even Dawson’s Creek. But by the time I arrived at this newfound freedom, I wasn’t all that curious about reality TV anymore. Living in a dorm made shows like Real World much less fascinating compared to all the drama playing out around me every day. When my friends and I binge-watched TV shows, we picked ones that had less to do with our lives, like Desperate Housewives, which we watched through the dark Vermont winter, switching from one clunky laptop to another when we hit our time limits on MegaVideo.

But apart from my lack of experience with reality TV, there was another reason why I hesitated to watch Terrace House: I was afraid to immerse myself in a world of Japanese people roughly my own age. For those who have grown up in the United States without close ties to another country, this might sound like a strange, even ridiculous fear. To me, though, Japan has always been a source of complicated and conflicting emotions.

My mom moved to Los Angeles from Osaka in the ’70s at the age of 22, and I only visited her home country twice before college. During both these times, I was too young to remember anything beyond a hazy montage of sliding paper doors, narrow alleyways, and my grandfather’s friendly face. I grew up hearing my mom’s stories of Japan — and not just the folk tales she read us, in which baby boys were born from peaches and teakettles turned into badgers, but also her own memories, which sounded even more mystical to me because they were real to her: subway rides to school and her great-grandfather, the Shinto priest, and the feeling of spirits (including her own mother’s) “in the air.”

The first time I went to Japan in college, for a monthlong student conference after my freshman year, I stayed with a family for a couple nights in the countryside of Akita. Located in the Tohoku region, Akita is not far from Sendai, where the March 11 earthquake and tsunami would kill over 15,000 people four years later. As my host mom showed me around the small family farm, before I could catch myself, I burst into tears. Something about the landscape — the pale green trees, the cicadas, the musty smell of drainage ditches (whose closest American equivalent I’ve found near the San Francisco Bay Area, or outside laundromat vents) — felt innately familiar yet impossibly distant.

I used to think this was my own psychological hang-up, the result of an anxious personality and a childhood spent moving from place to place, until a friend told me that she felt the same way: She had to be in the right frame of mind even to open those clickbait listicles of sakura photos. They were so beautiful, she told me, it hurt to look at them. When I finally told my mom about this, she said, “You guys feel that way too? I thought it was just me.”

If I started watching Terrace House and, through it, opened the window into twentysomething life in Japan, I worried that I might see something more painful than the longest sakura listicle Bored Panda could offer. I worried that my desire to understand might completely dwarf my actual ability to do it.

But once I started watching, my fears, though not unfounded, did not materialize.

In the first episode of Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City, six strangers walk into that fancy, minimalist house in Tokyo, one by one, and take seats in a monochromatic, grayscale living room. The pace is almost excruciatingly slow, with no background music. In the quietest moments, you can hear the members breathe or the cicadas chirp outside in the early-autumn heat. As each new house member arrives, the ones who were already there ask the same set of questions: How old are you? What do you do? Are you nervous?

Once everyone has arrived, they explore and admire the house, pick their beds via rock-paper-scissors, and decide what to do about dinner. Amid the slow-paced mundanity, the funniest or most dramatic moments are still minor: Uchi, the tallest guy in the group, claims the top bunk before realizing he’s too tall to sit up there comfortably. Yuki, the tap dancer, asks if he can expect the women to take care of the cooking. All the women realize they’re interested in the same man (and — no spoiler here — it’s not Yuki).

If Terrace House were only about the people in the house, it would be easy to see it as a more innocent version of Real World and make a one-to-one comparison that supports existing stereotypes of Americans as charismatic assholes and Japanese people as considerate prudes. But there’s another component of Terrace House besides the house itself: Three times per episode, the show cuts to an in-studio panel made up of six commentators, most of them comedians or actors, who talk through what just happened in the house.

Pettie cites the switch from the house to the panel in the first episode as the moment he was truly pulled into Terrace House. “Because my expectations for reality shows weren't met, that was kind of an abrupt and shocking thing to have happen,” he says. “But also completely enjoyable, and it aligns for me with this thing that's popular on YouTube, which is reaction videos.” Like a reaction video, or a comments section or snark forum, you check it out to see if someone else has voiced your thoughts — or just said something absurdly entertaining. PBS Ideas also compares the panel to a Let’s Play, which is basically a niche reaction video that lets you watch someone else play a video game, while they narrate throughout.

But while the panel requires all this contextualizing in the US, it’s familiar in Japan. Celebrity panels are a staple of the popular Japanese genre of variety shows, a category wide enough to include everything from Iron Chef (which began in Japan, also produced by Fuji Television) to the shows I watched with my host family that included bits like men dressed in grasshopper suits, leaping at a Velcro wall. As Matt Alt of AltJapan describes them, “Japanese variety shows are designed to make the viewer feel as though they are a silent participant in a group of old friends who are hanging out and having a good time.”

Terrace House is definitely a window into the Japanese style of reality TV, which is less about creating drama and more about creating camaraderie."

On Terrace House, having six familiar faces to count on gives the show continuity even as the house members change. There’s also enough of a range among the panelists — Pettie calls it “the boy band dynamic” — that you’ll likely relate with at least one of them.

For Hirahara, who describes herself as a middle-aged Japanese-American “dai-fan,” or huge fan, of Terrace House, that person is You, a 52-year-old actor and singer and one of the panel’s most vocal contributors. “It’s interesting that they are intergenerational,” says Hirahara. “The oldest female panelist is middle-aged like me, so I don’t feel like a fool being mesmerized by the daily lives of these young people. In a way, it’s like going back to our younger, more innocent days.”

While the housemates are polite, approaching their love lives with formality and caution (“It takes half a season for people to hold hands!” says Pettie), the panel has no such patience. Their commentary is raunchy, cynical, invasive, and yet also friendly. More importantly, they help keep this international show from becoming easy fuel for generalizing about or misunderstanding Japan.

“What’s interesting for me is how they explain cultural and emotional and personal nuances ,” says Johnny Garces, a fan who binge-watched the 46 episodes of Boys & Girls in the City in one week after learning about it from a Japanese stranger at a coffee shop. “I’m like, wait, is that a Japanese thing? Oh no no no, that’s just an awkward Terashima thing.” (And if you watch the show, you’ll find out for yourself just how awkward Terashima is.)

On Reddit, fans also share what they’ve learned about Japanese culture, through both the house members and the panel. Any lingering questions, they ask each other: What’s the food that was still moving on the plate? Why do members mostly but not always add “-chan” to each other’s names? What is that word that sounds like an impression of a bumblebee?

Gay, the video game translator who called Terrace House “30 minutes of Japanese people being awkward,” also discussed how the panel can feel like an answer key, turning the in-house scenes into a game of finding the minute dramas that might merit discussion in the studio. “It's an exercise in trying to read between the lines,” he says. “When we went abroad our junior year, people kept telling us, ‘You have to learn to read between the lines,’ like when someone says, ‘Hey, won't you be cold in that?’ they're trying to tell you you're way underdressed. And you sort of have to puzzle your way through those human interactions.”

In Japan, this skill is valued, and if you don’t have it, there’s a special phrase for you: kuuki yomenai, or “can’t read the air.” Reading the air is like reading the room, if that room were your entire society. It means knowing how much to fill your rice bowl for a guest, how formally to speak, and what to keep to yourself. As a Japanese-American, I can read the air only sometimes, and the same is true for Gay, who lived in Japan for six years and identifies as African-American and Asian-American.

And like our experiences, Terrace House raises questions about what it means to be Japanese, especially in its current season, called Terrace House: Aloha State. Filmed in Hawaii, Aloha State has a different feel than Boys & Girls in the City. Part of this has to do with the location, part to do with the editing, which feels a little more manipulative this time. But the cast itself is also different: Of the first six people who live in the house, four are part Japanese and two have no Japanese heritage at all. Several house members switch back and forth between Japanese and English, reverting in especially emotional moments to the language they’re most comfortable with. For many of them, physical appearances don’t tell the whole story: Naomi, for example, who has wavy, light-brown hair, says, in Japanese, that she is “super Tokyo.” In her words, I recognize my own tendency to preemptively identify myself, knowing that if I don’t, others will do it for me.

Ultimately, Terrace House is just a fluffy reality show, but by offering a double-layered view of Japan, it gives a deeper look into Japanese culture than a show with a single-layer format could.

On Reddit, commenters have noted that because the cast and atmosphere are “more western,” even “barely Japanese,” the new season is less compelling to watch, and I can’t help but bristle at these descriptions, with their built-in assumptions about how Japaneseness can and can’t look. As much as I loved the cast and the Tokyo setting of Boys & Girls in the City, Aloha State reflects a version of Japanese identity I grew up seeing — not just in my family but in those around us: the businessmen and their families who followed their companies to Silicon Valley temporarily, returning to Japan after a few years; the fourth-generation kids whose great-grandparents came to the US in the early 1900s; the international travelers who moved from country to country, their accents building upon each other like watercolors.

Ultimately, Terrace House is just a fluffy reality show, but by offering a double-layered view of Japan (essentially coming with a built-in critical recap), it gives a deeper look into Japanese culture than a show with a single-layer format could. Meanwhile, as its cast begins to mirror its international distribution, it highlights a truth of globalization: that you can’t move popular culture across borders without expecting people to move and mix as well. As Terrace House gives the world a look at Japanese culture, that culture is simultaneously changing. It looks like a couple going to a festival in yukata, cotton summer kimonos. It looks like Yuuki dancing hip-hop and Momoka dancing ballet. It looks like Japan-raised Taishi dreaming of Hollywood and America-raised Lauren dreaming of Tokyo, their aspirations fanned by the media they grew up consuming.

As I watched Terrace House, with my own baggage about Japan, I felt grateful to live in a time of accessible international TV — not because the show told me anything definitive about Japan, but because it reminded me that no single story would provide me with any kind of complete answer to my endless questions about my motherland, which for those of us in the diaspora will always be part inaccessible myth anyway.

But I did find some small answers: During the time I spent binge-watching Terrace House, I started thinking in Japanese for the first time since I lived in Kyoto. The rhythms of the language flowed through my head in a way they hadn’t in years, if ever. I spoke my thoughts out loud, glad to have the words again. ●

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