Terrace House & the Promise to Work Hard

White and Green Logo with "Terrace House" in black print, and Japanese translation below.
It’s quietly captivating

I’ve been somewhat captivated by the Japanese reality show Terrace House over the past year or so, and its popularity here in the US seems to keep growing. Since a few of the seasons dropped to US Netflix, lots of media coverage has discussed the endlessly mundane and yet fascinating ups and downs of the 6 housemates who live together in a beautiful house provided by the show.

While this description sounds like a lot like The Real World or Big Brother, in fact Terrace House is intensely different. It separates itself with a few specific changes to the typical US style reality show. Cast members come and go as they please, often working their part time jobs and visiting family, and they can choose when to leave the show entirely. Over the course of a season, cast members will rotate in and out several times. Each episode is also broken up into small narrative chunks interspersed with a group of celebrities who function as commentator on the action. Like a comedic Greek chorus, they stand in for the viewer and dissect everything that happens, poking fun, making predictions, and generally being petty viewers. It’s by far one of the biggest appeals of the show.

Yet the aspect that perhaps distinguishes Terrace House from nearly every other reality show is its quiet display of the mundane in addition to the larger peaks and valleys of romance and friendship that develop among that house members. The show doesn’t shy away from the back and forth of members making plans to go out, or going shopping to get ingredients for dinner. One scene from the season “Boys and Girls in the City” in 2016 was literally one cast member walking into the living to find another one studying, the two discussing where the AC controls were, and then saying goodbye. Perhaps not riveting, but these smaller interactions give the viewer a sensation of deeper relationships and character development that is nearly cinematic. By sitting through these (very) small moments, the house members reveal themselves over time in ways that feel more satisfying than simply watching them yell at one another. One way these relationships develop is through peer motivation and the encouragement to “work hard.”

I’ve discussed my fascination with a reality show turn of phrase before. Similar to the idea of “expressing yourself,” the phrase “work hard” seems to have a significance that is different from what I might understand the phrase to mean. The characters on Terrace House are all supposed to have a reason for being on the show; for many of them, it seems they are there to advance their careers or gain some publicity, since so many house members are models or aspiring artists of some kind. A common conversation, especially for new members, is “what are your goals/what are you working toward?” This conversation has backfired spectacularly a few times, with one woman reduced to tears because she worked in an office and hadn’t made her dreams come true yet, and one man brought to crying because he felt he had failed to become an actor. While he had put that dream behind him, another member kept telling him he shouldn’t give it up just because he had failed for 7 years to make a career out of it. These are somewhat heavy conversations to have, especially with people you may have only just met!

But for those members who are currently working toward a goal, the encouragement to “work hard” comes up again and again. For instance, the professional snowboarder Taka from the season “Opening New Doors” (probably my favorite character from any season of the show) tells another, younger housemate to shape up by telling him “we can work hard together.” Back to “Boys and Girls in the City,” and Uchi the stylist wonders why his hard work isn’t motivating his girlfriend, Minori, to also work hard at her modeling career. In that same season, aspiring hat designer Arisa works *very* hard to put on her first hat show, and tells her housemates that their help made her “work hard” so she could show them she was worthy of their kindness in helping her get the show ready. There are many more examples throughout the show, but clearly this is a concept that has significance to these individuals, beyond just “get the job done” or “do your best.”

Unfortunately, I do not speak Japanese and so have to rely on the Netflix-provided English subtitles, so I am aware I may be quite wrong in my analysis here, but based on the repeated use of the phrase “work hard” in that English translation, I am sure it expresses something meaningful. My feeble googling leads me to the concept of “Ganbaru” (or Gambaru), which contains the meaning of “perseverance” and “toughing it out.” The website Tofugu, “A Japanese Culture and Language Blog,” has an extensive page on the concept of Ganbaru, which says that the word can be used in different contexts to mean anything from “break a leg!” to “have fun!” However, the blog says the primary contemporary meaning of Ganbaru “implies steadfast determination with the task at hand—that no matter what happens, you stick to your beliefs, despite any obstacles that might arise. It means to ‘stretch’ your current abilities or go outside your comfort zone to achieve your goals.”

Of course I have no idea if the members of Terrace House are even using this specific word or not, but its meaning comes close to what I find so interesting about the show: the idea that the house members rely on each other to achieve goals and sometimes try to set examples for each other by working hard themselves. And for the characters – I’m thinking of the very sweet and smart Handa from “Boys and Girls in the City” – working hard isn’t even enough sometimes, but the satisfaction of trying your best and working with the help of your friends can be a reward in itself.

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