It’s an old refrain in entertainment industries the world over: speak up about harassment and risk losing work, or stay silent and suffer. For voice actors in Japan, experiencing both scenarios — plus the occasional death threat from delusional fans if you’re really unlucky — is almost a given in the industry.
Voice actress Hirano Aya, whose many credits include The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Death Note, and Fairy Tail, knows this firsthand. While the bulk of her work now consists of stage productions, she recently shared on Twitter how she continues to receive death threats and deal with slander whenever she works in anime again .
Fortunately, the police resolved those situations without incident. But it made Hirano want nothing to do with the anime world.
“I want to help preserve these wonderful works for future generations and popularize them abroad as part of our culture, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s healthy to work in situations where I feel my life is in danger because of a faction of radical fans.”Hirano Aya’s Twitter
Hirano’s ordeal is a sober reminder of the toxicity deeply embedded in otaku culture. Yet death threats are just a facet of the overall harassment tainting the voice acting industry. While by no means a new problem, in recent years many voice actors, mostly women, have spoken out about the harassment they’ve endured from fans, colleagues, and superiors — and very rarely are the cards in their favor.
Death Threats Sadly Common
In Hirano’s case, her death threats stretch back over a decade to the height of her career. Vitriol against her rose when rumors of her sexual relations with the male members of her band led to the band’s breakup. Her honesty about her dating preferences on a variety show also angered hardcore otaku enough to destroy their Hirano merchandise .
Unfortunately, we’ve seen how even the whisper of a rumored romance or sexual dalliance can derail an idol’s career. That’s almost what happened to Hirano, who was restricted from taking on new anime roles following the “scandal.” Only after switching to a different agency could Hirano find new work.
Sadly, death threats aren’t uncommon. Ishikawa Yui, the voice of Mikasa Ackerman in Attack on Titan, received a series of anonymous death threats in 2020 that targeted her, her family, and a director at her agency . In 2019, police arrested two people for sending death threats about Ito Ayumi, the voice behind Final Fantasy‘s Tifa Lockhart. One of them allegedly wanted to gouge her eyes out .
In both cases, the threats involved agency staff and disrupted production enough to fall under obstruction of business, an arrestable offense in Japan. But for voice actors without an agency willing to back them up, dealing with harassment is much harder, especially in the workplace.
No Power to Say “No”
Amidst media buzz about anti-harassment legislation that passed in May 2019, Buzzfeed Japan sat down with a veteran voice actress to talk about her experiences with harassment in the industry . According to the anonymous actress Ms. K, “I doubt there’s a female voice actress out there who hasn’t been sexually harassed.”
While she already had an inkling of the industry’s bad reputation prior to entering, she never thought she’d be a target of harassment. “I believed sexual harassment would be aimed at girls much prettier than me.” Ms. K also shared how a lot of clients would say things like “‘You want this job, right? It’s your dream, right?’ and ‘I won’t do anything to you, so let’s go to a hotel.'”
If voice actresses felt like they had no voice before, the #MeToo movement certainly inspired many to take theirs back. In a now-deleted Twitter thread, Enomoto Atsuko admitted to wanting to quit her job only a few years after her debut due to the mental anguish from the power and sexual harassment she endured . She feels she has a duty to look after younger women, just like the senior voice actresses who looked out for her.
Konishi Hiroko also shared how her refusal to join Fruits Basket director Daichi Akitaro in a mixed bathing spring led to losing out on acting roles . She also spoke to the hustle culture and the expectation to “sell yourself” for roles — which often included providing “service” to male staff. The pressure on voice actors to commodity their voice leaves them open to being taken advantage of — and when you’re a freelance contractor, it can be really hard to say no to a job.
No Legal Safety Net
Power harassment, or pawa-hara (パワハラ), was a hot topic in 2019 when revisions to labor law required companies to enforce anti-harassment measures and provide consultation services for workers experiencing harassment. However, the law failed to include freelancers and job seekers, who are some of the most vulnerable groups who need those services most.
In order to compel the government to extend the law to them, acting and freelancer organizations launched a survey to ascertain what kinds of harassment freelance entertainers face . The survey only garnered 828 participants, 13.4% of which were voice actors, but the responses highlighted a grim reality. 60.8% of respondents experienced power harassment, and 35.4% sexual harassment. 40% stated they didn’t tell anyone about their harassment, with 60% stating they felt it wouldn’t make a difference if they did.
This lack of a legal safety net compounds tangential fears over a new tax law publicizing creators’ identities. While voice actors typically work under their real names, many within the industry fear the law will not only encourage more harassment but deter people from pursuing voice acting as a career.
All in all, it’s a dismal picture. Judging by past incidents involving fan harassment, agencies step in if harassment directly interferes with business activities. When it comes to harassment perpetuated by superiors and staff, agencies seem unwilling to side with freelance talent. With anime increasingly rising in popularity, the demand for voice talent is endless. Protecting that talent from all forms of harassment should be a higher priority, and will go a long way toward the sustainability of anime, both for creators and fans.
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