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EDITORIAL | Death at Takarazuka: Probe If Bad Traditions Played a Role

The parents of the victim claim that their daughter's death was caused by long work hours and bullying by seniors in the Takarazuka troupe.

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The Takarazuka Revue's Grand Theater continues to cancel performances. The gates and theater doors were closed, and signs announcing the cancellation were posted on the afternoon of November 14 in Takarazuka City, Hyogo Prefecture (© Sankei by Miyako Nagumo)

Trigger warning: This article about a death at Takarazuka contains references to suicide.

The Takarazuka Revue has announced the results of an investigation by a panel of outside lawyers into a 25-year-old woman's sudden death in September. She was a member of the famous all-female musical performance troupe. 

Her bereaved family demanded an apology and compensation. They claim that their daughter's suicide was caused by long work hours and power harassment by seniors in the troupe.

Takarazuka management agreed that the woman had been overworked. They said, however, that they could not confirm that she had been subjected to bullying or power harassment. The views of the two parties remain far apart on this question. 

Lawyers representing the bereaved family have called the findings and assessment provided by the company unreasonable. They are demanding a reinvestigation of the death. 

Takarazuka Revue Company Chairman Kenshi Koba apologizes at a November 14 press conference in Takarazuka City. To his right is managing director Koji Murakami, who replaced Koba. (© Sankei by Kan Emori)

Understanding the Takarazuka Hierarchy

Under the Takarazuka system, a student signs a contract that obligates her to work for five years after graduating from the Takarazuka Music School (Takarazuka Ongaku Gakko). Typically, young girls are admitted to the school from age 15 to 18. 

From the sixth year, a Takarazuka Revue member signs a "freelance" contract with the company, although, in reality, it is an extremely binding, exclusive arrangement. In her seventh year, she is assigned to mentor younger performers.

The deceased woman's work was varied and hectic. In fact, her bereaved family estimated that she put in 277 hours of overtime in the month before her death. Outside lawyers who investigated at the company's behest estimate the total at 118 hours. 

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There is a considerable disparity between these two estimates. But, in any event, it is clear that her schedule grossly exceeded the karoshi line of 80 hours of overtime per month. That limit is established by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. Working more hours above this danger line greatly increases the chances of death from overwork. 

Management Responsibility

Kenshi Koba, chairman of Takarazuka Revue Co, admitted and apologized for not taking proactive measures. He acknowledged failing to fulfill his duty of care for the safety of his employee, even though she was under severe psychological strain due to overwork. 

Nevertheless, it is the irresponsible character of the company's ambiguous employment structure, which leaves many things up to revue members, that must be changed. 

Takarazuka Revue's Takarazuka Grand Theater entrance is quiet while performances continue to be canceled. On November 14 in Takarazuka City. (© Sankei by Miyako Nagumo)

A Culture of Discipline or Bullying?

There were other allegations as well. The investigative panel selected by management acknowledged that the deceased had suffered burns on her forehead. She had been hit with a hair iron held by a senior member of the troupe. Yet the panel ruled that it was impossible to determine whether the injury had been intentionally inflicted. 

A severe reprimand from a senior student was also deemed "within the bounds of socially accepted norms." Naturally, most of the individuals interviewed by these outside lawyers still belong to the same Takarazuka troupe as the victim. That means that the environment in which the interviews took place was not conducive to speaking freely. 

Many doubts remain about the validity and transparency of the testimony. One looming question is why this investigation was not conducted by a truly independent third-party panel. Reinvestigation, as demanded by the bereaved family, should also definitely be considered. 

Lawyers Hiroshi Kawato (left) and Koji Inoue, representing the bereaved family, hold a press conference regarding the death of a Takarazuka member on November 14 in Tokyo. (© Sankei by Yoshinori Saito)

Reforming Archaic Management

The company has proposed reforms such as reducing the number of performances. But is there any indication that management possesses the resolve to prevent a recurrence of the tragedy? They have taken no steps to review the strict hierarchical relationships and organizational culture that have persisted since the music school was created as a training institution.

The reality of the loss of a promising young life is grave. Could bad traditions have played a role in this tragedy? 

Takarazuka must identify all of the problems as well as prevent their recurrence. If it does not, how can it regain the understanding and respect of society? 

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Next year will mark the 110th anniversary of the founding of the Takarazuka Revue (Takarakuza Kagekidan). The survival of the Takarazuka Revue, however, and its rich tradition are hanging by a thread. That is something that both the Takarazuka Review itself and Hankyu Corporation, its parent company, should take to heart.

If you are suffering from depression or have mental health concerns, you can find help in English in Japan at +810352869090. Outside of Japan, if you are in North America, help is also available at Freedial 988. Or check your national health authorities for guidance in your own country. 

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(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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