Back in the 1980s, the veteran Australian broadcaster and journalist, Clive James, hosted shows on British TV that sampled some of the whackier examples of television programming and commercials from around the world, much of it from Japan. This was an era when Western TV audiences first saw snippets of Japanese ‘endurance’ game shows and assumed that TV in Japan must be a laugh-a-minute rollercoaster ride of wall-to-wall weirdness.
The truth is that such shows were already becoming a distant memory to many Japanese viewers at that time, as programming gradually gave way to the kind of bland content common to terrestrial Japanese TV channels today. But before we consider what the alternatives might be, let’s quickly look at what Japan’s terrestrial broadcasters can offer the newcomer to Japan.
Terrestrial Channels (Basic Cable)
There are two national public networks owned by NHK and supported through direct household subscriptions, and five private, commercial networks nationwide. Many imported programmes and films, and some sports, news programmes and emergency broadcasts are offered in bi-lingual stereo. My wife and I often used to share a pair of earphones to watch films – she for the dubbed channel, and myself the English one.
• NHK programming centres around historical dramas and documentaries, news programmes, education and children’s television. With a very few rare exceptions, NHK programming is in Japanese only, but it can be interesting for history buffs who have a smattering of Japanese. I have to admit, the only time I ever intentionally put NHK on was in the aftermath of the 2011 quake and tsunami for alerts in English.
The annual NHK subscription fee (¥15-28,000 depending on payment method), like the BBC’s licence fee in the UK, is mandatory for all households with at least one television, whether one watches NHK or not. However, whereas the BBC will hunt you down and rip out your fingernails for non-payment, there is no mechanism to punish ‘offenders’ in Japan, so many people just ignore the occasional NHK collectors who show up at the door.
• Commercial networks, on the other hand, offer a bit more by way of variety in their imported content, though most of the mainly American shows on offer are quite old, or are ones that were cancelled mid-run; no doubt they come cheap. Films too are usually ones that have been doing the rounds for decades; third-rate STV action movies or box-office flops being standard fair.
As for domestic product, there is a plethora of studio-based, quiz and panel shows that are colourful, often food-centric, involve a lot of squealing and otherwise defy description. In fact, flicking between channels any night of the week, one is hard pushed to see any difference between them. What might be more interesting to foreigners with a good grasp of Japanese are the news programmes, especially the weekly reviews on Sunday; the Japanese take on world events is often far less biased than is the case with Western media (or biased in a different way).
Alternatives to Terrestrial Networks
For foreigners with little or no understanding of Japanese, or dedicated couch potatoes too addicted to Western TV shows to ever consider giving them up, Japan’s terrestrial networks just won’t cut the mustard. Fortunately, there are alternatives that fall into three main categories: cable TV (CATV), satellite TV (SATV), and streaming services.
• CATV: it is said that around 80% of Tokyo’s apartments and houses are already set up for CATV reception (I’m sorry I cannot give the figure for other major cities, but one assumes they’re just as well catered to). CATV services are typically provided by cities and/or wards offering packages that may contain around 50-60 channels, 10-15% of which will be English or bi-lingual, plus there will be a few optional choices that are separately charged. Monthly fees vary from ¥2,500-5,000 depending on which package you choose and, to some extent, where you reside.
It’s a while since I used a CATV service, but some of the well-known channels available include FOX, SuperChannel (for movies and those Star Trek marathons we all love so much), CNN, MTV, Discovery (if you can stand those annoying commercial interruptions every 5 minutes), and History (though what in blue blazes Ice Road Truckers or Ancient Aliens have to do with history is beyond me).
For movies (some of which weren’t box office flops or straight to video), options like Star Channel and WOWOW might appeal, though they’ll add significant additional cost to your monthly package fee. And if you want to know what Boris Johnson’s up to, or if Britain’s in or out this week, the BBC will gladly propagandise you for under ¥1,000 a month.
Acquiring a CATV service isn’t difficult, but it’s even easier if you have the help of a Japanese friend or loved one! Otherwise, you’ll have to contact your local ‘cable guy’ yourself, fill in the form they send, and designate which room you want hooking up. I’ll list a few Tokyo CATV providers at the end and their English service lines.
• Hikari-TV might be a suitable alternative where CATV isn’t available, offering channels and streaming VOD to anyone with an existing NTT West/NTT East FLET’S Hikari fibre optic line. Monthly package plans are available at ¥2,700 and ¥3,780 in addition to your FLET’S service charge.
• SATV can be a little more complicated to set up as only newer or recently refurbished buildings are likely to have a communal antenna, otherwise you’ll have to buy a dish yourself. Even where there is a communal dish, the chances are it’s for broadcast satellite (BS), rather than for communications satellite (CS) – the two SATV systems used in Japan. Either way, a dish and tuner are required, though modern TVs often come with built-in BS and CS capability.
Overall, BS has less English or bi-lingual content, being more like souped-up terrestrial TV with a few movie, sports and news channels thrown in for good measure. It’s also home to two NHK HD channels, so signing up for BS will almost certainly draw a visit from your friendly neighbourhood NHK collector and/or a bill for the license fee.
CS, on the other hand, is more likely to appeal to foreigners. The principal provider is SKY PerfecTV!, offering close to 300 channels, around 50 of which are English. Many of the channels are ones found in CATV packages, though with a broader selection of movie, news and sports channels, as well as more channels for kids. There is more choice of packages too than with cable, and more flexibility to add or subtract channels as you go.
Setting up SKY PerfecTV!
If you have to install your own dish, make sure you ask permission from your landlord to set it on your balcony or on the roof. It’s also advisable to pay somebody to install your dish (and tuner if you require one); the store where you bought them can arrange this for you. Of course, it pays to shop around for the best deal, but you can probably get tuner, dish and installation for between ¥25-35,000.
When everything’s set up, the installation technician will call SKY PerfecTV! who will then send an activation code to your tuner allowing you a two week trial of channels while you decide what kind of package you’ll subscribe to. At any time, you can call SKY PerfecTV! on 0570 039 888 for English guidance; just press 9 after the Japanese announcement.
Finally, as promised, CATV English service contact numbers for Tokyo:
Minato Cable and Shinjuku Cable TV – 0120 037 109
Shinagawa Cable TV – 03 3788 3811
Setagaya, Shibuya, Meguro and Ota – 044 820 7535
By Bill Ambler
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