Home > Focus on Japan 2006 > NHK at the Door

NHK at the Door

June 4th, 2006

I got a visit from the NHK guy a few weeks back. For those of you who don’t know, NHK is the public television network in Japan; kind of like PBS in the U.S., but less independent of government. It is funded by quasi-mandatory individual fees (like British television fees), which are collected by besuited men who come to your door every so often. This time I was able to fend the fee collector off by pointing to my Sky Perfect satellite dish, and pointing out that I do not watch any terrestrial broadcast television (though I will admit to peeking when there is an earthquake, but don’t tell the NHK guy–and I wouldn’t mind losing that ability, they can shut off my NHK if they want). He accepted this and went away, unlike other visits I’ve had, where the NHK guy will shove an English-language slip of paper at you and insist that it’s the law that you pay.

The thing is, the rules are less than clear on this. The law does not say it’s mandatory to pay, and there is no penalty for not paying. However, it also says you have to make a contract “to receive NHK broadcasts.” But NHK broadcasts–terrestrial ones, at least–are not arranged by contract, they are there whether you want them or not. But what it comes down to is, they can’t force you to pay. And most foreigners in Japan have figured this out, which is why many NHK fee collectors are either resigned about us, or try to get in our faces and pressure us. They used to have far fewer problems with getting Japanese to pay, but with corruption scandals over at NHK, more than a million Japanese who used to pay refuse to do so now. And that got the government into a tizzy about what to do.

However, the laws may be changing soon. A government advisory council is going to release a report Tuesday with recommendations to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications about how they should suggest to the national Diet that the NHK fee laws be changed. It is expected that the report will propose that NHK fees be made mandatory and that failing to do so carries a punishment by law. They also are expected to suggest that NHK fees be “drastically” reduced. Currently, terrestrial broadcast fees are ¥2,790 ($25) every two months, and satellite NHK is ¥4,680 ($42) every two months (though that includes the terrestrial fee; you don’t have to pay both). How much that amount would be reduced is unknown.

After the report is submitted, the ministry could use it to propose new legislation as early as 2007. If it passes, it is not clear if it would take effect immediately or if it would be scheduled for a future date for implementation.

All this takes me back to my days in Toyama in the mid-80’s. I lived in an apartment building back then where the NHK guy made frequent visits. I was able to fend him off with my magical gaijin powers: I pretended that I understood no Japanese, and that did the trick. Then one day, the NHK guy came when my girlfriend was at my place. I had not briefed her on my technique with the NHK guy, so when she heard me tell the guy at the door that I could not speak Japanese, she innocently and helpfully walked up and offered to translate. Strangely, I forget how I handled that particular situation, though I am quite sure that I never paid the fee.

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  1. Shari
    June 4th, 2006 at 14:34 | #1

    My former company’s former (Japanese) accountant (lots of “formers”) said that NHK has no legal grounds to force people to pay their fees. They mainly get cooperation through the Japanese desire not to have an unpleasant confrontation or to question a person who appears to have some authority. The accountant never paid the fees either.

    It’s my guess that with the changes in Japanese character that come along with the changes in the economy and lifetime employment, people are being more assertive and uncooperative so they have to change the laws to push them harder to pay. It’s a shame really since we (the foreigners) will probably have no recourse but to cooperate as well if the laws are changed.

    I guess this is all part of living in a country which has a lot of socialism. On the plus side, you’re only paying 1/3 of your medical fees for your foot because of that. That may make paying money for T.V. you don’t watch seem more palatable.

  2. matthew
    June 5th, 2006 at 12:40 | #2

    Hi Luis,

    I think you have blogged on this topic before. My two yen–I pay for the cable service and I watch it. NHK 1, 2, and HI have good stuff (especially HI) and i have a digital flat screen tv so I can use the data function and get all kinds of extra info about the programs, schedules, weather, business, etc.. No need to log on to the net.

    Am I happy about paying for it? No. But I also have some friends who work for NHK so my yen helps them keep their job, I get decent programing with digital extras, so all in all I feel satisfied.


  3. Luis
    June 5th, 2006 at 12:47 | #3

    You are kind of correct–I blogged on NHK a year and a half ago, as part of a larger post, and discusion followed on paying the fees. But the current post above focuses on the possible change in fee payments, a new wrinkle. I added the background (plus more specifics than I had before) because most readers wouldn’t remember the post from 18 months ago; it is always a good idea to put a story in context.

    I’m glad you’re satisfied with it, but I would not be. I get all the media I need via the Internet and my satellite TV (which I prefer way more than the NHK channels), and have no friends at NHK whose employment I need to subsidize. They should simply fund NHK out of taxpayer money, or even better, follow the example of PBS and get private donations to fund a great deal of it. I could live with the taxpayer support because then the payment would be so diffused I wouldn’t feel it. But $150 a year for NHK terrestrial? No thanks. And the price for satellite is even worse–I get 15 channels on satellite, all filled with stuff I want to watch, for less than they charge for a few NHK channels. If NHK is so good, then let it compete like any other channels, with people paying for it if they like it. If it really is that good, there should be no problem.

    American government funding for PBS comes out to about $2, maybe $3 a year per household. They want to tax me that much for NHK, fine. But $150? That’s ludicrous.

  4. Corrado7mari
    June 17th, 2006 at 18:05 | #4

    It is not about NHK being good or not. First of all how do you evaluate that? By the number of subscribers, or people who express support? There are two many sociological variables there to allow for a direct inference on a channel or broadcaster being “good”. Value judgment has been a major philosophical question for millenia, and will continue to be so; our small brains won’t solve like that.

    Of course, the issue here is the belief in the importance of the state maintaining a national broadcaster, a public TV service. This model is imported from Europe, where most (if not all) countries have a national broadcaster funded by public money. Is there one in the US?

    Once accepting the need for a public broadcaster, of course, comes all the arguements about what are the functions and limits of that service, how should it be funded, what contents should it included etc. A lot of politics, ethics, social engeneering, pressure and counter-pressure groups etc goes within such debate.

    Another note: Japan is not a sociallist country! Anyone who says than doesn’t really understand what sociallism is. Japan has a liberal system (from anglo-saxon mercantilism) rather distorted by the heavy hand the state has on economic policy, but that’s not sociallism. MITI and fat cat arm twisting are about respecting hierarchies, not about public interest protection . Just compare the percentage of millionaires in Japan with that of really socallist countries like Cuba or China. Besides, there is a right to private enterprise and economic competition, as well as basic freedoms of assembly and expression. Do you see a sociallist party in power here? I see the Liberal conservatives in power for over half a century now. Conservatism is not sociallism. If you want good versions of democratic sociallism look at Western Europe – not to any single country, though, but a good mix and pick of the best solutions found by several European countries would give a proper sociallist system – one that understands the values of freedom and democracy but stands for the protection against social inequalities induced by competitive systems.

    PS – I wonder why the filters won’t allow ‘sociallism’ unless it is misspeled!

  5. Luis
    June 17th, 2006 at 18:13 | #5


    Sorry about the “socialism” thing. It has to be there. You see, the spammers hit me with thousands of blog spams each and every day, and one of the most common spam subjects is a medicine called “Cialis”–which happens to be contained in the word “Socialism.” I can’t ban one without banning the other. It is not political censorship, rest assured.

    If you read the comment submission error, you’ll see that it mentions the word in question:Your comment is not being processed immediately because it has tripped a spam filter. Specifically, the word “cialis” is not allowed. Please retype the comment avoiding that text string, or possibly by adding asterisks in place of one or more vowel.If you like, I can go back and re-spell all your forced misspellings.

  6. Ken Ray
    June 13th, 2007 at 14:54 | #6

    It seems to me that one part of this debate is being overlooked: it is illegal in all Western democracies to force people to pay for a service which they do not want. I come from a country (extremely sociallist – Canada – I don’t have to pay for my broken foot at all!) where I know for a fact this would be illegal. How can they get away with this? How is it possible that I must sign a contract with NHK in order to watch TV, when I do not want, nor watch NHK? Can you imagine if we had to pay for Microsoft Windows even if we only use a Mac? Or if we had to pay for public transportation even if you only use a car? Of course some things in every society are paid for by taxes, that is a given. However, this is not a tax. This is a fee.

    This ‘mandatory contract’ and ‘mandatory fee’ has got to be unconstitutional, even here.

    I have told the NHK man to turn off my NHK. That seems a fair, just, and legal way to deal with people who don’t want to pay for it.

    That’s the way it works with everything else.

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