Television In Japan

by Ron Kaufman

"Television is a medium that 95% of the people surveyed use daily, a percentage that has been steadily maintained since 1985. There is no special significance or difference attributable to age or gender. Although 86% of the respondents still read the newspaper daily, which is the other major mass media, the percentage has gradually decreased during the past 15 years."
-- from "The Japanese and Television, 2000" a survey by the NHK Public Opinion Research Division

Television is everywhere in Japan. Literally, everywhere! There are huge TV screens on the street, on the sides of buildings, and in front of stores. There are also TVs inside almost every car (many with GPS navigation systems and some with DVD players), inside of stores, scattered throughout shopping malls and placed throughout train stations. There are even TVs built into the inside of the subway cars that show news and commercials. In the home of Sony, Toshiba, Matsushita (Panasonic), Mistubishi, Sharp and other major electronics manufactures -- television is the king of all media.

I went to Japan for a 3-week study tour during June and July, 2003 as part of a program with the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania Center for East Asian Studies. The program, called Phila-Nipponica 2003, brought me and 19 other high school teachers to seven cities throughout Japan for informational meetings, home visits and site seeing. I saw many wonderful and amazing sites in Japan. The Japanese people are pleasant, accepting and patient. I've created a website which shows many aspects of my trip. And all throughout the trip, in every city no matter how large or small, televisions were present.

When I asked the Japanese people I met how many people own televisions I would usually get a strange expression. "Everyone has TVs," one person told me. "Everyone. Everyone. Two per household at least." Another person remarked that: "Everyone watches TV. I don't watch it too much. But everyone I know watches TV." A survey taken by NHK (Japan's public broadcast network) in 2000 shows that 95 percent of Japanese watch TV daily and that nearly 60 percent of daily viewers watch for three hours or more. The survey also showed that almost 70 percent of TV owners had a set that was 25-inches or larger. In fact, more Japanese own a large television than own CD players (although in Japan, a regular audio CD costs around $30 US, so this may be a factor).

In Japan, flat-screen technology is ubiquitous. In most electronics stores, the only TV sets that are sold have flat screens. This technology allows televisions to be placed on the sides and on top of buildings in place of large signs. In areas such as Tokyo's famous Ginza and Shibuya districts, there are numerous huge video screens all showing videos and commercials with advanced computer graphics and loud rock music.

The history of television in Japan started with Kenjiro Takayanagi, a teacher at Hamamatsu Technical High School during the late Taisho Era, who conducted the first successful public television demonstration in Tokyo in 1928. Experiments continued at Waseda University and at NHK during the 1930s until the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific. After the war, television technology continued to be researched until the production of the first commercial set in 1953 and the first public broadcasts by NHK.

NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai) is Japan’s sole public broadcaster and offers five national television channels, two world broadcast channels and three radio stations. The network runs 54 broadcast stations and has 34 overseas bureaus. During my stay in Japan, my group went on a tour of the NHK station in Tokyo. We saw a high definition movie, walked through some studios, and went through the NHK Studio Park.

NHK’s Tokyo headquarters is a huge building which employs around 10,000 full and part-time workers. During our tour of the broadcast sets for “Let’s Play Together With Mama” and “Musashi” it was explained that NHK is supported by the viewers and not the government. Similar to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the United States, NHK has no commercials and is independent from the government. However, unlike PBS, NHK has the authority to impose a monthly fee directly to each household owning a TV set (Article 32 of Japan's Broadcast Law). NHK’s total operating income for fiscal 2003 is ¥673.8 billion ($5.7 billion US) and of this amount, 97 percent comes from subscriber receiving fees. Our tour guide noted that 80 percent of TV owners pay the fee but unlike a similar system in the United Kingdom which supports the BBC, there is no penalty or punishment for nonpayment. The annual fee for a television with antennae or cable reception is ¥15,490 ($130 US) and the fee for satellite reception is ¥26,100 ($220 US).

The centerpiece of NHK’s television technology is what it calls Hi-Vision. According to the network, Hi-Vision is “the most advanced TV technology in the world.” A current NTSC television broadcast presents 525 scanning lines to the viewer, Hi-Vision can provide 1,125 scanning lines which will account for five times more visual information. NHK hopes that Hi-Vision, coupled with 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound, will become the standard for television viewing. It plans to provide nationwide Hi-Vision HDTV (high definition television) by 2006, depending on government approval. The future for Hi-Vision is an integration with interactive television to allow the viewer to directly access computerized information along with the visual programs.

The content found on NHK's channels varies significantly: Programs for children include "Domo's World" (Domo is the brown, furry wide-mouthed creature to the left) and “Let’s Play Together With Mama”; dramas such as "Musashi" and "Oshin"; documentaries and news; cultural programs about traditional Japanese art such as tea ceremony, gardening, Kabuki theater and classical music; and sports including sumo wrestling, Japanese baseball, and American baseball and basketball broadcasts. NHK states it wants to provide "content-rich programs for the whole family."

One interesting fact is that NHK provides an educational channel which is used by 85 percent of elementary schools in Japan. Our tour guide explained that NHK works with the Japanese Education Ministry to “see what we can provide to support the curriculum.” Our tour guide estimated that NHK’s education channel is viewed between 10 and 15 minutes per class on average. Unlike the United States' equivalent "Channel One," the NHK education channel does not have commercials and provides both television and computer/web content to support it's programs with more information.

However, NHK is not the top rated network in Japan. That title belongs to the Nippon Television Network Corporation (NTV). In the year ending in March 2002, NTV grabbed the highest ratings in four time categories: all day (6 a.m. to 12 a.m.), prime time (7 p.m. to 11 p.m.), golden time (7 p.m. to 10 p.m.), and non-prime time. And unlike NHK, NTV shows lots of commercials.

NTV is a national network that has 15 production companies which provide programming for 30 affiliate stations throughout Japan. The network has 48 million free-air broadcasting viewers, 15 million satellite viewers, and 4 million cable viewers. NTV's Nippon News Network (NNN) employs 100 reporters in Japan and in 13 overseas bureaus. It has invested in satellite broadcasting companies, music production companies, an amusement park, a soccer team and a football team.

NTV's programming includes the popular animation series "Anpanman" and "Lupin III," dramas "Monkey" and "Without Family," a popular news program "News Plus 1," numerous documentaries and variety shows, and the Yomiuri Giants baseball broadcasts (this Tokyo-based team is considered the New York Yankees of Japan). NTV is part of the Yomiuri News Group, which also owns the Giants and Yomiuri Shimbun -- the world's largest newspaper, with a daily circulation of 14 million.

In addition to NHK and NTV, other national networks in Japan include the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), Fuji Television, TV Asahi, TV Tokyo, Nagoya Broadcasting Network, Kansai Telecasting Corporation and WOWOW. The programming content of Japanese TV includes a lot of news and sports in addition to many variety shows. Television also shows many game shows, talk shows, sit-coms and dating shows similar to those in the United States. Many US shows such as "Friends," "ER," "Charmed," "Frasier," etc. are also shown in Japan in addition to many Hollywood movies. American movies are among the most popular broadcasts. While I was in Japan, the movie "Austin Powers" was shown on television. Just as in the US, animation is popular with children and "Pokemon," "Digimon," and "Dragonball Z" are all shown in Japan. It is also possible to find episodes of "Ultraman" and "Godzilla" on late night channels.

Commercials in Japan are bright, colorful and silly. Most commercials are fast with bright flashing colors and cartoon characters. Many commercials are abstract and designed to simply grab attention. Some commercials are pretty strange. One commercial showed a father fretting about paying for his daughter's wedding. The next scene was the family dog dressed up in a tuxedo. This commercial was for a loan company.

Television is wrapped up into Japanese culture. When one considers that Japanese aged 7 years and older watch, on average, 4 hours of television every day (according to the NHK study) you can see how much television is viewed in Japan. Imagine the power required to permit Japan's 87 million television sets to play for that many hours (CIA World Factbook 1997 numbers). The NHK study states that 86 percent of Japanese say they consider television an "indispensable medium." Put simply, television has taken over in Japan.

Needless to say, there is no anti-TV movement in Japan. When I would tell people I met in Japan I had a website called Kill Your Television (in Japanese, it is pronounced "Terebi o mi runa") I would always get a laugh.

© 2003 by Ron Kaufman

Image Gallery: Pictures Of Televisions From Around Japan

a 1953 Toshiba on display at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, this was the first mass-produced TV set in Japan

a large television on the street in the Harajuku section of Tokyo

a rock video being shown on a screen on the side of Hiroshima Station

a portable screen showing commercials between ticket gates in Nagoya Station

two TV screens, one showing a commercial and the other showing the next stop, on a JR train in Tokyo

a massive screen on a corner in the Ginza district of Tokyo

huge screens light up the sky in Shibuya, Tokyo

a big and loud television showing a commercial outside the Pacela shopping mall in downtown Hiroshima

a screen on a street corner in the Hondori section of Hiroshima

a TV showing a commercial in the front of the ABC-Mart in Shibuya, Tokyo

a TV screen with a music video on the side of Tower Records in Shinjuku, Tokyo mixes with traditional billboards

future television: a demo of NHK's interactive TV screen

© all pictures taken in July, 2003 by Ron Kaufman

Resource Links:

Japan Media Review

Japan-Guide's Basic Information About Television

The Web Kanzaki's Partial Guide to Broadcasting in Japan

How To Be Anti-TV In Japanese:

Terebi o mi runa = Kill Your Television
Yoku terebi o mimasu ka? = Do you often watch TV?
Iie, amari mimasen. = No, I don't watch it so often.
Iie, zenzen mimasen. = No, I don't watch it at all.
Terebi o mi na dekudasa. = You shouldn't watch television.