One small bummer of a thing when you’re living in a country not entirely your own is that YOU’RE MISSING YOUR SHOWS. Yeah, there are many strange and wonderful things about Japan: beautiful sights, amazing sounds, every day a challenge and an adventure! Bless. Which is all well and good but what about my shows? At the risk of sounding a bit bratty and obsessed, some of us just feel comforted by a spot of familiar TV. And let’s face it: the selection at Tsutaya can leave something to be desired. Plus, what’s up with their membership fees and weird strict rules and super expensive late fees?
The service that’s best for you will depend on your viewing preferences and your tech setup. Following is a roundup of some of the options available to you here in the archipelago.
So pull up a zabuton and whip out the snacks; we’re gonna have a TV party tonight. Alright!
Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video is the latest player to emerge on to the streaming video scene in Japan. Compared to Netflix and Hulu, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper. A single payment of 2,300 yen gives you access to the video library for an entire year—in addition to the other benefits that Amazon Prime membership provides (express delivery, special discounts, etc.)
While it might sound like a great deal, in its current iteration, there are quite a few drawbacks compared to Netflix and Hulu. The first is that the standard Prime Video membership does not entitle you to HD. If you’ve been spoiled on HD video, you’ll think there’s something wrong with your eyes when you start watching Amazon’s standard definition offering. The other big drawback is the selection. As you’d expect in Japan, they’ve gone squarely after the local market with a heavy dose of local drama, idoru content and anime. Even the international content is heavily geared towards what is popular in Japan—so if you never started watching 24, Prison Break or Glee, now is your chance. Finally, while we’re being negative Nellies, there is no way to change the interface to English. Even if you’ve changed the Amazon.co.jp interface to English, the video section will remain stubbornly Japanese.
On the positive side, there are some movies not available on Hulu or Netflix such as Dallas Buyers Club, The Godfather and A Beautiful Mind. Also, Amazon is set to produce a lot more original programming in the near future.
For now, Amazon Prime Video is a good service for those who already use Amazon extensively, but at the moment there’s not enough here to keep even a moderate TV addict satisfied for more than a few weeks.
Heralded by Japanese media commentators as a “black ship” on its opening in Japan on September 2nd, Netflix is the most compelling of the TV streaming services—especially for foreign residents who aren’t concerned that there is no anime smorgasbord.
However, it’s quite different to what you might be used to. On the minus side, a few Netflix original series are missing—no House of Cards and no Lillehammer, also no Walking Dead. While the US version of Netflix has a great range of BBC and other British drama, they’re almost completely absent from Netflix Japan. On the plus side, Netflix Japan has a few movies that aren’t available on Netflix elsewhere —such as District 9, Inception and No Country for Old Men. Netflix are also producing original Japanese programming—which they have generously subtitled in English. All other Japanese content is not subtitled.
While pricing for Netflix in the US is a flat $7.99, Japan has three different packages. Basic, for 650 yen/month, Standard for 950 yen/month and Premium for 1,450 yen/month. While all plans offer unlimited viewing, the cheaper packages have restrictions on HD content and the number of devices you can watch it on.
Hulu Japan is one of the few services that has support in English—you might have to hunt around for the English-language switch though. With an option to connect via Facebook the process is even more simplified. A single payment page needs to be filled out with name, vital details, and payment info. Also, make sure you don’t sign up on mobile. Bizarrely, the payment page is only available in Japanese on the mobile site.
The all-you-can-watch service costs 933 yen/month, and they claim to have 13,000+ movies, dramas, and anime choices. You can try it out with a free 2-week trial with option to cancel before the first month is charged.
While the TV overall TV selection isn’t quite as good as Netflix, they do have the Walking Dead as well as a much wider selection of BBC and other British TV programmes. So if you’re looking for Doctor Who, Utopia or Orphan Black then Hulu is your best choice.
Hulu is also a good bet if you like anime, J-movies, and K-dramas, as their selection will likely be much better than an overseas-based service. Of course, many choices will not be subtitled in English. This is excellent if you speak/understand Japanese well or want to study; not so much if you don’t speak J/want mindless entertainment.
J:COM On Demand
J:COM says they have about 14,800 selections for viewing, and 6,500 anime and drama titles, but their set-up page is quite a bit more confusing than Hulu’s. Existing J:COM members can do a free three-day trial by entering the membership number on their cable box, then can join the on-demand service for 933 yen/month, but non-members will have to sign up for J:COM first—with cable packages costing about ten times the cost of streaming services. They also want you to install Microsoft Silverlight on your computer to be able to watch your selections.
Hikari TV seems to have quite a large selection—they boast 30,000 titles. Their basic membership, however, lets you access about 9,000 selections and looks to include a heavy dose of porn.
This service first requires you to be either a Flets Hikari Next or Flex Hikari Premium customer. Once you are, you can add the on-demand service. The basic plan costs 2,700 yen per month (on top of the costs of your Flets service) and gets you either television OR video on demand (but not both) while the 3,780 yen gets you access to 9,000 film titles plus over 40 TV channels.
The set-up is rather complicated, so intermediate Japanese or higher is recommended.
Another confusing-looking page, Rakuten does seem to have a corner on large selection, boasting about 180,000 titles. The basic site fee is 302 yen per month, and then you can choose the type of content you’d like to access: an additional 100 yen gets you anime access, 300 yen gets you films, and for 200 yen you can access television dramas. The whole shebang, once you include tax, would clock in at a little less than 1,000 yen per month.
If you are interested in J-dramas, K-dramas, and anime, Showtime could be a good choice. Also, Rakuten allows payment in bitcoin.
U-Next is another one that has a decent selection, as they claim to have over 20,000 titles, including a respectable international selection (the landing page says they have 117,000 titles, but this included karaoke song selections). Sign-up is relatively painless, and they offer a free 16 day trial (though as with most trials, they do require you to give up your credit card details.
The monthly cost is 1,990 yen, but there is a point system that gives you about 1,000 yen worth of points per month, which can be used toward future bills, making it possible to decrease the cost significantly after a short time.
Tsutaya is trying to enter the video-on-demand market but is still clinging to the video rental model. Their plan allows you to choose up to 20 titles per month from among 4,000 selections, which sounds suspiciously like going to the video store. Granted, 20 selections per month is probably plenty for most people, but is not conducive to binge-watching TV series or placating films buffs. The monthly fee is 933 yen, and at the time of writing, they are offering a free month’s membership at the outset. The service does require the download of a Tsutaya application in order to watch on your computer.
This service is a bit different, in that there is no membership fee or monthly fee. Sign up is free, and you basically pay per view. This means that the per-film fee may be a bit steeper (a popular new release was 540 yen/3 days, while an older release was 472 yen/3 days), but if you are not someone who regularly watches enough TV to justify paying a monthly fee, it may be a good option. They offer about 80,000 titles.
AcTVila do run free trials sometimes so you can check out a few things at no cost.
Of course if you want to watch Netflix or BBC iPlayer as they are in the US or UK respectively, as we’ve written before, you can use a VPN to bypass the restrictions.
Our video guide to the tuna auctions at the shiny new Toyosu Fish Market