Updated April 22, 2018
It's been a long time since my original post back in August 2014 on Watching Japanese TV from Japan. Since that time, the technology has changed, the services have changed, and all sorts of new options are available. This spring I decided to try out 3 online streaming services that deliver Japanese TV stations from Japan by internet to your home. Those three are JapanTV, Fuji TV, and iSakura.
I started by checking out the offerings at Japannettv, which sells two of those services. Immediately, I need to compliment the staff at Japannettv. I began by trying to purchase one of their android TV boxes, because it comes with three major services pre-installed. However, even though I had already paid and ordered the box, the staff contacted me to make sure I understood that the iSakura app they use had stopped working. I should have known that, because it was prominently displayed on the webpage, but I didn’t really appreciate the problem. Once they explained the issue, I realized that I needed to a different route and try an Amazon FireTV box instead.
One FireTV purchase later, I easily downloaded the iSakura and JapanTV apps to my FireTV. I needed to use Adblink (software that you can use from a Mac or PC to link to your FireTV) to install the “apk” for FujiTV, but as you will see, it was worth it! The whole process for all three apps took less than 30 minutes total. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to install.
A word about my “test rig.” I used the 2018 FireTV box, which lacked an Ethernet port. I tried to buy an Ethernet connector, but Amazon was sold out and had a month-long waitlist. Clearly they underestimated the demand for an Ethernet connection when they designed this device. My test rig, therefore, was Wi-Fi only.
When I began the test, I was using an abysmal 3.5 Mbps DSL connection. In the middle of the test, I upgraded my connection to a 60 Mbps Cable connection. What a difference…
What follows is my review of those three services.
JapanTV is not the same thing as Japannettv. JapanTV is a streaming service that is sold by a website called Japannettv. As far as I can tell, they are not affiliated with each other. I bought a 3-day trial to JapanTV for $4 through Japannettv. JapanTV offers live, streaming TV, 2 weeks of archived television for all of its channels, and also a large collection of on-demand television and movies. It was the only of the three services that offered on-demand movies and tv shows.
The interface is easy to navigate – it has 3 categories: Live TV, movies, and dramas. You can add movies and dramas to your “favorites” list and they appear together on one list, just like they would on Netflix or Hulu. The interface is pretty and easy to read.
The movies and dramas were numerous – nowhere near as many as a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu, but a good variety with an emphasis on recent movies; I would analogize it to HBOGo. There were about 400 movies and over 400 TV shows/series, all mostly recent. I easily found several movies and dramas I wanted to see from the last few years. Unfortunately, with a wifi connection of 3.5 Mbps, I was never able to get any on-demand movies to play.
However, once I upgraded my connection, the on-demand movies played nearly instantly. Fast-forward and rewind were effective and worked almost seamlessly. The picture quality was quite good – not as good as Netflix had been under my 3.5 Mbps connection, but still quite good. I wouldn’t call it “HD”, but probably between 480p and 1080i, depending. All the on-demand programs that I watched also came with Chinese subtitles.
I should add that some shows did not play at all until several attempts. Also, as an added feature, movies picked up where I left off when I went back to watch more of the show – although doing that caused the movie not to play at all. Sometimes, even with my 60 Mbps connection, I fluctuated between 300 kbs and 1.1 Mbps for on-demand content, which was a little disappointing.
The live TV options are fantastic, with plenty of choice – almost 100 channels, with BS, CS, Kanto and Kyushu options. The menu was a snap to operate and instantly gave me access to 2 weeks worth of shows. Again, however, my first connection failed me. My connection ranged from 50 to 400 Kbps, barely enough to watch for more than 10-20 seconds without clipping or completely losing the signal. (The screen will sometimes tell you your connection speed, at least when it fluctuates).
My upgraded connection again brought things into focus – literally. Suddenly I was able to connect at between 850 Kbps and 4 Mbps, which let me watch entire programs without interruption. However, if I tried to navigate the program guide, it caused problems. The Internet connection slowed, the picture sometimes froze or became choppy, and the program guide would lag for a couple seconds. Within 4-6 seconds of changing stations, the picture would come back. Thereafter, I was able to navigate the guide easily and click on a program, causing it to load about 1 second later.
I have heard that others have had no problem at all, and enjoy a strong connection and a great picture. It probably depends on where you are and how you connect to the Internet. With my fast connection, JapanTV displayed HD content, like NHK nature films, quite well and gave me an excellent picture. To be clear, it never reached the pristine quality of a true HD feed from NHK.
The interface was a little clunky – I never figured out how to watch an archived program and then channel surf without automatically going back to live TV. You can’t pause a TV show. You can fast-forward and rewind recorded (DVR) shows, but it didn’t always work. You can also rewind while watching live TV; JapanTV was the only service that let me rewind live TV. With my slow connection, rewind caused a long delay. With my strong connection, rewind and fast-forward worked great. However, like FujiTV, if you channel surf while watching an archived TV show, it will cancel your show and put you back to live tv.
A really handy feature of Japantv is the ability to make a list of “favorite” channels. With 100 channels, it can be handy to see only what’s playing on your favorites. FujiTV has that feature also; iSakura does not.
Note: JapanTV lists the time in system time, but you can change it. So it converts the Japanese time to U.S. time – if you follow a Japanese program guide, you’ll have to do the conversion or you might get confused.
JapanTV Verdict: Great interface, amazing array of options. With a weak Internet connection, the connection was so cripplingly slow that I could barely watch anything. With a strong Internet connection, I was able to enjoy on-demand programming, live TV and archived programs with ease at high quality.
FujiTV is free to watch for about 5 minutes from the app. Actually it’s free to watch on the web right now! (iOs app pending). Here’s a link: https://fujitv.live/fujitv Truthfully, there is no reason for you to read my review – just click the link and check it out for yourself! You can skip right to the iSakura review now…
If you are still here, though, here are my findings based on using the 5-minutes-for-free-at-a-time option. You can go back and watch again for another 5 minutes repeatedly; however, after a while it locks you out and you have to go back and start again another day. That made it both very easy and also very hard to test the service; I could jump in and out to compare video picture, features, and interface, but never settled in to really get comfortable. [FYI - They actually commented at the end of this article before I wrote the review, but otherwise never contacted me or offered me anything for this review]
FujiTV is a TV-only service; there is no video on demand (although they claim that feature is coming). Recently, they upgraded to 2 weeks worth of archived television. Like JapanTV and iSakura, you can navigate the calendar to see current, future, and past programming for each channel, and clicking on the show you want to watch launches the program.
The interface was slightly harder to use than JapanTV and iSakura, mostly because it wasn’t as intuitive. Also, the interface lacks the channel icons that JapanTV has. The show descriptions scroll on FujiTv and are not immediately readable in full, like they are with JapanTV and iSakura. The text is a little smaller too. What FujiTV’s interface gains in speed over JapanTV, it loses in readability. However, once I understood what the buttons did, they worked well. I could not figure out how to fast-forward or rewind shows, however.
The biggest selling point for me was the great picture and fast connection. Using my first, weak connection, I cannot overstate the difference between Fujitv and JapanTV for me; it was the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it. If I clicked on a show, it loaded – immediately. That was true, regardless of whether the show was live or archived. Sometimes the picture was excellent, and sometimes it was merely good. Still, at its best, it was better than standard definition TV.
With my fast connection, the difference between FujiTV and JapanTV became subtler. Fuji TV still looked good, but JapanTV was actually better at displaying live HD content, such as a NHK nature film. The blacks were deeper on JapanTV, although the color on FujiTV was still very good. Bottom line – both displayed great pictures. Just like JapanTV, FujiTV never reached the pristine quality of a true HD feed from NHK.
FujiTV shares the ability to “favorite” a channel, something that JapanTV offers but iSakura does not. Again, that’s a handy feature with so many channels. FujiTV doesn’t have the full range of channels available with JapanTV and iSakura, but that comes down to personal preference. When I had DirectTV, I had 280 channels and watched the same 4 channels all the time.
Also, I discovered something odd – FujiTV runs about a minute behind JapanTV. Weird, no?
FujiTV Verdict: Good interface. With a weak Internet connection, the connection was still strong and let me watch whatever I wanted to with a strong picture. With a strong connection, the picture was even better and it became easier to surf, pause, and rewind. It’s relatively easy to install, but a snap to try for free.
Did I mention that FujiTV plays from any web browser with no extra software? That’s something that JapanTV and iSakura can’t claim; both require special software or plugins. Honestly, go try it right now for free! Who needs my opinion when it is that easy to try for yourself?
iSakura, like FujiTV, is a TV-only package with no video on demand. However, it also features 2 weeks of archived television shows that you can freely choose, just like JapanTV. iSakura has two packages, and only one of them is designed for the FireTv or Android devices. However, once you sign up with that version, you can use that account to watch it on iOs or PC (I did not try that option). Like JapanTV, iSakura has a 3-day trial option that you can use one time. $4 buys you 3 days.
I didn’t sign up for iSakura until after I had my upgraded Internet connection, so I can’t speak to how good the connection would have been on my first, terrible Internet connection. However, with a strong connection, iSakura was fast and seamless- if I clicked on an archived show or changed the channel, the programming popped up instantly with no lag and the image and sound stayed clean. When it came to changing channels or programs, iSakura felt the most like regular TV of all the options. It was the fastest of all three services.
The picture was basically the same as FujiTV and JapanTV. It looked like a good YouTube video. However, in one test, iSakura really crushed JapanTV. “The Blind Side” happened to be playing on Wowwow and I watched a nighttime scene in the movie that had lots of dark colors. iSakura looked good – like the movie should. JapanTV’s blacks blurred together and looked indistinct. As for FujiTV, it fell in the middle – definitely better than JapanTV, but slightly short of iSakura.
When channel surfing, iSakura’s channel guide is the least obtrusive – a list of channels just pops up on the side. You can pause, but not rewind, live TV. Of course, with archived programming, you can fast-forward and rewind. It was also the easiest of all the interfaces for me to use. It’s probably just preference, but the way the buttons on the FireTV remote interfaced with the program guide just flowed very logically – I never found myself accidentally changing a channel or a program, the way I often did with FujiTV and JapanTV.
However, the easy and speed comes at the cost of aesthetics; JapanTV’s guide has icons and clear channel names. iSakura’s guide has a short description of the station, without any icons. That’s especially tough because, unlike FujiTV and JapanTV, you can’t designate favorite channels and create a separate guide for them.
Just like JapanTV, if you are watching pre-recorded content on one channel and then try to look at what another channel has available, it will cut you off from what you were watching. However, if you search through content on the same channel for other dates/times, you can keep watching your show. The fact that I could watch a three-day old program and still surf for other content on that channel while watching it was a big advantage over JapanTV.
Like FujiTV, but unlike JapanTV, iSakura lists program times in Japan time. A show that airs at 19:30 in Japan is listed on the guide as 19:30.
iSakura Verdict: Great signal without a single interruption during the entire test (at high speed). Changes channels and loads content seamlessly, without lag. Clean, simple interface and a good picture with both live and archived (DVR) content. Better blacks and colors with some content. Lacks a “favorite channel” function or on-demand movies.
None of the three services even approached the sort of HD picture that Netflix delivers through its app, or that the picture you might get with an HD app like the one offered by the Metropolitan Opera. None of these services offered a true HD feed of Japanese TV like one would get with TVJapan, the overseas version of NHK. If you want true HD, the only choice is signing up for TVJapan; DishNetwork once offered it, and it is now available through DirectTV. Some cable providers offer TVJapan as well, but my local provider only offers it in SD.
On the other hand, you aren’t getting just one channel – you are getting access to TV broadcast from the other side of the planet, along with a week or more of DVR material for every channel, and available at the click of the button. The picture isn’t perfect; deal with it. What all three services offer, frankly, is amazing. I predict that no one would be disappointed with any of these services, provided that your Internet connection sustains them. Fortunately, all three offer a free (FujiTV) or $4/3 day trials (JapanTV & iSakura). Check them out!
Please note: The remainder of this post is from August 2014. I have not updated it since then, although I plan to go through and test and update the links soon.
See Below for Original Post from August 2014
The Fall Semester is starting and that means it’s time to get back to studying! TV is an integral part of American culture, and anyone who is interested in Japan or learning Japanese eventually gets curious about what Japanese TV is like. Sure, we see the crazy and unusual aspects, but watching normal everyday Japanese TV can really help you learn the language and culture.
Unfortunately, finding Japanese television can be challenging. While it used to be easier to find services that re-broadcast Japanese television overseas, in February 2011, Japan's Supreme Court decided that “place shifting” Japanese television was illegal, in a ruling that went against Nagano Shoten's Maneki TV service. Until then, companies had been offering services that let you watch Japanese TV that was being received by one TV in Japan and then beamed to you overseas. If that sounds familiar, the United States Supreme Court also declared that practice illegal this year in its Aero decision.
Consequently, what is left for people overseas who want to watch Japanese television is a hodge-podge of grey-market and probably illegal methods, along with a couple of perfectly legal (if not limited) methods as well. Here are some of the options (but I can’t vouch for any of them – most of them are problematic):
UPDATE (Jan 2015): Japan is currently undergoing a new crackdown on uploaded content. Authories arrested a man in Japan last month for uploading many videos to Dailymotion. It seems the answer Japan wants to "Is Japan Cool?" is "I don't know, I can't watch any of their television."
Here's a great blog where people discuss updates to various streaming services:
Fortunately, if you want to watch the news, these links are all free and legal
Tokyo MX also has their own YouTube Channel with shorter and longer news clips for viewing: https://www.youtube.com/user/tokyomx
TBS also has a page in Japanese, with many pre-recorded clips as well: http://news.tbs.co.jp
If you have Google Chrome, you can also check out their Japanese news channels, such as Channel J – General, FNN – News, Nc Kyo – General, NHK Bs2 – News, NHK World – News, Odoroku TV, Seebit – General, TBS – News, and Yomiuri.
One of the best places to find videos if you are still learning Japanese (aren’t we all?) is to use NHK’s vast library of children’s videos. Each program also has a summary available for it, and many have extra clips or supplementary materials as well: http://www.nhk.or.jp/school/
Here’s a guide to using the website, which has over 50 videos for all ages. http://joechip.net/extensivereading/2013/10/30/watch-japanese-kids-shows-online-with-nhk-for-school-translated-program-guide-for-japanese-learners/
UPDATE: Viki has started to offer pre-recorded Japanese TV Dramas (with ads, but otherwise for free). Here's the website: https://www.viki.com/countries/japan
YouTube is full of pre-recorded Japanese television, but you have to know where to look. There are many different websites that let you do that, and here is one of them (it’s in Japanese): http://youtubeowaraitv.blog32.fc2.com
Here’s a video explaining how to use that link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Qlmp00cexk
And a similar site can be found here: http://varadoga.blog136.fc2.com
and here: http://youtubewara.blog10.fc2.com
Reddit is always a great place to find information, and has a subreddit where you can find links to Japanese television. http://www.reddit.com/r/JTV
Reddit also offers a page where you can browse its most recent videos, like you would pictures on Imgur. http://reddit.tv/#/r/JTV
Reddit also shares a great deal of links to Japanese Game Shows here, and even have some with English subtitles! http://www.reddit.com/r/JapaneseGameShows
From your computer, there are many shows available on Crunchyroll, and if you are also willing to pay for their subscription service, you can get even more shows and also watch on your Xbox, Roku or Apple TV or similar device. Crunchyroll (which is entirely legal and buys licenses from Japan) offers free and paid access to Japanese dramas and anime, as well as some movies. http://www.crunchyroll.com
Live Television: Free
If you want to watch live Japanese television, that can be a little trickier. You could, of course, subscribe to TVJapan from Comcast, DishNetwork, or Fios. NHK is the Japanese equivalent of PBS, in a way. However, that single television station can cost as much as $30/month, which is a lot of money for one station! TVJapan broadcasts programs that air on NHK in Japan and is almost entirely commercial-free which is nice.
Speaking of PBS, PBS offers NHK world shows through MHz, which locally can be seen on Charlottesville channel 41.3; unfortunately, NHK world is almost always in English.
Another option is Niji, which I am told is great, but I’ve never used because it is PC only – no Mac or iDevice. Niji doesn’t always work, so I’ve heard. But it offers access to many different channels, all broadcast live from Japan.
You can out their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/myniji
Another website that PC users really enjoyed (so I’ve heard) was http://www.fengyunzhibo.com/space/japan.htm but of late, the site has become unreliable. This website also offers a gateway, but it’s never worked for me.
Another cool site is this one, where a user in Japan has set up a streaming service to his/her TV in Japan. It offers 4 live feeds to whatever that TV is tuned to at the moment. Here's the link:
The website has four icons which run left to right. Each icon plays the same feed, but through a different player. Some of the feeds work on Macs, some work on iOs, but they all work on PC. However, not all of them work 100% of the time. Let's face it - you get what you pay for!
Live Television: Paid Services
On the other hand, if you have money, of course, the options are more plentiful:
For example, you can subscribe to a place-shifting service such as http://jpplayer.com
They will give you access to many live channels in exchange for a subscription fee. 1 Year costs $200, or $16 per month. PC only, though.
Another, similar service is http://en.itvjpn.com
Another option is to purchase a Japanese IPTV set-top box. This box gives you access, through the internet, to television channels that are being sent from overseas (usually Taiwan). This device works sort of like a slingbox, where you control the channels and can even hook up a DVR. Be warned, though – although they offer “HD quality” the real quality depends on the speed of your internet. And by “speed of your internet” we are really talking about the internet signal that runs under the ocean from Taiwan.
Some of those boxes can be found at foreign retailers – no guarantees about quality, though.
Once you’ve found your feed, the last step is getting your hands on a TV Guide – fortunately, at least that is always free. You can find a nice one, up-to-date, at Yahoo Japan http://tv.yahoo.co.jp/listings/realtime/
Reviews - Which paid service is best?
Which one of these services are the best? Mantis Kamakiri has a great page with reviews of several paid streaming services at http://streamingglobaltv.com/watch-japanese-tv-online/
Mantis says: "I use one of the programs sold through JapanNetTV and it is pretty stable most of the time, iSakura would be the one to go for though as it is the most reliable. And yes, a lot of those apps come with a free trial so you can test compatibility."
You might have noticed that I left out any mention of BitTorrent or various other Torrent/File-Sharing sites. That was deliberate; you’ll have to make your own decision about whether to participate in those types of websites. I also left out other foreign-language websites, like YouKu and Tudou, which require the user to also speak the language of the website, in addition to English and Japanese. Lastly, I left out Nico Nico Douga because that website deserves an entry all to itself someday!
What method do you use to watch Japanese TV? Share it with the rest of us and I can make it part of a future post!