Paying and avoiding NHK

Like in the UK, you are required to pay the government if you have a television. However, there are no real fines if you refuse to pay. Sooner or later you will find an old guy from the Japanese government channel NHK knocking at your door and asking if you have a TV. Say no and he’ll go away for a while. Say yes and he will order you to pay. Over and over again. Even if you say you never watch NHK because it’s made for insomniacs who don’t respond to strong drugs, or never even turn on the tube at all, he’ll demand your money. And having a satellite dish hanging out on your balcony is a dead giveaway. One way around this is to live in a building where the building has the dish, and you just plug in your “broadcast satellite (BS) tuner” from inside your room.

That’s from The Japan FAQ, long one of my favorite English-language resources regarding living in Japan.

NHK reports that nearly 40 million households pay NHK fees. That’s out of about 50 million households in Japan—so non-payers are definitely in the minority.

NHK is getting better at collecting its fees, too. Analog TV has almost become obsolete, and digital TVs have identifying chips which make it possible to link an individual TV with an individual NHK contract. If you use a new TV for more than a month, it will start showing nag messages superimposed over the NHK BS channels, telling you to call NHK and get the TV registered to your NHK account. NHK has also sued some non-payers, which is somewhat intimidating but not an economically effective way to compel payment: 33 households were sued in summary court in 2006, and of those, two viewers’ appeals lodged with the Tokyo High Court were only dismissed this June.

I have always had an uneasy relationship with television license fees. On one hand, broadcasters supported by license fees, like NHK and the BBC, offer some of the very best programming in the world, almost completely free of commercial content. Terrestrial TV in Japan is largely a cesspool of talentless celebrities, product placement and blatant commercial fluff, but NHK’s channels carry a wide array of useful and sensible programming. Even for fresh-off-the-boat foreigners who don’t speak a word of Japanese, NHK dubs its evening news into English and rebroadcasts news and documentary programs from around the world (and they tell you how to pay for it all in English).

On the other hand, the license fee itself is essentially a regressive tax. Basically every household has to pay the same amount, and it isn’t pocket change—it’s currently around 15,000 yen per year for terrestrial broadcasts and around 25,000 yen if BS channels are included. There are exceptions for disabled people and people on welfare, but able-bodied working people with low incomes are shaken down to a proportionally higher degree than wealthier people. The fee is determined somewhat arbitrarily by NHK and approved by the Internal Affairs Minister. Even though NHK is nominally a viewer-supported private association, it is chartered by the government, its board is chosen by the Diet, and its budget is subject to review in the Diet.

I grew up with PBS in the United States, which is a sort of constellation of private non-profit broadcasters funded by a combination of voluntary viewer donations, corporate sponsorship, foundation grants on behalf of dead rich people, and state and federal subsidies (including a large amount of federal money pushed in through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting). The advantage to this system is that anyone can legally own a TV and watch PBS without paying a dime; the disadvantage is that the programming is dictated by the interests who actually do pay, and the way this works is not always transparent even to viewers paying into the system. There is also a lot of PBS air time devoted to begging for donations, usually through periodic “pledge weeks” which disrupt ordinary programming.

Personally, although I am a free-marketer in other spheres, I believe that if public broadcasting is going to be heavily government-influenced anyway, it might as well be funded by the government, and the costs spread among the public just as they would be for any other government expense. But if given the choice of either NHK or PBS, I would probably take PBS and throw money at it every now and then so long as it’s relevant to me, rather than live with NHK’s mandated entitlement to a fixed chunk of my income even if I don’t care for its programming at all.

If you don’t want to pay NHK, there are a few ways to legally avoid the fee:

  • Don’t own a TV. Note that, legally speaking, any sort of TV tuner which can receive NHK will subject you to the NHK tax. This includes mobile phones and computers that have TV tuners built in.
  • Don’t use your TV for the purpose of receiving broadcast signals. (Or get a TV which is incapable of receiving signals. Many expats get TVs from US military bases, which can be used for watching movies on disc, or as a large-screen computer display, but cannot get Japanese TV signals; therefore no NHK tax is incurred by owning one.)
  • Set up a school or welfare facility of some sort (these are exempt from fees).
  • Become gravely disabled and/or go on government assistance.
  • Leave Japan.

The Japan FAQ is still correct in that illegally avoiding the fee is easy. Unlike the UK, where TV freeloaders can be fined by the government, Japan decided not to impose any penalties for failing to pay the NHK tax. The only practical penalties are BS nag screens, periodic doorbell rings by NHK collectors, and the risk of a lawsuit (which generally has no teeth in Japan, since there is no contempt of court here and appeals are both easy and time-consuming).

33 thoughts on “Paying and avoiding NHK

  1. In my 10+ years in Japan, I have had two main conversations with NHK representatives. The first time I just told them that as a foreigner without a long-term visa, I would not waste my time buying a TV which I may need to throw away if my visa is not renewed. They then asked if I owned a computer, which could also be used to watch TV. I said that I do, but that I have no idea how to watch TV on it. Both of these were lies, but were enough to get him to give up.

    After the first event, I reviewed the law and also consulted a lawyer. The relevant law is 放送法32条. The law says nothing about the need to pay any fees. It only says that need to sign a contract (契約をしなければならない). The terms of the contract are not specified. It also does not say within how long you need to sign the contract. There are many laws that define contracts and ones rights. (I took contract law at a Japanese university.) In short, both parties need to agree to the details.

    The two major ways to fight this is:
    1) As per the law, agree to the need to sign a contract. When this is to be done is a separate matter for consideration.
    2) Negotiate the contract until you agree to it. There need not be any monetary considerations unless you desire it.

    I printed up 放送法32条 and have a copy at my genkan. A few years later another NHK person showed up. I told him honestly that I did have a TV, and they demanded that I payed. We discussed matters of the law for about three hours before he gave up. He had apparently never actually read the law, and knew nothing about contract law. I told him that I would be willing to argue the case in court if he wanted to pursue it further. I never heard anything back after that.

  2. I got away the first time by pretending I spoke no japanese and didn’t know what he was talking about. He came back with a pamphlet in complete english. It was my last month in Japan so I gave him his 1300 yen or whatever it was, mostly because of the effort he went to to bring english to me. Had I been there longer I would have figured out a better way to avoid answering the door.

  3. I thought that they had stopped door to door collections? Although, if they have, how will they get anyone to pay?

  4. David, I’m sure you are proud of yourself for displaying all that legal knowledge, etc., but what is the greater purpose of not supporting public television in Japan?

  5. @David: You are wrong about the law, and you should fire your lawyer. The second and third paragraphs of Article 32 go on to say (quoted from this translation):

    (2) NHK shall, unless in accordance with the standard approved by the Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications in advance, not exempt the receiver’s fee from any person who concluded a contract in accordance with the main clause of the preceding paragraph.
    (3) NHK shall obtain the prior approval of the Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications for the terms and conditions of the contract mentioned in paragraph (1). The same shall apply to the intended change thereof.

    In other words, you not only have to sign a contract: you have to sign the contract which NHK and the government have agreed to, and NHK is not allowed to let you off the hook for fees unless you are in one of the classes which NHK and the government have agreed should be exempt.

    People have raised the “freedom of contract” defense in court (see the link above) and have lost. You implicitly accept the terms of NHK’s contract when you acquire and watch a TV in Japan. They probably won’t do much if you fail to pay, other than harrass you, but you do have the legal obligation to pay.

    @Wataru: There’s a difference between supporting public television and being forced to support public television. You and I like NHK, but many TV owners and viewers don’t care for it and almost never watch it, yet are still legally arm-twisted into paying a large amount of money to support it. I know quite a few people who would prefer an advertising-supported or purely government-supported NHK over the current irregular regressive tax system.

  6. Joe, supporting NHK is far more than supporting their channels and their programs. NHK also develops the technologies on which so much of the broadcasting industry depends. If you want to argue against subsidized research, that’s one thing; but whether or not people watch NHK is not the whole story by any means.

  7. @Wataru: You’re right. They do other more broadly-applicable things with some of the money, and NHK’s operations indirectly subsidize technology development which benefits other broadcasters. However, the ultimate destiny of most of the collected money is still to operate the NHK channels, and there is no legal option to withhold the payment just because you don’t watch them.

    @Aceface: NHK is not technically part of the government, but from a practical perspective, I think the question is open to debate. NHK is certainly neither private nor completely autonomous. The government appoints the NHK board, gave NHK its right to hit up TV owners for fees, and can theoretically pull the plug on NHK’s franchise at any time by amending or repealing the Broadcasting Act. That said, NHK is still incredibly popular and trusted in Japan, so this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. It’s perhaps best to say that NHK is independent, but with the conditions that it has to keep the people and the government reasonably happy.

  8. Joe,

    You and David are talking past each other. David is right in what he wrote. As are you. The courts dismissed the case because NHK has the legal right to require those who qualify to conclude a contract. However, at the same time, David is correct in that when and under which contract is not defined. The judges did not dismiss these arguments. The law is flawed as is, and a judge cannot rule on something not based upon law.

  9. Joe,

    The English translation is adequate. However, I cannot understand how you came to your conclusion on it. Clause (2) states that NHK will, with one exception, not exempt the fee for anyone who concluded a contract in clause (1). That has nothing to do with those who have not concluded such a contract.
    Further, clause (3) states that NHK will gain legal approval for their contract. This has nothing to do with people who are to conclude the agreement.

    There is no legal basis for your conclusion. I read the linked PDF. It only says that NHK has a legal right to contract people. I fully agree on that point because 放送32 plainly says so. However, when and what contract are the issues, and those were not addressed by the courts. Having previously invested a bit of time and money on this issue, I still stand by my earlier comments.

  10. David, Thank you very much for your wonderful detailed explanations.

    People like you surely deserve respect.

    Thank you once again.

  11. Essentially it’s a tax.

    Irregardless of the guise.

    It’s to help fund the flabby public tv industry.

    Buy a car and keep it mint in your shako and only move it onto the street to wash it, you will still need to pay the obligatory fees for that privilege. But I’m not driving – ha, ha.

  12. NHK won their court cases because the people they were suing were in breach of the contract they had already signed with NHK. They stopped paying as a protest against all the crap and shenanigans NHK had been pulling over the years (embezzlement, amakudari etc etc.) Once a contract is signed and agreed upon, you are obligated to keep paying until such time as it is determined you no longer apply (loss of TV etc.)

    Had no contract been signed by the defendants, NHK would have had a MUCH harder time going after the individuals because, as Dave points out, no contract has been agreed upon so NHK doesn’t know who to legally go after.

  13. I thought that they had stopped door to door collections? Although, if they have, how will they get anyone to pay?

    They have stopped door-to-door collections. That means, you no longer have the option to pay the collector in cash when he turns up at the door every month—you have to sign up to pay by bank transfer, credit card, etc.

    They have not stopped sending people out “door-to-door” to get them to sign up, though.

  14. I had never got doorbell, but I have been stopped outside house and asked if I have TV. I never had desire to watch TV in Japan, but NHK fee collector was in deep doubts.

  15. I used to get cable TV, and the cable company apparently sent around a memo that NHK fees were to be included in cable payments. I eventually quit the cable TV service because I got tired of old TV shows, insurance advertisements and so on. I never actually had a TV, but I had a second monitor on my computer that could process the cable signal. Anyway, the cable company gave (or had already given) my info to NHK, so NHK started hounding me. I told the guy at the door that I had no TV. He kept ringing the doorbell but I ignored him. I keep getting bills from NHK.

    Fed up, I called the local office of NHK. They had no English phone line, but I’m not too bad in Japanese. I explained the basics (quit cable, no TV now, want to stop getting bills and unpaid notices). The NHK rep on the phone said he’d send me something that I need to sign and send back. Supposedly it’ll be a statement saying that I have no TV, but I’ll be sure to confirm this with a native Japanese, since my reading level is only so-so.

  16. Sounds reasonable enough to me. I expect you have someone you can ask to check it, but I would be sort of interested to see what that form looks like. Maybe you can send us a scan/photo to blog here?

  17. I have a question. My wife and I, she’s a naturalized U.S. citizen, born in Japan, own a small house near Osaka. We come to Japan from the U.S. on 90 day tourist visas. As official tourists why does NHK continue to hound us? We’re not here most of the time, but when we are, we’re visited every month. We pay for NHK satellite programming in the U.S. for my wife but 95% of it is wasted on me since I don’t understand broadcast Japanese and get my news from the Daily Yomiuri. I also bring DVDs I burn in the U.S. We’ve invested a lot of our U.S. savings over the years in our house here, and tens of thousands more in living expenses, gifts and travel each time we come. We have basically no rights while we’re here but are subjected to the same NHK harassment our Japanese neighbors are no matter how often we tell them we’re on tourist visas. Is there something I can use to get these people out of my life while we’re here?

  18. JH, if they visit you, tell them you don’t own a TV, thanks for visiting. That you’ve invested money in the house and in Japan is not relevant to them.

  19. Exactly. Your visa status etc. are irrelevant to NHK and it has nothing to do with rights. If you own a TV, you are supposed to pay whether you watch or not. If you don’t own a TV you don’t have to pay. If you want to follow the rules by the book, then to not pay you need to get rid of any device with a TV tuner and replace it with a non tuner-equipped LCD monitor.

  20. any way out of this if you stupidly signed the form (no one warned me, and dude was seriously about to cry)? i told them once i had no tv, and they hadn’t come around for like 6 months. then, suddenly, back again and in force. and, said i owed 40000… yikes. any way out of this? other than move to a different place?

  21. Having the same issue now. I moved to a run down old appartment. It looked like no one lived there, for one year no problem, No NHK man knocking.
    I recently Renovated the appartments and now he is at the door knocking every friday night. I have cable TV, and was told my payment to PLALA covered NHK, but he keeps pestering me. I just don’t answer when he comes. I have a mate in Chiba who just told them they have no tv and they left him alone for the 4 years he has lived there….

  22. I’ve been here 9 years, the entire time with a TV and cable. I even pushed the blue button on the remote that is supposed to make the message go away on BS channels (but it didn’t). I’ve never even had a knock at the door by NHK. I’m feeling a little left out of the fun here.

  23. I am not f***ing kidding. Don’t post here! I posted one week ago about how in 9 years I never heard from the NHK people but in the last week, my wife answered the intercom and it was them. I was in Tokyo so she told them to come back when I was around. Well, they just did. I just can’t believe that for 9 years, nothing. Now twice in a week!

  24. BTW NHK, I was just kidding. I don’t have a TV. I only use cable Internet, that’s why I have cable.

  25. James Nomura-Harrington, putting your FULL NAME as your moniker on an Internet site probably didn’t help! There can’t be many James Nomura-Harringtons in Japan, so if ‘they’ ate watching, you cannot have been that difficult to locate. You might not believe this, but my real name isn’t Genghis Khan.

  26. This may be a stupid question but I’ve had a digital tv for about a year but we lost the signal about 8 months ago. I hadn’t watched the local stations in any case and haven’t been able to pick up any channels no matter how much I tried to fix it (I had wanted to watch the olympics so I gave it a try). I’ve been using it exclusively with Hulu Plus and for games. So I just pulled the antenna out.
    Here’s the stupid question I guess. Would they be able to pick up a signal when the antenna is not plugged in? The NHK guy later told me I’d have to pay regardless because I have a smart phone and a computer. I’m pretty certain that neither my iPhone nor mac have antennas for receiving TV signals. Oh, and the NHK was incredibly pushy. I was on my way out to do a lesson. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, even when I told him to come back later.

  27. I can’t answer your question , but I’ll tell you that we haven’t paid NHK since we got married 26 years ago in Tokyo . Never signed a contract BTW . Have moved twice since then in Kumamoto . The NHK guy came yesterday after about a 7 year hiatus . We have local ( boondock ) cable and I guess he knows that so trying to pull the we don’t have a tv shtick was pointless . After a little arguing about this and that , I told him to talk to my Japanese wife , who wasn’t home . He asked me what time she usually gets home . I told him she worked at a hospital and her hours vary so she gets home a different time every day . He handed me a pamphlet explaining how ” we the people ” are NHK “sponsors ” and it’s our duty to pay , blah blah blah , and left . But he’ll be back …someday .

  28. I believe the detector vans work by searching for resonance signals send out by the TV tuner while it is active, since any radio receiver is also a weak transmitter, and vice-versa. If the tuner is never used then there should not be any way it can be externally detected, although they will certainly still drop by and ask you if you have one.

  29. Hey, look at it positively, at least you’re forced into supporting a station that probably makes something worth watching and also helps develop future TV technology, like 8K. At least your money went toward making 8K happen, which is cool, us swedes are paying for the travesty they call Melodifestivalen. And SVT barely air anything worth watching that wouldn’t be picked up by another network if they shut down.

    Quite frankly, with the Internet playing the role it does, I think the Public Service payment model is kind of outdated. I mean, all those year ago, it made sense because it was better than letting everything end up controlled by advertisers, I mean, look at America. America is a mess due in no small part to the fact all their media except the Internet are owned by either the Democrats or the Republicans.

    Today, however, we have the Internet and it seems TV as a medium as a whole is slowly getting outdated. I see no reason to pay the government to provide an alternative to commercially produced TV anymore now that the Internet provides all kinds of alternatives. Then again, maybe I just feel that way because my government’s TV channels (SVT) produce mostly crap. Also, if anything, ironically SVT are the ones without the balls to do anything controversial while the commercial stations air shows about teens drinking their heads off because “WOOO SUMMER“.

    Also, I’d say we’re a good example of why the FCC shouldn’t be allowed to exist. We have no such censorship whatsoever, i.e. channels are allowed to broadcast whatever they want whenever they want as long as they follow the same laws as e.g. someone publishing a video on the Internet or on DVD’s. Despite this, we have all of one or two dedicated porn channels, though I think C More (used to be Canal+) used to send porn late at night years ago but I have no idea if they still do (I have an Internet connection). Then again, I suppose the reason most TV networks here in sweden act very sensiuble when it comes to objectionable content is that most of them broadcast from the UK (except the American ones, I would assume), meaning they have to follow UK broadcast law.

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