Whenever I write about Japanese TV, someone inevitably asks: How do I watch Japanese TV if I don’t live in Japan?
If you’re an anime fan, you’re in luck. Between services like Netflix and Crunchyroll, there’s no lack of good things to watch. But if you prefer real-life human shows – variety, drama, news, talk shows – things get a lot trickier.
In the post below, I review the options at your disposal. At the end, I talk about the most common solution to this problem – Virtual Private Network software – and the pros and cons involved. I’ll also talk a little about our preferred vendor for VPN access, Cyberghost VPN.
Please note this analysis is based on my perspective of having used these options from the United States. Depending on where you live, your mileage may vary. Also, I’m focused exclusively on access to “raw” content for people who know at least some Japanese; I don’t discuss where to obtain English subtitles.
What’s on Japanese TV?
Before we dive in, a bit of background as to what airs on Japanese TV.
Traditionally, Japanese TV has a similar structure to TV in other countries. Japan has a single public broadcaster, the NHK (日本放送協会). The government funds the station through a compulsory tax. (Not everyone’s happy with that; in fact, someone created an entire political party to oppose it.)
NHK sponsors several related stations and carries a mix of educational and entertainment content. One of its most popular offerings is the so-called asa-dora (朝ドラ), or morning drama – a weeks-long dramatic event that airs in 15-minute segments every weekday morning.
Besides NHK, there are numerous private national TV stations. These fund themselves in the usual traditional ways, such as advertising sales and merchandising tie-ins with popular series. Fuji, Asahi, TBS, and NTV are the most popular national stations.
Finally, you have your cable stations. These are often specialized stations that range from offering more adult-oriented content to stations that broadcast a particular niche, such as Korean or US dramas. One of the most popular examples in this space is WoWoW, which airs a host of Hollywood and Japanese movies as well as its own limited-run series.
Variety vs. Drama
You can think of Japanese TV as divided into a few major categories. Besides the ever-popular anime, you have variety shows, dramas, and news shows – particularly morning talk shows.
By far the most popular shows on Japanese TV are variety programs. These can range from the somewhat serious to the downright slapstick. A good example of the latter is Itte-Q!, where the program sends the stars around the world to basically humiliate themselves or perform dangerous stunts.
Others, such as The World Unknown to Matsuko (マツコの知らない世界) or Things Only 30% of Japanese Know (日本人の3割しか知らないこと), combine humor with actual informative content. These programs can be a huge boon for Japanese learners with intermediate to advanced skills. You can practice your Japanese while also learning something useful about life in modern Japan.
Japanese drama has a bad reputation for being…well, bad. That’s a bit unfair. There are some gems lurking amongst the stinkers. I’ve talked about a few of these before, including the extremely popular Hanzawa Naoki.
The Move Online
In the past, you could only watch Japanese TV the old-fashioned way: via a TV set. However, several TV stations are now offering their own online services. Services like Paravi , TVer , and other let viewers inside of Japan catch dramas, variety shows, and other programs asynchronously.
There’s also a ton of original content appearing online these days. Netflix and Hulu both create original programming for Japanese audiences. Services like Ameba TV sport their own original news and variety content to boot. And, of course, there’s always YouTube, which is exceedingly popular in Japan.
Japanese TV Outside of Japan: The Problem
Okay, so…here’s the catch. The main issue with watching Japanese TV outside of Japan is that, even in the second decade of the 21st century, there just aren’t that many good options.It seems silly that, as the Internet knocks down barriers between nations, some media companies are working so intently on building them back up. Click To Tweet
On the plus side, if you live in Japan, your options for watching TV online are growing by the day. Every major TV network in Japan has seen their ratings plummet as they lose out to YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu. As a result, most are switching to line services as quickly as possible. Services like Paravi , TVer , and others let you catch the latest episodes of recent dramas online if you didn’t catch them when they first aired because…well, because it’s not 1983.
On the minus side, there’s this pesky little thing called licensing. Licenses for content broadcast on Japanese TV often only allow for domestic distribution. That means that pretty much every service I just described is region-locked. If you try and watch them outside of Japan, you’ll get a polite message telling you to shove off.
There are (sometimes) ways to get around such access restrictions. Before we dive into those, however, let’s look at other methods for watching Japanese TV. Thankfully, there are options even if don’t currently live in the land of cherry blossoms and strawberry Kit Kats.
Legal Options for Watching Japanese TV
First, let’s start with the obvious choice: YouTube! There’s a ton of Japanese content on YouTube that’s yours for the watching. Popular YouTubers like Hikakin and Fuwa-chan have hours upon hours of uploaded episodes. Just browse around a little and you’re sure to find something to your liking.
If you’re looking for news, you’re in luck as well. Several news stations, including ANN and FNN, upload news clips daily. Many, such as FNN, even sponsor a livestream of their news programs targeted specifically at residents living abroad.
Of course, you probably already knew about YouTube. You’re here because what you really want to see is a variety TV show like The World Unknown to Matsuko or London Hearts, or perhaps one of the NHK morning dramas.
Note: As of September 2023, dLibrary is suspending new subscriptions as it works to update its streaming technology. The service expects to return sometime in 2024.
The good news is there’s at least one viable and fully legal solution for this. The Web site dLibrary, owned and operated by NHK Cosmo Media America , allows viewers living outside of Japan to watch a selected, rotating selection of popular drama and variety from the country. dLibrary has been doing a pretty good job of getting some of Japan’s most popular drama titles onboarded. For example, members can currently view hits such as Hanzawa Naoki Season 2, Gisou Furin, and Kyou, Nani Tabeta?, among others. You’ll also find some movies, older dramas, and a collection of variety shows such as The World Unknown to Matsuko, Tokoro! Japan, and a few others.The main issue with watching Japanese TV outside of Japan is that, even in the second decade of the 21st century, there just aren't that many good options. Click To Tweet
The downside to dLibrary is that the selection at any one time is limited. If you try and binge it the way many people binge Netflix, you’ll likely run out of material that interests you pretty quickly. Also, there are, inexplicably, no Japanese subtitles on dLibrary for anything. So if you rely on J-subs for learning purposes, you’re SOL. This is really a shameful oversight. The caption files already exist for closed-captioning in Japan. It would cost NHK nothing to make them available online.
Streaming Services (Sort of)
Unfortunately, unless you live in Japan, the amount of Japanese content on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime is limited. However, there is some content. In particular, Netflix makes its exclusives for the Japanese market available in the US and other countries, so you can catch dramas such as Switched and Boku Dake Ga Inai Machi.
Another plus: Many Netflix exclusives made for other countries actually have pretty good Japanese dub tracks, so you can watch shows like Lupin in Japanese. Switching between Japanese language and English subs can be a good way to get in some additional language practice.
Users in Europe and elsewhere may also benefit from Rakuten’s Viki. According to one EU user in the comments, there are around 34 different shows available. Unfortunately, in the US, there are only about two.
In short, it’s still slim pickin’s out there for streaming Japanese drama. This is especially true when you compare it to the huge catalog of Korean and Chinese shows available on US Netflix, Viki, and other services. Japanese drama has a bad reputation for being sort of hokey at times. But there have been some great dramas in recent years – shows like Hanzawa Naoki and Way of the House-Husband – that I think international audiences would love.
A Cable Service
Yes, I know – it’s the 21st century and nothing screams “boomer” like a cable TV subscription. But if you’re one of the few who still love your set-top box, then a service like TV Japan in the US or Canada may be right up your alley. This is also run by NHK Cosmo Media America and includes a fair mix of news, drama, documentaries, and variety.
The downside of these services is, of course, that they require cable. Additionally, the available programming is quite limited. And, frankly, the best programs from the service are all available on dLibrary as well.
Watching Japanese TV with a VPN Connection
Want access to the Japan version of Netflix? Or want to use a streamng service like TVer that’s region-locked to Japan? If so, try a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPN software like CyberGhost VPN (affiliate link) connects your computer through a server in another country. That means you can basically masquerade as being in any country of your choice.
Using CyberGhost VPN, for example, it’s pretty easy to connect my computer in the US to a server in Japan and watch the most recent episode of a drama like ウチの娘は、彼氏が出来ない!! (uchi no musume ha kareshi ga dekinai; My Daughter Can’t Get a Guy) on TVer. CyberGhost VPN will also defeat region locking on YouTube music videos and other content, and will give you access to services like NHK Radio  and NHK On Demand. The online TV service Abema  also works fine via VPN.
The Fine Print
So…what’s the catch? Well, there are several, sadly:
- This won’t work on Netflix and Hulu. Netflix and Hulu are highly invested in defeating VPN software – and they’ve gotten very good at it. Your VPN software very likely won’t get you access to Netflix Japan. E.g., Netflix sees right through CyberGhost on my system and serves me up plain old, boring US Netflix, VPN connection be damned. And Hulu.co.jp is blocked entirely. Even worse, a VPN that works today may very well stop working tomorrow, as Netflix may detect and ban the IP ranges used by your provider.
Note that CyberGhost VPN does offer some servers that are specifically optimized for streaming services like Netflix. Unfortunately, they don’t appear to offer a server for Japan at this time. Other service providers, such as Express VPN, have also told me that their services are primarily meant for non-Americans to access servers in the US – not TV services in non-US countries.
- This won’t defeat “payment region locking”. Pay TV streaming services like Paravi require having a credit or debit card issued by a Japanese bank. So unless you have a Japanese bank account, you’re pretty much out of luck.
That said, most services in Japan don’t seem as heavily invested as Netflix and Hulu in VPN detection. So you may still be able to access a range of content that meets your needs.
Commercial VPN providers like CyberGhost VPN have a money-back guarantee. So you can take advantage of CyberGhost’s 83% discount and give the service a spin for yourself. If it doesn’t work for the services you want to access, you have 45 days to request a refund.
As you can see, there are serious hurdles to accessing Japanese TV and streaming content outside of Japan. I’m hopeful that this eventually changes. There are almost 1.4 million Japanese living outside of Japan  – and that number is increasing year over year. And there are a sizable number of non-Japanese Japanese speakers who would love easier access to Japanese language media.
It seems silly that, as the Internet knocks down barriers between nations, some media companies are working so intently on building them back up. I’d love to see Japan’s TV and production companies instead focus more on getting their best works in front of an international audience.
The success of Squid Game shows that non-English language dramas can earn a global audience. It’s time for Japan to earn its share!
What to Read Next
 Paravi. https://www.paravi.jp/
 TVer. https://tver.jp/
 NHK Cosmo Media America. https://www.nhkcosmomedia.com/
 NHK Radio. https://www.nhk.or.jp/radio/
 【2020年最新版】世界で暮らす日本人は増加中！海外在留邦人の「今」に迫る. https://paid-intern.com/2250
 Ameba. https://abema.tv/