NHK Fee Change: Pay Up – Even If You Don’t Own a TV!

NHK Fee Change: Pay Up – Even If You Don’t Own a TV!

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TV with yen in it
Picture: Canva
A revision to Japan's Broadcasting Act might make it impossible to avoid the NHK guy slapping you with the NHK fee.

On June 3rd, the House of Councilors passed a revision to Japan’s Broadcasting Act, which could make everyone in Japan subject to the NHK fee, courtesy of your local NHK Man. But what exactly are these fees for? Why are people required to pay? And why is the NHK so hellbent on making you pay it? 

The History of NHK Broadcasting

NHK is a corporation established under the provisions of the Broadcasting Act (explained in more detail below). The purpose is the dissemination of public programming throughout the country. It gets its funding primarily through reception fees (受信料; jushinryou), a system similar to the license fee in other countries. 

The NHK finds its beginnings in 1924, with the founding of the Tokyo Broadcasting Station (東京放送局). In 1926, the Tokyo Broadcasting Station merged with two separate but similar organizations in Osaka and Nagoya, forming the first incarnation of the NHK. The company based its structure on that of the UK’s BBC, and began radio broadcasting on an experimental basis in the 1930s under the name Radio Japan.

Although an international station at first, in 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army nationalized all public news agencies, broadcasting only announcements from the Imperial Army Tokyo Headquarters throughout WWII. And although all international broadcasting was banned until 1952, in 1950, the new Broadcasting Act (放送法) was enacted. This movement transformed NHK Broadcasting into a listener-supported independent corporation. At the same time, it opened the market for commercial broadcasting throughout Japan. [2]

The Broadcasting Act

The Broadcasting Act applies to all residents of Japan, regardless of nationality. The purpose of this act is to ensure that public broadcasting adheres to the standards of public welfare according to the principles outlined in Article 1 below (directly copied from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications website). [4]

The purpose of this Act is to regulate broadcasting so as to conform to public welfare and to achieve its sound development subject to the following principles:

(i) To guarantee that broadcasting is disseminated to the greatest extent possible to the general public and that its benefits are achieved;

(ii) To ensure freedom of expression through broadcasting by guaranteeing the impartiality, truth and autonomy of broadcasting;

(iii) To enable broadcasting to contribute to the development of sound democracy by clarifying the responsibilities of the persons involved in broadcasting. [18]

Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications website

The laws ensure unbiased reporting of news and demand the press not turn away facts, and where there are matters of conflicting opinions, clarify the issue from as many angles as possible. [4]

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The Broadcasting Act exists so that NHK can “achieve its mission without interference from others, especially the government”. But in order to maintain that autonomy, NHK requires financial independence from the government. NHK obtains its primary means of funding through the “reception fee”, which is designed so that all viewers bear it equally.[3]

The NHK Fee

The Broadcasting Act makes it so that every owner of a television set is subject to paying the fee. In other words, once you install a TV set in your residence, you automatically enter a contract with the NHK, regardless if you plan to watch their programs or not.

The “right thing” to do would be to inform NHK after setting up your TV, upon which a representative would arrange for you to sign the contract and begin charging you the following month, subscription-style. The only way to get out of paying the fee is to confirm you no longer own a TV set, once again by contacting the NHK with proof. [3]

The fee is standardized, with discounts for commuters, as well as residents of Okinawa prefecture. You only need to sign one contract per household, regardless of the number of TV sets you own. However, if you own multiple residences, you’ll need to sign a separate contract for each one. [2][3]

Even places like dormitories and buildings where multiple people reside independently from one another are subject to the fee. In this case, each individual person who owns a TV must sign a separate contract. The fee applies to facilities such as hotels, as well, where the hotel must pay a separate fee for every room that has a TV. [5]

But do people actually pay these fees? And what happens to people who don’t? While the Broadcasting Act doesn’t specify any punishment or penalty for nonpayment, they do have ways to check who has paid and who hasn’t… and a force who’s sole job is to track down each of those households and hound them until they pay up. Enter the legendary NHK Man.

The NHK Man Cometh

Picture: yamato / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

The NHK Man has become something of an inside joke amongst foreign communities in Japan. Although, it’s not only foreigners who take issue with his persistence. This has lead to a number of strategies popping up all over the web, by both foreign residents and Japanese citizens alike, on how to avoid the NHK guy. (Some have even resorted to extreme measures, such as dowsing the NHK guy with a fire extinguisher. However, we do not recommend this). [6][7][8]

According to Beat Takeshi, if NHK has the freedom to broadcast, then citizens should also have the freedom to opt-out of watching it. Click To Tweet

Who is the NHK man? Basically, he’s your ordinary door-to-door salesman, except he’s not pushing fancy knives or kitchen appliances. He simply wants you to pay your NHK fee! However, contrary to what many think (and despite the NHK man’s persistence to make you pay up), the NHK man is technically not an employee of the NHK. They’re independent contractors with no set hours, no employee health insurance, and no pension, working on a commission basis. In other words, if you don’t pay him, they don’t pay him (which makes it easier to understand why they tend to be so persistent). [9]

However, while the NHK guy himself might not be the one to blame, many people still find fault and reason to criticize the system as a whole. Even public figures have a word to say about its operation, such as famous actor and comedian, Beat Takeshi, who called them out in 2015. He demanded that citizens should have a choice to opt-out of NHK programming, and suggested offering TVs and devices that don’t automatically come with the station. According to Beat Takeshi, if NHK has the freedom to broadcast, then citizens should also have the freedom to opt-out of watching it. (A fair and valid point).  [17]

The Anti-NHK-Guy Political Party

This disdain for the NHK guy (or rather, the entire company behind him) extends beyond the common citizen. Their vague collection tactics even lead to the formation of an actual political party in opposition to the organization: the Party to Protect the People from NHK (NHKから国民を守る党), or for short, N-Koku (N国). 

The Fools: A Joke Political Party in Japan Wins a Seat (and Taxpayer Funds)

The single-issue political party was founded in 2013 by activist Takashi Tachibana, a former NHK employee who resigned from his position in accounting after leaking information on internal corruption to the weekly magazine, Shukan Bunshun, back in 2005. Tachibana himself started out as a YouTuber in 2012 with a channel he called "Tachibana One-Man Broadcasting Station". His channel, through which he vowed to fight against the NHK, eventually evolved into The Party to Protect the People from NHK. [13]

The original goal of the party was to eliminate the fee system and replace it with a subscription service. Their political manifesto consisted of just one policy: to revise the Broadcasting Law and "scramble NHK's broadcast signal" so that only those who want to subscribe to NHK have to pay. The party's slogan is "NHK o bukkowasu!" (NHKをぶっ壊す! Literally, "Destroy NHK!"), and they have even protested this fee with representation in the upper house. The party won its first seat in the Diet in the summer House of Councillors election in 2019, and a seat in the House of Representatives later that year. [10][13] 

N-Koku has undergone a series of renames, the most recent (as of May 2022) being "NHK Party" (and the most amusing one perhaps being "The Party That Teaches How to Not Pay the NHK License Fee" in 2021). The main purpose of the party is simply to counter "bad behavior" by NHK debt collectors (aka the NHK guy), who Tachibana likens to the yakuza. [10]

So is it actually legal for the NHK man to go door to door demanding money?

As a matter of fact, it is.

As mentioned above, according to the Broadcasting Act, it's technically illegal not to pay. Article 64 of the Broadcasting Act states that any person who has installed any equipment capable of receiving an NHK broadcasting signal legally enters a contract with NHK. But with no set way to enforce that law, many people continue to avoid it. Some have even flat-out gone to court to prove their apparent exemption from that law.

However, that doesn't always go as planned.

One woman purchased a TV in 2018 with a device that specifically weakened the NHK signal. In June 2020, she won a case with the Tokyo District Court, which found her exempt from the contract under the basis that the Broadcasting Act places the obligation on owners of people with devices that can display NHK channels. [12]

Unfortunately for the woman in question, that case took a turn in 2021 when the Supreme Court overrode the district court’s ruling. They noted that she could still easily view NHK programming by installing a signal amplifier (regardless if she actually did this or not). [13][14]

Is Nobody Exempt from the NHK Fee?

Picture: takeuchi masato / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

As it stands, the Broadcasting Law does indeed apply to every household with a TV set. However, in our time of ever-advancing technology, we are reaching a point where the "I don't have a TV" excuse may soon become obsolete, as well.

The Court's rule subjects anyone with a device capable of viewing NHK to pay the fee. The NHK official website also states that it could apply to any equipment capable of receiving a TV signal, from laptops to car navigation system, possibly even to streaming-capable smartphones! This basically makes anyone living in Japan in the 21st century a target. [16]

In the age of streaming, more people are turning to online services and fewer are buying traditional TVs. If the television set ends up going the way of the CD player, the NHK man would find himself in quite the pickle. Not to mention, Covid times haven't made it any easier on him, when quarantines forced even him to stay indoors. (Although NHK did switch up their tactics during the pandemic, resorting to snail-mail fliers and payment reminders via the JP Post).[15]

Japanese variety store Don Quijote recently rolled out new "tunerless TVs" which some claim can bypass the NHK contract. However, given the tenacity the NHK has for finding reasons to make practically any device subject to the fee, it's unclear how long that will last. [16]

Simply put, the NHK may be finding itself in a bind, one that will only get tighter as long as the Broadcasting Act only applies to people with TVs. Which brings us back to where we are today.

Revising the Broadcasting Act

As mentioned above, the revised law was announced to include a reserve fund system that would reduce the NHK fee, as well as a system that would collect a premium from those who have not paid without a justifiable reason. However, exactly how they plan to go about this is still unclear. 

NHK simply stated during the House of Councilors General Affairs Committee on the 2nd, "We will work carefully to explain the value of NHK and persuade the people to cooperate with the signing of the contract without force", suggesting a cautious (although slightly ominous) stance regarding fee collection. [1]

We may have to wait for a knock on the door to find out what that means.

Resources

[1] NHK受信料値下げに積立金 不正な未払いに割増金も、改正法が成立. 朝日新聞

[2] 日本放送協会. Wikipedia JP

[3] 「NHK受信料の窓口」サイトのプライバシーノーティス. NHK (English version here)

[4] NHKの概要. NHK 

[5] ホテルのテレビ「NHK受信料」どうなっている?. Exciteニュース

[6] The NHK Man Cometh. The Japan Times

[7] NHK受信料を払わないでよくなる断り方!解約する方法や法律まとめ. 引越しハック

[8] Man arrested for spraying Japan’s public broadcasting fee collector with fire extinguisher. Sora News 24

[9] NHK Fee Collector Leaves Note Threatening Impending ‘Crackdown’. Gaijinpot Blog

[10] NHK党. Wikipedia JP

[11] このサイトについて. NHK Party

[12] NHK映らないテレビ「受信契約義務なし」 東京地裁判決 大学准教授が改造. 東京新聞

[13]  Japanese Supreme Court confirms obligation to pay NHK viewing fees. The Japan Times

[14] NHK映らないテレビでも契約義務あり 高裁で逆転判決. 朝日新聞

[15] 住所だけで郵便配達 NHKの受信料徴収支援. Sankei News

[16] Tunerless TVs see brisk sales as more people shift to online viewing. The Asahi Shimbun

[17] ビートたけしが「NHKを見ない自由もあるだろ。NHKが無いテレビを売ってはいけないの?」.Livedoor Blog

[18] The Broadcast Act. Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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