March 27, 2020

The rising ebook in Japan

For a country with such a post-modern reputation, Japan loves paper, especially paper books and paper money. The ¥10,000 note, the equivalent of a $100 bill, is used and accepted everywhere.

Cash in circulation in Japan amounts to over 20 percent of GDP, significantly higher than the United States (8.3 percent), China (9.5 percent), or the Eurozone (10.7 percent).

Recent trends suggest that Japanese may be embracing electronic publishing faster than they are embracing electronic money. The ebook in Japan gained significant momentum in 2019.

According to the All Japan Magazine and Book Publisher's and Editor's Association, while print sales fell for the fifteenth straight year, sales of digital manga shot up 29.5 percent. Digital book publishing rose 8.7 percent. The entire digital market was up 23.9 percent. The overall publishing market even saw a small increase.

Physical video media also took a hit, with the Japan Video Software Association reporting that the market for physical media declined almost 11 percent from 2019 to 2019. Blu-Ray sales fell one percent while DVD sales were down 20 percent.

Like the ebook, Japan is also embracing the convenience and lower costs of streaming. Netflix, Hulu (wholly owned in Japan by Nippon TV), and Amazon Prime are making their presence known in a big way. Even NHK is jumping on the bandwagon, and will launch a domestic live streaming service in April.

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March 19, 2020

dLibrary Japan (content)

As promised back in September 2019, dLibrary Japan is building its catalog at an impressive rate, adding several new titles a week. The lack of content is no longer an issue. Whether you stick with it will depend on what you make of their curated selection so far and on your willingness to watch mostly non-localized content.

Two big reasons to sign up for dLibrary Japan are NHK's two flagship series, the weekly Taiga historical drama and the daily Asadora serial. It'd be nice if they showed up on a predictably timetable after their domestic runs, but the licensing windows are all over the map. Check the "End Date" before getting too invested.

dLibrary Japan has a good selection of six recent Taiga series, including three of the most interesting woman-centered stories you'll find anywhere. And they are subtitled!

Go follows the three nieces of the warlord Oda Nobunaga as they play a major role in shaping the end of the Warring States period, two of them marrying into clans on opposite sides of the conflict.

Atsuhime examines the life of Tenshoin, the adopted daughter of the province lord of Satsuma. Hoping to become the power behind the throne, he arranged a marriage between her and Tokugawa Iesada, the third-to-last shogun.

Yae's Sakura is about a markswoman who fought on the side of the shogunate during the Boshin War that launched the Meiji Restoration. Her firearm of choice was a Spencer repeating rifle.

And then for a view of the events depicted in Atsuhime and Yae's Sakura from the perspective of Japan's Alexander Hamilton, Ryomaden follows the life of Sakamoto Ryoma, who, like Hamilton, tragically died a violent death before his time.

Asadora serials include Ume-chan Sensei, about a girl who attends medical school and becomes a doctor during the Occupation. Toto Nee-chan is a biopic about Shizuko Ohashi (1920–2013), who in 1948 co-founded Notebook for Living, a home improvement magazine still in print.

Though Oshin was the most-watched television program in Japanese history, its Gothic Perils of Pauline plot leaves me disinclined to slog through it. During the 1980s (it debuted in 1983), Oshin became a synonym for perseverance in the face of neverending hostility and opposition.

The cheerfully upbeat Toto Nee-chan is more my speed, and it's been nice to revive my old TV Japan habit of watching a fifteen-minute Asadora episode every night.

Along with the Taiga and Asadora dramas, the scripted content includes family and food dramas, and an eclectic collection of police procedurals and medical dramas, such as the preternaturally cute Aoi Miyazaki playing a teenage super-sleuth in Mobile Detective and Ryoko Yonekura channeling Gregory House in Doctor X.

Mobile Detective is worth watching simply as a reminder of what "cutting edge" smart phone technology was like a mere fifteen years ago.

dLibrary Japan has the first three seasons of Midnight Diner, an ensemble series that takes place at an all-night hole-in-the wall restaurant (Netflix has seasons 4 and 5). And speaking of food dramas, dLibrary Japan has six seasons of Solitary Gourmet, pretty much the salaryman version of Wakakozake.

On a quirkier note is Room Laundering (think "money laundering"), which arises out of Japanese superstitions about renting an apartment in which the previous occupant died. Miko's job is to move in, figure out why the ghost haunting the place is hanging around, and get it to move on. The real estate version of Ghost Whisperer.

For whatever reason it was shot in a 21:9 aspect ratio. I really don't see the point of that (I don't see the point of shooting anything in 21:9 except as a special effect).

There are a handful of documentaries and talk shows, such as Matsuko no Shiranai Sekai ("The World Unknown To Matsuko"), and the Wildlife and Great Nature documentary series from NHK. Plus a cute travel show in which Tetsuro Degawa rides a electric scooter until the battery is dead and then bums a charge from the locals.

In the movie category, dLibrary Japan has the entire Tsuribaka Nisshi ("Diary of a Fishing Nut") franchise. Starring the delightful character actor Toshiyuki Nishida, this film series follows the adventures of a salaryman at a construction company who will concoct any excuse to go fishing. And still manages to save the day.

The handful of anime titles on dLibrary Japan are aimed at kids, such as Anpanman, a long-running kid's franchise (1500 episodes and counting) hugely popular in Japan and practically nowhere else. (Tim Lyu explains why.)

So far, there's more than enough to keep me interested. If dLibrary Japan keeps adding new programming at the current rate, it will become the unquestioned home of live-action Japanese television in North America. Though I'm afraid it won't be able to significantly expand beyond the TV Japan and Nippon TV audiences without more localization.

Related links

dLibrary Japan (background)
dLibrary Japan (user experience)
dLibrary Japan
dLibrary Japan Roku app
NHK World
TV Japan

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March 12, 2020

dLibrary Japan (user experience)

dLibrary Japan has been a work in process since it launched and still is. But, hey, that only means there's lots of room to grow! And it's improving at a reassuring pace.

To start with, the picture is great. dLibrary Japan streams HD video, much better quality than I ever had with Dish. The Roku app is snappy and easy to navigate. Though Roku replay button doesn't work, the "skip forward/back" implementation of FF and rewind works better than the typical VCR-style controls.

For example, HIDIVE uses the standard 2x/4x/8x/16x/32x FF/rewind UI, but especially with longer videos, its 32x isn't nearly fast enough. Also unlike HIDIVE, the dLibrary Japan login page has a "remember me" checkbox. Unfortunately, like HIDIVE, it doesn't remember you even when it's checked.

The home page borrows from the Netflix interface (a streaming standard of sorts) though it's a rudimentary implementation. There are a half dozen genre categories but no search function. Seasons from the same series often aren't grouped together. The queue can be bookmarked but not the landing pages for shows.

The Roku app employs a "Windows 8" design approach, with big blocky icons. The catalog can be searched from the app, giving the app better discoverability than the website. The biggest missing feature is the lack of a viewing history or any way to keep track of your progress in a series from the app or website queue.

In order to automatically queue up episodes in order, you have to turn on Auto Play in Settings and launch episodes from Continue Watching. It's a workaround that works well enough most of the time, but these history and queue issues are currently the Roku app's most annoying bugs.

Though with apps like Netflix suffering from feature overload, there is something refreshing about the sheer simplicity of the interface. In any case, along with better progress tracking in the app and a search function on the website, the genre list needs more subcategories, such as for the Taiga and Asadora dramas.

Considering how much the NHK World app has improved, with the VOD catalog and program guide now accessible from the app, I expect dLibrary Japan to keep pace as well. Perhaps NHK Cosmomedia can take the lessons learned from NHK World and dLibrary Japan and create a streaming triple play with TV Japan.

Related links

dLibrary Japan (background)
dLibrary Japan (content)
dLibrary Japan
dLibrary Japan Roku app
NHK World
TV Japan

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March 05, 2020

dLibrary Japan (background)

Long after politicians stopped worrying about Japan as an economic threat (and started worrying about China instead), Japanese popular culture is gaining an increasing mind share around the world, including in China. And yet getting access to Japanese live-action entertainment remains an uphill climb in North America.

Unlike anime, its own genre category on streaming sites such as Hulu, Tubi, and Netflix, Jdrama hasn't found a significant audience outside of Asia. Netflix has ten times as many Korean live-action dramas as Japanese live-actions dramas. DirecTV offers just three Japanese channels and over a dozen Korean channels.

Demographics has a lot to do with this. Korean-Americans (1.8 million) outnumber Japanese-Americans (1.4 million). Korean immigration peaked in the 1980s while Japanese immigration peaked at the end of the 19th century. The large home market for Japanese studios also lessens the need to compete abroad with Hollywood.

Japanese dramas and "unscripted" content (news, talk, and reality shows) are more popular across Asia, where Fuji TV distributes through Alibaba. Hulu/Japan is wholly owned by Nippon TV (the highest-rated network in Japan) and reaches 19 Asian markets.

The Big Three (Crunchyroll, Funimation, HIDIVE) keep their anime offerings up-to-date, and simulcast new series every season. But when it comes to live-action titles, "new" means released in the last decade. Over the past year, Crunchyroll has aggressively pruned its live-action catalog (once the largest) to two dozen titles.

Netflix is the only streaming service actively increasing the number of localized non-anime listings. Alas, little of the content on its Japanese service (like all of the Tora-san movies) is available in North America, where most of the live-action series are "Netflix Originals" rather than content from the domestic networks.

As a result, the only legal way to stay up-to-date with Jdrama has been TV Japan (via Comcast and DirecTV) and Nippon TV (via DirecTV). TV Japan carries a curated selection of shows from NHK and the commercial networks, scheduling episodes soon after being broadcast and some within a few hours. News is carried live.

It can do this because, aside from Cool Japan, sumo, and one nightly news program, TV Japan (and Nippon TV) localize almost none of the content. In language acquisition terms, TV Japan and Nippon TV are "immersive." You experience the content the same way you would in Japan (unfortunately sans most of the domestic commercials).

dLibrary Japan now offers that experience as a streaming option. (And now Rakuten Viki is is competing at the same price point with an emphasis on Jdrama based on manga and anime.)

If you are serious about learning Japanese, a necessary step is immersing yourself in a wide variety of Japanese programming (including Radio Japan). If culture is your primary interest, NHK World is an accessible guide (and includes news and sumo). It's free, mostly in English, and along with streaming, broadcasts OTA in many markets.

NHK World even carries the occasional scripted show, like Home Sweet Tokyo, an amusing educational sitcom about an Englishman who moves to Tokyo with his family to live with his widowed father-in-law.

You can (and should) watch a lot of subtitled anime. But for a true immersion experience and access to a largest catalog of live-action Japanese television available to audiences in North America, the only legal streaming solution is dLibrary Japan from NHK Cosmomedia (which also distributes TV Japan and NHK World).

When it first debuted, dLibrary Japan was full of promise but little substance. Its catalog was threadbare and it had none of the major apps. But at the end of September 2019, dLibrary Japan gave its home page a much needed makeover and announced that "New programs will be available every week from October!"

It has followed through with that promise. Along with the Google Play and Apple TV apps, dLibrary Japan added Roku support at the end of January 2020. Now they're getting serious.

At $9.99/month, dLibrary Japan is a dollar more than Netflix's lowest cost tier and two dollars more than Crunchyroll, both of which have bigger catalogs (by orders of magnitude), so I count it as a "premium" provider.

But let's compare and contrast the streaming services. I paid $42.00 (total) a month for TV Japan from Dish. When TV Japan left Dish for Comcast and DirecTV, the cost for the most basic international package including TV Japan almost doubled. That's when I cut the cord. Here's what I'm paying now.

Netflix $6.99/month $83.88/year
Crunchyroll $7.99/month $79.99/year
HIDIVE $4.99/month $47.99/year
dLibrary Japan $9.99/month $119.88/year
NHK World free

The yearly total comes to $34.64/month ($37.95 month-to-month). A ginormous amount of content for six bucks less than what I paid for TV Japan on Dish, and a third the price of the full Japanese package (TV Japan, Nippon TV, NECO movie channel) from DirecTV. That's the big difference that streaming can make.

Related links

dLibrary Japan (user experience)
dLibrary Japan (content)
dLibrary Japan
dLibrary Japan Roku app
NHK World Roku app
Nippon TV and NECO

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