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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