Sometimes compared with the British Broadcasting Corporation or America’s Public Broadcasting System — and by its fiercest critics even to the state-run media in China and North Korea — NHK boasts two terrestrial television services, three satellite television services, three radio networks and the NHK World international broadcast service.
Beginning as a radio station in 1926, NHK started television broadcasting in 1950. Its most famous broadcast was arguably the radio announcement by Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Emperor Showa, that Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration, ending World War II.
In recent years, Japan’s sole public broadcaster has expanded but has also gotten embroiled in scandals that eroded public trust, and has seen greater competition from both private broadcasters and the Internet.
While not as dominant as it once was, NHK still remains the broadcaster of choice for viewers and listeners who value its official slogan of “straightforward and earnest.”
Following are basic questions and answers about NHK:
How is NHK funded?
Everyone in Japan who owns a TV capable of receiving NHK broadcasts is supposed to pay monthly license fees.
The fees are required and nonpayment is illegal, although there are no penalties for withholding payment, which is widespread. The fee, via bank transfer, is ¥2,690 per month for terrestrial broadcasting only. Paying in advance for six months costs ¥7,650, and a year’s advance payment runs ¥14,910.
For satellite broadcasts, the fee is ¥4,580 per month, or ¥13,090 for six months and ¥25,520 for a year, payable in advance.
There are also discounts for students, office workers who commute and residents of Okinawa.
Payment can be made at banks and many other locations throughout Japan. What about door-to-door collections?
For years, collectors made the neighborhood rounds, soliciting fees that were slightly higher than their bank transfer counterparts. But NHK officially terminated its door-to-door collection system last Oct. 1.
What kind of programming does NHK provide?
Like its private broadcasting counterparts, NHK provides news, sports, documentaries and comedy-variety programs. Unlike its private counterparts, it also has an educational channel.
By law, it has to provide warnings whenever earthquakes and floods occur, or when typhoons approach.
NHK’s early warning system for earthquakes and tsunami in particular is regarded as one of the world’s finest and is often used as a model for public broadcasters in other nations.
Is NHK’s reporting impartial?
NHK says yes.
However, large segments of people on both the right and left of the political spectrum disagree. NHK is regularly criticized for being either too close to the conservative elements of the government or in bed with liberals.
But the degree to which NHK news programs in particular rely on official sources can be seen in the views not usually solicited.
NHK’s news broadcasts include far fewer independent sources than the BBC for example, which often follows news of official announcements with reactions from credible people who offer opposing views, skepticism, historical background or constructive criticism of whatever official public announcement is being discussed.
U.S. scholar Ellis Kraus, in his book “Broadcasting Politics in Japan: NHK and Television News,” notes that over the course of the postwar period, interaction between NHK and the government became institutionalized and “ultimately, indirectly, and often inadvertently fashioned the information Japan’s citizens receive.”
What about foreign-language programming?
NHK offers a bilingual news broadcast on terrestrial TV in the evenings, while NHK World provides news and information in English, Japanese and 16 other languages.
Does NHK commonly show foreign films and documentaries?
It has agreements with more than 60 broadcasters in nearly 50 countries to exchange programs and news.
Many of the programs are award-winning international news and documentaries seen on public and private broadcasters in a range of countries, including the United States, Argentina and Thailand.
Does it produce its own documentaries?
NHK produces documentaries on all aspects of Japanese society and culture. Many programs, especially on traditional culture, are seen not only in Japan but also by students in Japanese-language and culture departments at universities in the United States and Europe.
On a broader international level, perhaps the NHK documentary that has received the most international praise is “The Silk Road,” which originally aired in 1980.
Nearly 17 years in the making, the documentary stunned audiences with its dramatic footage, some of it never previously captured on film, of remote areas along the ancient Silk Road between Xi’an in western China and the Pamir Mountains on the Pakistan border. It was also notable for its ethereal music score by award-winning composer Kitaro.
While NHK documentaries on non-Japanese issues may receive praise, just how much pressure does the public broadcaster get from the government if the subject has to do directly with Japan?
Like most media, NHK receives criticism over many different issues from private groups and individuals on the left and the right. If the subject has to do with Japan’s wartime history, direct interference by government officials, though reportedly quite rare, has occurred.
For example, NHK in 2001 censored part of a documentary on Japan’s wartime sex slave system.
The original program included footage of a mock tribunal in Tokyo in December 2000 held by human rights activists to determine the Japanese government’s guilt in promoting wartime sexual slavery.
The mock tribunal found Emperor Hirohito guilty of allowing government-sponsored sex slaves to flourish throughout Asia during the war. Historians say up to 200,000 women, many from the Korean Peninsula, were forced into sexual slavery to serve Japanese soldiers.
The tribunal’s verdict was cut from the program that aired on Jan. 30, 2001. The cut came after direct pressure from conservative Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers who either deny the government’s involvement in the censorship or downplay it.
One of those who put pressure on NHK to alter the content was then Deputy Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, who would go on to become prime minister in 2006. Did that result in a loss of public trust?
To a certain extent. But the bigger loss of trust was probably more due to a series of embezzlement scandals involving NHK President Katsuji Ebisawa, who resigned in January 2005, about six months after it came to light that several NHK employees, including the chief NHK producer, had embezzled an estimated ¥48 million in program production funds.
Nine months after the scandal broke, in July 2004, the man who replaced Ebisawa as president, Genichi Hashimoto, admitted public trust was lower than it had ever been and predicted nearly 700,000 viewers nationwide were protesting by refusing to pay their license fees.
NHK has spent considerable time and effort since then attempting to win back the public’s trust.