Digital

Japan's streaming situation improved just in time to self-isolate

Staying in is the new going out

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing writer

If you’ve made plans to go out anytime in the next month, consider crossing them off your calendar. As Tokyo, Osaka and several other major areas of Japan settle into life under a state of emergency due to the outbreak of COVID-19, it’s best for everyone to stay at home as much as possible.

Thankfully, entertainment streaming services have taken off in Japan over the past few years. Once behind the digital curve, we’ve caught up. There’s really no reason to visit sketchy sites or break out VPNs anymore (unless you are trying to save some money or need to watch “The Office” on American Netflix), there’s enough content piled up now to get you through the pandemic, hopefully.

To help you navigate the streams, The Japan Times has put together a crash course in the best services available for several types of entertainment. There’s a lot out there, but these are the ones you can rely on to keep you occupied as you stay home for the near future.

Film, TV and the best of the binge

Series in the stream: Takayuki Yamada plays controversial filmmaker Toru Muranishi in 'The Naked Director,' which is streaming exclusively on Netflix. |
Series in the stream: Takayuki Yamada plays controversial filmmaker Toru Muranishi in ‘The Naked Director,’ which is streaming exclusively on Netflix. |

The big-three video subscription services have put a lot of effort into winning over the Japanese market. Netflix starts at ¥800 a month and offers a seemingly endless drip of content that’s both engaging and moronic. It offers the strongest selection of Japanese-langauge film and TV of any company in this field. Escapist fare like “The Naked Director” or “Rilakkuma And Kaoru” might be the balm you need for these trying times … or you can get “too real” by revisiting the 1988 classic anime “Akira.” (My recommendation? Follow “Akira” up with Stephen Soderbergh’s 2011 film “Contagion” and play COVID bingo with all the things that have come to pass.)

Hulu isn’t quite as stacked, but it makes up for it with more anime titles and the chance to enjoy the service free of charge for two weeks — just enough for self-quarantining. Amazon Prime Video, meanwhile, comes free if you have an Amazon Prime subscription or can be purchased separately. Potential subscribers can also get a 30-day free trial of it, meaning you can splurge on its selection of movies and Japanese originals — “The Bachelor Japan” and “Documental” being particularly binge-worthy.

Just as importantly for parents now finding themselves stuck entertaining kids for at least one month, Amazon Prime Video has made all of its children’s content free for anybody to watch. It might be worth shelling out some yens to keep your little ones distracted, though. Enter Disney Deluxe, the closest thing Japan has to Disney+, which houses the entertainment monopoly’s crown jewels, including “Star Wars,” the Marvel universe and almost everything from the Disney vault. It’s ¥770 a month, though it offers a free month-long trial.

Don’t overlook domestic options, either. dTV primarily serves up television dramas, anime, a solid selection of films and some South Korean content. You can get a one month free trial, or watch one episode of a select series for free just to get a sense of what it has. To go fully local, which will help with your language skills, consider Paravi, which only has Japanese TV options. It’s among the priciest, at ¥1,017 a month, but does provide two weeks for free.

Whistle while you work

The top two music-streaming options in Japan are Spotify and Apple Music, offering the latest global hits alongside a considerable selection of Japanese content. The prior provides a free version, albeit one sporting some of the most annoying ads you are bound to encounter in your life. It’s worth it to pay the ¥980-a-month for the basic plan just to never hear B-list actors interrupt the “New Music Friday” playlist again. In addition to the basic plan, Spotify has couple, student and family options.

Fun at your fingertips: Many sectors of the Japanese entertainment industry were hesitant to embrace streaming at first. Luckily, they adapted just in time for the global pandemic. | IMAGE BY OSCAR BOYD
Fun at your fingertips: Many sectors of the Japanese entertainment industry were hesitant to embrace streaming at first. Luckily, they adapted just in time for the global pandemic. | IMAGE BY OSCAR BOYD

Apple Music is pay only … unless you opt for the three-month trial, which might get you through this whole thing if we flatten that curve by the summer.

If you are looking for other ways to choose between the two — Spotify has gone big on podcasts in the past year, including some quality Japanese originals such as “Pop Life: The Podcast,” while Apple Music has more video content and online radio shows that are more heavy on the tunes than the talking.

LINE Music works in tandem with the messaging app of the same name, making it ideal for those on the go … which, admittedly, won’t be far in a state of emergency. Still, it boasts a strong selection of domestic and international content, and offers a three-month trial. Heavy users of online marketplace Rakuten should consider Rakuten Music, which gifts customers Rakuten points for listening to music on its service. It has a 90-day trial-option, though you can also shave down the monthly cost using your Rakuten points.

With all that in mind, remember that streaming services pay artists a small reimbursement for individual plays. Many artists had grudgingly come to accept this change only to be met with a health crisis that has canceled the live performances they have come to rely on. So set aside some free time to browse around Bandcamp — the “Japan” tag being a good starting point — and buy music in a way that lets the actual creators see some decent return. Bandcamp also has a great app that gives you access to your catalog of purchases.

Make the move to manga

Months of manga: While not strictly a part of the streaming format, many online manga sites provide a steady flow of comics to keep you entertained during possible lockdowns. | GETTY IMAGES
Months of manga: While not strictly a part of the streaming format, many online manga sites provide a steady flow of comics to keep you entertained during possible lockdowns. | GETTY IMAGES

While not quite “streaming” in the traditional sense, a lot of sites provide the chance to read manga via your computer, smartphone or tablet in Japan. Comic Walker offers a wide range of titles, the bulk of which can be read for free as long as you wait for them to upload weekly. Shonen Jump Plus has similarly opened up its vault of popular comics — including the international hit “One Piece” — for free. Shonen Jump is targeted toward the hordes of youth who now have nothing to do, but lucky for all of us — nobody is checking ages and anyone can dive into the library.

LINE Manga offers a mix of free and paid titles, with a good balance of major names alongside indie creators. The long-running site Comico is also going strong, offering dozens upon dozens of lesser-known comics to enjoy from the comfort of your device.

Pod with us

With 46 episodes recorded and going, now is a great time to catch up with The Japan Times’ own Deep Dive podcast. Head back to a simpler, pre-COVID Japan in previous episodes — Carlos Ghosn, remember that guy? Put it on and take a minute to clean your place so you don’t get frustrated while staying in and doing your part to halt the spread of this nasty coronavirus. And if internet connections slow down, you’ve always got books.

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner