INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Slingbox Succeeds for Watching Japanese TV in the U.S.

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

TOKYO — In my July 13 column (“Keeping Connected While in Japan”), I wrote about how to keep digitally tethered while in Japan by using a Wi-Fi hotspot and a VPN (virtual private network). I also alluded to something I wanted to try while in Japan, namely setting up a Slingbox in order to watch Japanese TV via the Internet while in the U.S.

Why would anyone want to do that? For students of Nihongo, watching Japanese TV is a great way to supplement one’s language studies. Fans of Japanese dramas and anime can also stay up to date with the new stuff. There is also news coverage of Japan that would either be overlooked by U.S. media or perhaps have a different perspective. Then there are sports: Japanese pro baseball, sumo, volleyball, judo, golf, swimming, not to mention quadrennial events like the Olympic Games. Even basic curiosity is a valid reason why someone might want to watch Japanese TV.

Meantime, there is a huge potential market for Japanese nationals — students, business people, spouses, expatriates and emigrants — living and working in the U.S. who’d like to watch actual, honest-to-God Japanese terebi.

The problem is how. When it comes to watching real-time (or DVR’d) Japanese TV, the options are few, especially if you want to stay within the bounds of the law or aren’t looking for all kinds of weird, questionable and complicated Internet hoops to jump through. Meantime, the capability to watch some Japanese shows via UTB on Channel 18 diminished in 2016 (see the Rafu Shimpo story at http://tinyurl.com/ybk59laj), and the July 1 L.A. Times reported that KSCI Channel 18’s Asian/international programming was ending.

There is NHK World, a news and feature channel that is in English and can be accessed via cable, streaming and over the air. Subsidized by the Japanese government and therefore commercial-free, it’s actually pretty good for what it is — but it’s not domestic Japanese TV.

Another option is TV Japan (https://tvjapan.net/en/about-tv-japan/), a somewhat limited service available on some cable systems and the Dish Network for satellite (unavailable via satellite TV provider DirecTV, incidentally). You have to already be a subscriber to some sort of paid tier of cable or satellite service, then add TV Japan for a cost between $15 to $25 a month. That adds up rather quickly and looking at the offerings, to me it’s not that much for the money.

What about streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, et al? Netflix and Hulu offer domestic Japanese versions with some Japanese programming, but unless you’re using a VPN that allows you to access the Japanese versions of those services while in the states, you’ll be blocked. (There are also recent news reports that Hulu’s Japan service has been having problems.)

So what else is there for someone who wants to watch Japanese TV outside of Japan? Enter the Slingbox.

OK, what’s a Slingbox? Well, it’s both the name of the American company that invented it and the name of the streaming device that interfaces between your home TV system and the Internet, and then sends that content — live, network programs or shows you’ve recorded on your DVR — to your computer, smartphone or tablet for viewing via the Slingplayer app. It also works with Roku boxes, via the Slingplayer app for Roku. (There are also ways to get that same content onto a big screen TV via “screen mirroring,” like Airplay for Apple TV.)

VCRs (remember those?) back in the 1970s introduced the concept of time-shifting, or recording a show broadcast at a certain time so that it could be watched later. The Slingbox, which was originally introduced in 2002, introduced the concept of place-shifting, or being able to watch what would be on your home TV, but away from your home. In the intervening years, with the growth of streaming, smartphones, tablets and DVRs, the Slingbox’s capabilities and ease of use grew.

Turns out I already had a Slingbox M1 that I set up at home, connected to my Channel Master DVR+, used for recording over-the-air terrestrial TV signals. I got it when I was commuting via the Expo Line train to downtown Los Angeles (you can read about that experience at http://tinyurl.com/y9mefwv4) so I could watch shows I recorded.

Lately, though, I wasn’t using it too much, so I figured I’d bring it with me to set up for my wife’s benefit at her brother’s home Japan.

In a nutshell, I succeeded. The picture quality on iPhone and iPad is astoundingly good — I’m talking high-def, 1080p. But it took me a couple attempts to get it right. Even though I brought with me all the extras I thought I needed — an HDMI-to-RGB converter, an ethernet cable to connect the M1 to the broadband router, etc., I was unaware that I also needed a cable to connect the RBG out from the Slingbox to something called a D-terminal, which is a domestic Japanese connector for high-def video. (The RCA audio cables worked without a hitch.) There were no inputs for RGB plugs on the back of the TV, unlike my Sony TV in the U.S.

Fortunately, I got help my niece to find the nearest electronics store to buy a D-terminal to RGB cable. She found a place that was a train ride and a short walk away that sold what I needed, and I bought such a cable before the store closed.

With that, I used my laptop to set it up, which included doing a hard reset on the M1. That almost didn’t happen because there was no paper clip to be found in the apartment! But there was one of those cool Japanese mechanical pencils whose tip was the perfect size for the recessed reset button. It worked.

Next was figuring out how to get the correct virtual remote control for the particular model of Sony DVR my brother-in-law owns; that took a while, but I finally got that to work, too! (A virtual remote is an onscreen version of a physical remote control, with full functionality, including being able to set a timer to record a show on a particular channel.)

Thanks to his broadband connection — and you need broadband on both ends — I could now access the free terrestrial digital TV, BS (broadcast satellite) and CS (communications satellite) channels. Since it’s connected to a DVR, that also means being able to time-shift as well as place-shift Japanese TV shows. Wow.

The great thing is it’s 100 percent legal and once the upfront costs of the hardware are paid for, there are no monthly subscription fees. Amazing. (FYI, I bought my Slingbox M1 for less than $60.) Also, because of the time difference between the U.S. and Japan, the chances of both my wife and her brother watching via the DVR at the same time are slim.

I realize, however, that this isn’t a solution for everyone — unless you have a relative or friend in Japan who’s OK with you putting a Slingbox in their house, you’re kind of out of luck. Even then, you’re at the mercy of whatever type of TV service your relative/friend gets on his or her home TV. Aside from the free, over-the-air channels, other services require a paid subscription or are pay-per-view.

The other thing is that if you do have a friend or relative in Japan who’s willing to be the host (maybe try doing a trade — set up a U.S. Slingbox that they could access in exchange for the same in Japan?), not everyone is confident they can set it up properly. For example, my brother-in-law, who is a pretty sharp fellow, had no confidence he could do it or help me do it.

Fortunately, the Japanese company that sells Slingboxes in Japan — www.Slingbox.jp — not only sells the Slingbox, they have a $150 setup service for the technophobes. I saw the Slingbox M1 on Amazon.co.jp from different vendors selling at about $180, $345 and $390 — but even if you factor in that cost plus the $150 setup, that’s still less than the approximately $900 minimum you’d pay for a year’s worth of the TV Japan service. (Slingbox.jp, which sells the M1 for about $345, also offers a money back guarantee, which is worth it just in case one doesn’t find it satisfactory.)

It’s kind of odd — the Slingbox has been around for more than a decade, but there are still many folks who could actually find it useful for the purpose of watching Japanese TV while overseas, yet don’t know about it. If watching domestic Japanese TV is something that interests you, Slingbox appears to be the best, least expensive way to go.

Left-Right-Left Dept.: In my July 20 column, I realized in retrospect I erred when I wrote: “As an aside, there is the parking structure at La Cienega and Jefferson Boulevards, also $3 a day. I tried that once — and maybe it’s since changed — but trying to exit by making a left onto La Cienega, the oncoming traffic is nonstop.” I meant making a right. Making a left would be way more difficult!

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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