What are the best video streaming services to use in Japan? The good, the bad, the issues

A few months ago, I wrote an article about why you need a VPN in Japan. One of the biggest reasons is so you can use it to watch Netflix and videos from other countries. 

Admittedly though, using a VPN 24/7 is kind of a pain, in particular because it’ll slow down your network speeds if you’re connected to another country’s server. Having the VPN on at all times can sometimes also mess with accounts on various services, as they might ask you for security checks constantly, or show you information from the wrong location. In summary, while VPNs are great, there’s a lot of little things that can go wrong as well. So, what if you want to watch Netflix or something without a VPN? In today’s article, I’d like to talk about just a few of the streaming services available in Japan.

First, let’s talk about English options, as I imagine if you’re looking at this article, that is what you’re most interested in. Somewhat unsurprisingly, services with English options and subtitles leave much to be desired! And as I’ve already mentioned it, let’s discuss the juggernaut: Netflix. 

Netflix

I am of two minds regarding Netflix in Japan, so I’ll first talk about the positives. This applies to Netflix in general, but the build quality and speed of the website itself is second to none. Admittedly finding stuff can be awkward, but Netflix is usually very high quality even with less than stellar internet.

Subtitles

The best thing I would say about it though is the subtitle options! Netflix is one of the very few streaming services that has subtitles that you can turn on and off. Admittedly not every show has English subtitles, but the ability to have Japanese subtitles is seriously a huge boost. If you’re learning Japanese like I am, it becomes hard to watch Japanese shows on anything but Netflix, because you want access to the subtitles.

Netflix lets you choose from English and Japanese [Original] for audio and from Japanese [CC] or English for subtitles.

In terms of selection though, Japanese Netflix leaves much to be desired. The vast majority of foreign shows available are Netflix exclusives. There are sometimes good Netflix exclusive shows and movies these days, but I think most people already know how often they release duds these days. Even for watching Japanese shows, Netflix is quite often a week or so behind. Perhaps because of the subtitles? 

Amazon Prime Video

Subtitles are also a great segue to talk about Amazon Prime Video, because there are some annoying problems with Prime. To quickly talk about positives, Amazon Prime Video has a GREAT selection of movies in particular. I am shocked how often I look up a movie and find that I can watch it on Prime. Amazon Prime in Japan is also a lot cheaper than in the United States. Here, it’s only ¥4,900 annually, whereas in America it’s $119, or about ¥12,000 JPY annually. I have Amazon Prime for the shipping specifically, so admittedly the video is an extra bonus to me.

Subtitles

Back to the subtitles though. The issue with Amazon Prime is that all of their English movies (and I assume other language movies as well) have Japanese subtitles that CANNOT BE REMOVED OR HIDDEN. Sure, you can just ignore them, but if you’re watching a movie you generally don’t want to have a random distraction on the screen. It’s honestly a lot worse if you can read the Japanese subtitles too, because you find yourself reading the Japanese and listening to the English at the same time. Great for learning, sure, but not for enjoying the actual story. One other thing to note is that there are some movies on Amazon Prime that are only available DUBBED in Japanese… Unsurprisingly, you cannot change that either. 

If Amazon Prime is just a bonus though, it’s hard to really complain about. And admittedly, the Japanese subtitles are great if you’re watching with a Japanese friend! Apparently Amazon Prime also has a partnership with HBO to stream their shows, so they have things like Game of Thrones available. It is unfortunately not a deal where the shows stream at the same time as in America though. Watchmen from HBO came out almost a year ago and I’m still waiting for that on Prime, though I do have the option to rent. Rent… with hard-coded Japanese subtitles. Sigh.

Disney+

The third main English streaming service in Japan is Disney+, which finally came to Japan recently! For a long time there had been a thing called Disney Deluxe, which was made available through Docomo. Docomo will come up again in the next service I discus, but basically the Deluxe service eventually became the + service after Disney plus was introduced in the United States. 

With Disney+ you have access to Disney, Marvel, Pixar, StarWars, and National Geographic content.

Whether or not Disney+ is worth it to you really depends on how much you like Disney content! I’m a fan of basically all they have to offer, and with exclusive Star Wars and Marvel shows on the horizon, it’s hard for me to not be a subscriber. ¥700 does admittedly feel a bit steep for content from a single company, but at the very least, they don’t have any of the subtitle/dubbing problems that Amazon Prime does. Like Netflix, you can tell how global minded Disney is. Basically everything has both English and Japanese subtitles, and usually English and Japanese dubbing as well!

Downsides

In addition to needing a Docomo account though, you also need a Disney account. Signing up for Disney+ (or Disney Deluxe when I did it, but they’re essentially the exact same thing) was way harder than it should’ve been. Because of the weird interaction between these two accounts, I often find myself constantly being logged off from the service and needing to log back on. This is not an issue I experience with any other video services. And although the video quality itself is good, it can be a bit finicky depending on your equipment. I’ve struggled to get it to run on 4K TVs, even if the video itself was not 4K.

Japanese streaming services

Alright, but what if you know some Japanese, and you want to dive into the full-on Japanese video streaming world? Well, there’s a couple of services I can both recommend and warn about. First, let’s go with a good one.

For anime fans – dAnimeStore

If you’re an anime fan, dAnimeStore is by far the best option I’ve found. There are no subtitles (Japanese or English) but you can’t beat the selection. I’ve had many times where I’ve thought, “Hmm, I would like to watch this random show from two decades ago” and boom, it’s on there! Most currently airing anime also are available on dAnimeStore shortly after they are on TV. That beats waiting weeks for Netflix.

The user interface is, quite frankly, ugly. The actual picture quality of the video is also noticeably worse than Netflix, though comparable with Amazon for anime. It is quite cheap though, at only ¥400 yen a month. Considering it’s only anime, the price seems fair. One other annoying thing is that the “d” in the name stands for Docomo, meaning you have to go through a Docomo account to subscribe. Docomo, being one of the many big tech conglomerates, will unsurprisingly try to email you about a bunch of other random services you don’t need.

One weird thing about dAnimeStore is that you can actually access its services through Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime has these things called channels, which are basically other streaming services you can access through the Prime Video platform, for an extra fee. I initially subscribed to dAnimeStore through Amazon Prime, but it’s more expensive, and also has a smaller selection. It’s nice that it minimizes the amount of video service tabs I need open at any given time, but definitely don’t go for the Amazon option.

U-NEXT

Now, to quickly talk about a negative one. Have you heard of U-NEXT? You’re likely to have encountered someone canvassing for them at a local movie theater, talking about how you can get free tickets to your film by signing up with them.

U-NEXT claims to have the most movies and TV shows of any streaming service in Japan. Whether or not that is true, I don’t know. What I do know is, is that it costs ¥1,990 per month. If it was a situation where you could literally pay for this one service and get EVERYTHING then maybe that would be worth it, but there’s no way to rationalize such a high price when most of us subscribe to multiple services. 

The service itself is not that bad and it does indeed have a lot of options, both Japanese and foreign. It’s hard to say who U-NEXT is really for. If you just want an all-in-one option and don’t care very much about exclusive shows, then you can probably have all sorts of stuff to watch on it. I think their idea was, “Let’s get more stuff than every other service and charge a premium for it,” but I really don’t see that idea working. 

As always, there is a free trial though, so it can’t hurt to try. Personally though, I’d recommend not signing up with them and hoping to see U-NEXT workers the next time you go to a movie. You can sign up right there and then, and get free movies tickets in exchange. Make sure you have a lot of time before the movie starts though! One time a friend was signing up with them to get a free ticket and it ended up taking so long the movie had already started by the time we got in.

Abema TV and Video

Lastly, I’ll talk about Abema TV and Video. If you follow any Japanese celebrities, you’ve probably heard of Ameblo, a blogging site popular in the talent world (and for normal people too of course!). Owned by the same company is their video site, Abema. Abema is quite interesting as the “TV” and “Video” aspects of it are actually two different things.

Abema TV

Abema TV aims to be sort of a competitor to normal TV. It has its own channels and its own schedule, and like with normal TV, you can only watch what’s airing at any given moment. They don’t have a huge amount of channels, but they have what would appeal to your average Japanese person. News, Korean dramas, anime, etc. For the salarymen in the audience, they of course have a fishing, shogi, and mahjong channel! Very exciting. (That last part was sarcastic.)

Abema Video

Abema Video on the other hand is more of a standard video streaming service. Abema very much focuses on the Japanese audience, so don’t expect many foreign shows here! The ones they do have are usually dubbed, and sometimes subbed, in Japanese. They’re also usually Korean dramas, though I’ve seen random old American shows on there from time to time. 

The cool thing about Abema in general is the integration between TV and Video. There’s a lot of shows that have exclusive deals with Abema, where they will air their latest episodes on Abema TV in addition to normal TV! That means you can watch these shows on your phone or computer, without a cable subscription, in high quality, for free. Then, most of the time these shows will be available for free for one week on Video in case you missed the live version! You can pay for premium if you want to go back and watch old episodes, but I don’t use premium. Instead, if I’m watching live or the latest episode, I’ll watch on Abema for free. If I’m late, usually the show will already be on another service I have, and watched it there. It’s a win/win!

Quite obviously, there are a huge amount of streaming services these days available. For Japanese only services in particular, there’s a rabbit hole of options I didn’t have time to mention or even know about. Whether you’re new to Japan or have been here awhile, or just wanting to know what options you might have after a move here though, I hope that you might consider some of these options. I used to use my VPN constantly for media consumption, but I would like to think I’m pretty well integrated into the ecosystem here these days!


By Nathan

Nathan works for the GaijinPot Housing Service, helping foreigners find their home in Japan. He’s American and has lived in Japan for about three years. Read Nathan’s self-intro to find out what brought him here!


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