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Japan’s top court finds paying NHK public broadcast fee “legal obligation”

The Supreme Court said last week television owners in Japan are legally required to sign up with public broadcaster NHK and pay a subscription fee, dismissing a claim that the fee-charging system violates the freedom of contract guaranteed by the Constitution.

The ruling, the first of its kind by the top court, was handed down in a lawsuit filed by NHK against a Tokyo man who refused to respond to NHK’s request to seal a contract in September 2011. He owned a television set from March 2006.

The ruling is expected to bring great reassurance to NHK also known as Japan Broadcasting Corp., which has relied on funds as its main source of income and has been struggling with unpaid bills.

At issue is the Broadcasting Law that says any person who has installed equipment capable of receiving NHK broadcasts shall conclude a contract with NHK. But the law does not stipulate that the payment of the so-called broadcast receiving fee is an “obligation,” leaving room for some experts to argue its interpretation.

NHK is funded through the fee, which it says should be paid by all residents in Japan, regardless of nationality and of whether or not its programs are watched. But some 20 percent of households, mainly those in major cities, fail to pay the money, according to the broadcaster.

There is no penalty for not paying the fee, which is about 14,000 yen ($124) for receiving terrestrial broadcast when the payment is made annually.