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Surge in consultations at consumer affairs centers over NHK contracts

NHK Broadcasting Center (Mainichi)

The number of cases where people consulted with local consumer affairs centers across the country over reception contracts with public broadcaster NHK increased by four times over the past decade to surpass 8,000 in fiscal 2016, a lawyer said.

    This is apparently because NHK has stepped up efforts to collect reception fees from people including those who have refused to make payments. "NHK should try to collect reception fees in an appropriate manner," said a lawyer who is well versed in consumer affairs.

    The Supreme Court is set to make its first judgment on whether the public broadcaster's reception fee system is constitutional on Dec. 6.

    A lawyer of a plaintiff who has sued NHK over trouble involving the collection of reception fees inquired with the government-affiliated National Consumer Affairs Center over the number of cases of consultations over reception fees at local consumer centers, and received a reply this past April. The Mainichi Shimbun has gained access to the center's reply to the lawyer, which is attached to court records of the lawsuit.

    The number of cases of such consultations, which stood at 1,926 in fiscal 2007, kept increasing to top 8,000 in fiscal 2015 and hit 8,472 in fiscal 2016. Over the decade from fiscal 2007 to 2016, there were a total of some 55,000 cases where consumer affairs centers across the country were consulted by the public over NHK reception fees.

    By age group, those in their 20s accounted for the largest number of such cases at 7,074, followed by those in their 60s at 7,032, those in their 70s at 6,520 and those in their 30s at 6,446.

    In one case, a person complained to a local consumer affairs center that their son living alone was visited by an NHK fee collector and was made to write down his name while he was unaware that he was signing a contract with the public broadcaster.

    In another case, a resident of an apartment complex said that although they had no TV set at home, they were forced to make a reception contract because the complex had a TV antenna.

    The number of people refusing to pay reception fees began to surge sometime around 2004 when cases of wrongdoing involving NHK employees came to light one after another.

    By fiscal 2006, the ratio of those paying reception fees fell to 68 percent, prompting NHK to step up efforts to collect reception fees from consumers such as by demanding payments. As a result, the ratio had risen to 79 percent by fiscal 2016. The spike in the number of cases where consumer affairs centers are consulted over NHK reception fees apparently corresponds with these moves.

    In the meantime, the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the public broadcaster can demand payment of reception fees for up to five years in the past from those who claim that the statute of limitations has run out.

    NHK has no duty to notify those who refuse to pay of reception fees subject to the statute of limitations, but some disputes over the system have been reported.

    According to lawyer Toru Ino, who is well versed in consumer affairs, an NHK fee collector demanded in January last year that a 73-year-old man in Sapporo, who was living on a pension of about 70,000 yen a month, pay some 170,000 yen he had failed to pay for 10 years. The man did not know anything about the statute of limitations. He then consulted lawyer Ino and applied for public livelihood assistance, whose recipients are exempted from paying NHK reception fees.

    NHK's public relations division said the public broadcaster will instruct its fee collectors to improve their manners.

    "If we receive complaints or other opinions about fee collection, we'll confirm the facts and instruct fee collectors to improve their manners when they visit subscribers," an official of the division said.

    With regard to the statute of limitations, the official said, "We demand full amounts in arrears from the viewpoint of ensuring equality in the burden of NHK fees. However, we'll deduct the due amount from the bill if customers claim that the statute of limitations has run out."

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