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Explaining bilingual TVs & VCRs

Everyone knows Japan is just full of wonderful advanced technology, or has heard some story that is too weird to be true. Well, in this case it is, for once, true. Most Japanese homes are in fact in possession of bilingual TVs or VCRs, although of course the owners often aren't aware of this fact, and very rarely make full use of them.

The evening news shown on Japanese television is regularly offered in English too, to those who have the right sets. Of perhaps greater interest to most people, since Japanese news tends towards Japan-only news, are the regular showings of foreign movies. These are shown, in addition to occasional Japanese movies, on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at 9pm, and are usually Hollywood hits of recent years. However a much more eclectic mix of movies can be found in the early hours of the morning, every few days. Ninety percent of these can be viewed in their original English soundtrack, with only a few limited to the Japanese dubbing; a universally despised soundtrack of comic-book voices!

The 3 sockets needed for a bilingual TV
The Japanese button for bilingual might look like any of these:

The cover of TV Taro always looks rather like this

How bilingual televisions work:
Television stations normally send out a stereo signal, which is picked up by your TV set, and pumped out through both speakers. So some bright spark realised that you don't necessarily have to send out the same soundtrack (taking a stereo effect to be a single soundtrack), and you could instead broadcast two different soundtracks (e.g. Japanese language or English language), which could then be thrown out of two separate TV speakers; the left speaker in English and the right speaker in Japanese. So essentially the difference between bilingual and non-bilingual TV is the capability to produce stereo sound. To choose between the languages, you simply need to turn off the speaker you don't want to hear.

So how do I spot a bilingual TV?
Simple - look on the front (where many TVs have sockets for video cameras etc.) or the back of the TV (where you'd plug in your speakers). If you have three colours of socket, yellow, white and red, then you're in luck! If you only have yellow and white, then the infernal machine won't do bilingual - feel free to punch and kick the machine until you're blue in the face, or at least mildly curse the ancestry of the idiot who bought a non-bilingual set!

What about VCRs?
Your video works in exactly the same way, and also needs the three colours of socket. If you have a bilingual TV, but a non-bilingual VCR, then you'll only be able to watch in English when it's broadcast. Therefore taping a movie to watch later is a complete waste of time. However if you have a bilingual VCR, but a non-bilingual TV, you might be able to tape a movie, and watch it later in English on the VCR channel. Maybe - it depends on the specifications of your set. Follow all that?

So what's worth watching?
Your best bet is to brush up on your katakana skills, and then buy a monthly TV listings guide. At time of writing (2001), the best magazine by far is TV Taro, available in the last week of every month. Under 400 yen, it lists every movie shown on satellite or terrestrial television for the entire month, with a small screen shot next to the Japanese description, and the title written in both Japanese and English. The magazine (shown left) is easy to recognise by the cover, which always features a colour portrait of a Hollywood star's face, but with white hair.

How do I know whether a program is bilingual?
For normal television shows, a kanji sign is briefly shown in yellow at the top right of the TV screen to indicate whether the program is in mono or stereo, but if the program is available bilingually, the sign is usually shown in red. So that's about it - have fun... and don't turn vegetable!