If you’ve ever been within coo-eee of a Hokkaido ski resort you’ve likely seen posters and notices from the Japan Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications indicating that you shouldn’t use your foreign 2-way radios. Most countries set aside some areas of radio-spectrum for license free 2-way radio use (walkie talkies). Unfortunately, each country tends to use a different frequency band and most also require that unlicensed radios are specifically approved for use. As you’ll see below, the license free services in Japan are very different than those from the US, UK, Europe or Australia/NZ.
If you want to understand just how seriously the Japan Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications takes tracking down offenders, the Olympics Tokyo 2020 Spectrum Monitoring Plan sets out in some detail the radio spectrum monitoring infrastructure that is deployed. This includes fixed and mobile radio direction finding equipment and even mini-vans outfitted like a CIA surveillance unit. Penalties include imprisonment of up to a year and fines or up to ¥1 million. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
License free radios from any other country are illegal in Japan and may interfere with other users of radio spectrums.
There are heavy penalties for the use of unauthorized radio devices, even if that device operates on frequencies that are license free in Japan.
An essential piece of backcountry equipment
We’ll start by acknowledging the importance of two way communications for managing group risk exposure in the backcountry. Recent ISSW whitepapers (Steen & Edgerly, 2017; Bachman et al., 2014) set out benefits and protocols of two-way (point to point) radio usage in backcountry skiing settings. Steen and Edgerly note,
“While cell phone technology is highly useful for emergency situations in the backcountry – assuming coverage exists–it cannot replace the real-time, group (versus one-on-one) communication that two-way radios provide…In general, high-use backcountry terrain is potential avalanche terrain. Radio use in avalanche terrain has the potential to create a safer environment and thus cut down on close calls and accidents…A high level of communication among group members, between groups and among safety professionals is undoubtedly a safer alternative to current, conventional communication methods.”
We strongly agree.
While it is critical to carry some form (ideally multiple) of emergency communication such as a cell phone or satellite messenger, there is significant value in having easy access point to point communications between group members. This is a role that as generally been taken by two-way radios for both professional and recreational parties. We believe that a two-way radio equipped with a speaker-mic for easy access is a critical safety tool in the backcountry when skiing and is useful for other activities as well.
Options for two-way radios in Japan
In Japan, like most countries, you generally have 4 broad options for two-way radios.
- “License Free” Radios (Personal Radio Service) (登録局 torokukyoku)
These are the most practical and popular option for most backcountry recreationalists in Japan. In this category, there are two broad options, one of which requires registration. We discuss both of these two options and their suitability for backcountry use in the next section. These radios can be used without either the operator or the specific radio frequency being individually licensed. However it’s a bit of a misnomer to call them “license free” as you will generally be using them on some sort of general purpose standardized license, the terms of which you’ll probably never bother reading. The terms do matter though and there’ll typically be restrictions such as output power, antenna configuration and so forth. These frequencies are made available on a ‘shared’ basis; if a channel is in use you’ll need to work in with other operators or change channel. Some personal radio services require either a mail in license application or some other form of registration. In the case of the ‘Kan-i’ radios which are most suited to backcountry use there is a small registration and annual fee. See our detailed registration guide here.
- Licensed Radios (免許局 musenkyoku)
Most countries will allow individuals and organizations to license a particular frequency band within a particular geography and then have radios programmed to operate on that frequency. This usually requires the use of a 3rd party to both facilitate the license and to program the radios. Licensed radios are not generally field programmable. A licensed radio in Japan can generally be used by anyone authorized by the license holder, so long as they are part of the same organization; i.e. the specific radio operator does not need to be licensed. Licensed radios are not commonly used by recreationalists in the backcountry in Japan. While they are high-powered and effective devices, they are mostly used by companies and organizations, and officially not allowed for ‘leisure’ use – see the table here (in Japanese). They may, however, be a viable option for guiding outfits in Japan willing to go through the licensing process, and who need to purchase a large number of radios for staff.
- Amateur Radio Service (アマチュア無線)
We suggest that the use of the amateur bands is not ideal for backcountry use in Japan. The most globally applicable option is the use of amateur radio bands. There is much more commonality across countries with respect to permitted frequencies in the amateur service, but, they may only be used by a licensed amateur. It is generally not permitted for an amateur licensee (HAM) to give their radio to another operator to use. This is certainly the case in Japan where the Japan Amateur Radio League (JARL) oversees the amateur service. HAMs tend to be sticklers for the rules and so, while it might be tempting to obtain your HAM license, buy some radios, and share them among your ski party, it’s likely that poor radio procedures will show your guests up for the rouges that they are. It is possible for foreign amateurs (licensed in a country other than Japan) to operate in Japan but they must either a) operate as a guest in the ‘presence’ of a Japanese Amateur or; b) apply as a foreign amateur, a process that appears to be typically Japanese in the extent of it’s bureaucracy and really only suitable only for ‘residents’ and not holidaying visitors.
- PTT Cellular carried radio service
These are relatively uncommon here in Japan, since they are essentially glorified cellphones. They’re a relatively recent arrival on the two-way radio scene. This is the new class of radios that actually transmit the voice data digitally via the cellular network. Sometimes called GSM walkie talkies of GSM PTT. There are various devices available from Aliexpress and the likes. Some will also contain a standard UHF transceiver which is going to be illegal to use in Japan. Key limitations of the PTT cellular approach are a) latency- even a few hundred ms delay on ‘AVALANCHE. AVALANCHE’ is a problem and; b) coverage – these devices rely on good quality cellular data coverage for all of their operation. While we prefer the more traditional outdoor focused analogue/digital radios, given the constraints and challenges of Japan we are hoping to get some devices to try and will update this article with our findings. If you are buying a GSM PTT device now we suggest ensuring that a) It is a rugged model (IP66/IP67); b) That it allows you to attach a speaker-mic and; c) Is able to use the appropriate mobile frequencies with broadest coverage.
License-free Radio Options for Japan
Tokutei Shoudenryoku Musen (Specified Low Powered Radio) 特定小電力無線局
The Radio Act sets out spectrum for use by very low powered devices for a range of uses. This includes things such as wireless dog collars, wireless microphones and a range of other devices. One class of devices are two-way radios. SLPR devices are required to operate at 0.1 Watt or less of power output, must have fixed antennas and must conform to the Japanese Telecommunications Standard and carry the logo. These radios are license free in so far as you can buy a radio and immediately begin using it. They’ll generally have a range of between 300m and 1km.
SLPR radios are available in a variety of form factors from online stores such as Amazon or BIC Camera. They run from about ¥5,000 for two cheapies in a blister pack through to ¥30,000 for a waterproof model from a high end manufacturer such as Kenwood or Yaesu. Regardless of the price, an SLPR radio is restricted to 0.1W of output power though you should find that more expensive models will have higher quality antennas and receiver sensitivity and thus perform marginally better in the field.
SLPR radios could be OK for backcountry skiing except that at 0.1W they are really a bit underpowered to be a good safety device. The target market for these radios is use within cities and they are very low powered in order to reduce cross-talk in crowded radio environments. I.e., they are optimized for about exactly the opposite set of requirements for use in the Hokkaido backcountry. All that said, a set of blister-pack SLPR radios are worth considering in lieu of breaking the law.
Digital Simple Registration Radio (Kan-i) – デジタル簡易無線局
These radios are much more powerful but require registration to your name & address in Japan. They operate on a range of different frequencies. VHF ~142Mhz and ~146MhZ and UHF ~351Mhz. Only the UHF are likely to be suitable as the VHF models require full licensing and only the 351Mhz bands are approved for leisure use. The ‘Analog’ variant of these radios were required to be phased out in 2014. The Yaesu page on the registration requirements is in Japanese but Google-Translates well. It is also valuable to review the official Government requirements page, again, translation works reasonably well. Here’s our easy-to-use English language registration documents generator.
Kan-i radio provide 30 digital channels and a transmit power of up to 5W, with a range of between 1km to 5km. They are absolutely ideal for use in the Hokkaido backcountry. Unfortunately, some items are unreasonably expensive in Japan; for example, pizza, bullet trains and movie tickets . 351Mhz kan-i registered radios also fall into this box. These radios are probably too expensive to justify for a one-off trip to Hokkaido but will make an excellent investment for regular visitors or residents.
Because they are completely Japan specific, they are generally only available from the higher end manufacturers, and even then they are fairly expensive when compared to their HAM radio counterparts. For a ruggedized device such as the Kenwood TPZ-D553MCH or Vertex Standard (Yaesu) VDX30 unit you will be looking at around ¥30,000 to ¥60,000 per radio (add 9,000yen for a weatherproof speaker/mic).
Kan-i radios require registration with the prefectural radio authorities. This can be done online, but the online process is in Japanese only and quite complicated. We have provided a complete Kani-i registration guide including English language of the forms. You will still require a Japanese address to receive correspondence, but, there is no requirement to be a Japanese Resident. It is legal to communicate with other Kan-i users (unlike a licensed frequency).
See our detailed English language registration guide here.
It is legal to lend/rent your radio to another person; this means that if you buy a set of radios you can hand them out to your friends to use for the day. If they are operating under your supervision such as skiing in your group (or are members of the registered owning organization) then there is no need to file any more paperwork. If they are operating independently, such as lending your radios to friends for their own trip, then you’ll need to let the prefectural authority know about it using the form (#4) on this page.
Where to Buy Kan-i Radios
As long as you’re comfortable handling the registration with our guide then you can pick these radios up from Amazon Japan (Kenwood | Yaesu) pretty easily. They also pop up quite a bit on Yahoo Auctions (here’s a search term URL) and there’s sometimes some cheaper ‘generic’ devices there as well. For our [Hokkaido Wilds] money we went with the VXD-30 devices. We also recommend speaker-mics as essential equipment. Both of the radios recommended use proprietary connectors which means you’re probably stuck with the OEM versions though there are some lower cost options for both on Amazon too (Kenwood OEM, Kenwood low-cost, Vertex OEM W/R, Vertex OEM).
While most will have detachable antennas, you are not permitted to change the antenna on your Kan-i radio and it must be fitted with the original antenna or an approved alternative. We would recommend not changing the antenna on your handheld Kan-i radios.
Two-way Radio Rental Options in Hokkaido
There are a plethora of companies in Japan that offer two-way radio rentals. Many offer this service to individuals, and do not require a permanent address or any radio license registration. Most also offer delivery. For two weeks, you’d be looking at between 3,500yen to 6,000yen per handset, for a high-powered Digital Kan-i handset. We’re yet to find a service that offers support in English though. We’ve never rented two-way radios before, but some Internet searching and calling around resulted in three companies that may be worth a shot.
Hokkaido Shinwa Equipment (http://hokkaido-shinwa.com/)
Hokkaido Shinwa Equipment, based in Sapporo, offer handsets for around 7,000yen per pair per week (high power digital kan-i). Delivery to an address in Niseko, for example, would be an extra 800yen or so each way. On the phone, they said they’d prefer to be contacted in Japanese. See the comments section below (this comment) for evidence that they can be contacted via email in Japanese (use Google Translate or DeepL for translating).
Daisho Tsushinki Service (http://www.daishotsushin.co.jp/)
Also based in Sapporo, this company quoted around 3,500yen per handset for 10 days, plus a one-off fee of 1,200yen per handset (high power digital kan-i). They’d also deliver from Sapporo to Niseko for around 1,000yen each way. They were unequivocal regarding English, telling us “no one here speaks English”. You’d need to contact them in Japanese.
Based in Tokyo, this company happened to come up in a Google search. On the phone, they said a 14-day rental of a digital kan-i handset would be around 6,300yen, plus 2,200yen postage to Hokkaido. They can only offer service in Japanese.
This is only a very small starter of the overwhelmingly large number of companies in Japan that offer two-way radio rentals. If you know of anywhere that offers service in English, please let us know in the comments.
Programmable HAM/Amateur radios are only legal if you have a HAM license and if you are operating on permitted frequencies. See our notes above on the complexities of HAM radio usage for foreigners visiting Japan. Unfortunately, in recent years, it has become popular to purchase high powered (5w-8w) HAM radios from China and then program these yourself; this use is extremely common in North America where it is also illegal. Using these radios in this manner in Japan exposes you to severe penalties including ¥1mn+ fines and the risk of jail time.
If you absolutely insist on bringing your own programmable devices, then the least worst option will be to operate on the Tokutei Shoudenryoku Musen (SLPR) simplex leisure band frequencies. The “Tokutei Shoudenryoku Musen” or “Specified Low Power Radio (SLPR) ” provides the following band-map:
- Simplex: 422.2000–422.3000 MHz (Leisure use), 10 mW max power, 9 channels, 12.5 kHz spacing
- Simplex: 422.0500–422.1750 MHz (Business use only), 10 mW max power, 11 channels, 12.5 kHz spacing
- Duplex/Repeater: 421.8125–421.9125 MHz (paired with 440.2625–440.3625 MHz) (Leisure use), 10 mW, 12.5 kHz spacing
- Duplex/Repeater: 421.575-421.800 MHz (paired with 440.025-440.250 MHz) (Business use), 10 mW max power, 12.5 kHz spacing
Programming your radios to these frequencies is still completely illegal. Please be aware that the power output and wider frequency modulation mean that you will likely interfere across more than one SLPR band if you are using ‘Ham’ radios or ‘Baofeng’ radios. See the comment from @Franco below for some additional notes on this issue.
At Hokkaido Wilds we do not condone breaking the law and strongly urge you to purchase one of the recommended license free Japanese radios that we discuss above.