Monday, December 28, 2009

'Star Trek' in Japan

It’s official: Midway through 2009, one in seven citizens of Japan had heard of Star Trek.

I know this, because I finished personally quizzing 60-odd people round then for an article that popped up in the late lamented Geek Monthly to coincide with the late May release of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot here in Japan; these are the stats I conjured up from those loose discussions.

The margin of error was open to contention, since I interviewed people only in Tokyo, my test subjects were limited to students of English, techno DJs and musicians, or creative anime types, and the age group stretched from 18 to 72.

The one-in-seven figure is itself a stretch, since two inclusions in the ‘yes’ category confused Star Trek for Star Wars. One time when I asked the ongoing question - “Have you heard of Star Trek?” - my tipping-the-scales 72-year-old English student declared “Of course!" ...thence proceeded to enact a rather sprite air-lightsabre cut-and-thrust routine.

It isn’t as if Japanese television consumption has been limited to only jidaigeki samurai dramas, or home-grown animated sci-fi romps like Mobile Suit Gundam.

Most of the 35 to 45 age-bracket grew up on Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s British-made futurist marionette romp, Thunderbirds, in the 1970s.

Even when I arrived in this country eight years ago, Thunderbirds was still playing on NHK at primetime Sunday evenings. The week I sneaked through Customs, it was the turn of the episode ‘Cry Wolf’, set in Australia; for about an hour after, I had to explain to my Japanese hosts precisely why someone fresh off the boat from Melbourne didn’t sound like the outback butchers of pronunciation Thunderbirds had portrayed.

Then there’s the George Lucas factor.

Given that it’s based in large part on a classic Japanese movie (Kurosawa's Kakushi-toride no san-akunin, aka The Hidden Fortress) that starred the late, great Toshiro Mifune at his formidable best, it should be no wonder that the Japanese fell in love with Star Wars when it was (finally) released in Japan, midway through 1978.

But they seem to have completely missed the boat when it comes to the various TV series of Star Trek stretching from 1966 to 2005, and don’t even tarry with the 10 cinematic offerings before this year's reboot.

We’re not talking just your Joe Average salaryman or office lady here. I also interviewed techno luminary Ken Ishii, and he was a member of the Thank-God-There’s-At-Least-One-In-Seven Party.

Even so, Ishii echoed an ongoing issue for most Japanese.

“Of course I’ve seen Star Trek, but I never was careful with the different titles and series - so I don’t know which is which,” he admits.

“As you know if you live in Japan for a while, they tend to put a Japanese title on major Hollywood films, so we can hardly remember the original English titles, especially for the ones I watched when I was a child.”

Fellow Tokyo musician Toshiyuki Yasuda put it more frankly - “Sorry, I don't know much about Star Trek. All I can remember is a bald head” - while Tatsuya Oe, who produces under the alias of Captain Funk and is considered one of the city’s top DJs, found himself apologizing.

“Actually, I don’t have much knowledge about Star Trek, though I do like it,” he explains.

“Here in Japan, we could say that Star Trek got the short end of the stick because they lost the chance for focused TV broadcasting in the 1960s and ‘70s. Moreover, people got more familiar with the series after Star Wars fever hit Japan, so they were even misunderstood as a kind of pale imitation, at least around the time of my childhood. According to Japanese Wiki, video games of Star Trek seem to have been more popular.”

In terms of his own experience, Oe referred back to Jean-Luc Picard and crew, instead of my own favourite - James T. Kirk.

“I sometimes watched Next Generation on TV, and Geordi La Forge was very impressive and cool when I saw him first - he reminds me of ‘80s future electro-funk, like Midnight Star,” he reports.

Even so, Oe did manage to cite the influence of Classic Trek, albeit from unusual quarters: “Leonard Nimoy appeared on a certain TV commercial here in Japan.”

That was for Teijin - a textile and pharmaceutical company (

Think the artistic types at Production I.G, the animation studio behind Ghost in the Shell, should be more in the know when it comes to matters Trek? Well, I’ll confess to that kind of inkling having crossed my own mind, but you can hit delete right about now.

Star Trek doesn’t sound too popular here,” says Francesco Prandoni, our man at I.G, when I bounce the subject off him. “They’re all Kamen Rider freaks around me.”

Our contact at fellow anime studio, Gonzo (Afro Samurai), proved far more fruitful in this instance.

Star Trek?” laughs Kaz Haruna, at the production company’s International Division in Tokyo. “How did you know I was such a huge Trek geek? Of course I know the movie is coming out; it may be the most anticipated one for me this year!”

30-year-old Haruna quickly shapes up as the jewel in the Trek Japan crown; the fount of Starfleet know-how that could reboot my own otherwise listless task.

“I remember watching reruns of the original series when I was a kid, but what really got me interested in the whole franchise was Next Generation, which I watched in real time,” he gushes, and it’s not long before I idolize every single word.

Thank god someone in this city knows Trek, and doesn’t believe that Kirk likes to bulls-eye womp rats.

“Although it had its moments, the start of the show was not that great,” Haruna continues with great gusto. Now I know for sure he’s seen the Next Gen series.

“I think I even stopped watching around the second season. But from the third season, it really became a high-quality show, and I was hooked. The ships and gadgetry were always something to drool over, but what really grabbed me was the balance of sci-fi, action, and drama, not to mention all the moral and human problems the crew faced. It gave a kid a lot to think about.”

When it came to favorite characters, Haruna is also quick on the uptake, like Captain Kirk with his trusty flip-communicator.

“I’d have to say Jean-Luc Picard. He’s supposed to have a French background, but Patrick Stewart is so English. So many breaks in his office with a cup of Earl Grey! Really, though, his balance of wit and bravery always got me excited. Sometimes as gung-ho and daring as Kirk, but always with an air of intelligence and class.”

Then the truth seeped out: Haruna had spent 19 of his 30 years living in America, and suddenly there’s just so much less wonder as to why he knows his Star Trek from his Star Wars.

While that piece of news may have shaded the gloss of my personal revelation just a tad, it did effectively introduce a new angle, one that I’d like to believe dawned on me in that split second, but more likely bludgeoned me about the head later on.

The angle? That Haruna has the unique cross-cultural insight a Johnny-come-lately expat like me could never hope to grasp, even after 96 months in the country.

“Having lived in both Japan and the United States,” our Gonzo rep muses, seemingly reveling in his new role, “it’s evident that Star Trek has had a much bigger cultural impact in the States. One of Star Trek’s biggest philosophical views was that there was no racism in the future. The crew of the Enterprise consisted of officers from all races, some not even human. In these terms, the way the show influenced Japan - which is not as culturally diverse as the US - was completely different, and somewhat minimal.”

Then comes the twist.

“What I think it did do is get into the minds of the sci-fi and electronics people, because you can see facets of Trek designs everywhere, from cell phones to monitor screens. Almost every bridge design for any kind of spaceship seen in Japanese anime - and that American kids are watching right now on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, and - looks very, very familiar...”


AstroNerdBoy said...

I still own the Japanese VHS version (complete with hard case and changing-image cover) of "Star Trek 5."

I've seen ST:TNG show up in two manga off the top of my head. I know it showed up fairly early on in "Ah! My Goddess" (either Skuld or Urd were watching it on TV) and it showed up in a recent episode of "Natsu no Arashi! Akinai-chuu" where they score a large group of eye wear, including Geordi's VISOR. ^_^


Ahhh, now this is the kind of feedback I'd hoped to glean from my Japanese otaku mates here; instead they were mostly like "huh?"
I think there are people into the series, but it's like discovering people who're into "Blake's 7"... difficult to find! ;)

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