Happy May the Fourth! Today is traditionally a day to celebrate Star Wars, but for today’s post I thought I’d change things up a bit and talk about Star Trek, and Japan’s relationship to this legendary sci-fi series.
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I’m Geeking Out About Star Trek This Week
I’m just finishing up watching season 3 of Star Trek Picard, which is on Amazon Prime here in Japan. I’d watched most of season 1 but found the series not quite up to my expectations, for various reasons. Happily, a friend went out of his way to tell me how good Picard season 3 was, so I gave it a go and…it was basically all any TNG nerd could have asked for.
So go watch it, if you haven’t. I’ll wait here.
How Does Japan Feel About Star Trek?
You never know when an international TV show, called kaigai drama or overseas drama, will become popular in Japan. Here are some shows that have become big hits:
- Bewitched, shown locally as Okusama wa Majo, was hugely influential in postwar Japan. The country’s fascination with Samantha’s little witch daughter Tabitha is credited with inspiring the Magical Girl boom.
- Alf, that silly comedy about a muppet alien, was extremely popular here. You can measure this by seeing how much longer the Japanese Wikipedia page is than the English one.
- Twin Peaks was really big here, too, so much so that Coca-Cola commissioned a series of commercials for Georgia Coffee in which Coop must solve a mystery involving coffee and a mysterious Japanese woman. Twin Peaks is actually responsible for me starting J-List, when I learned I could sell the posters they put on vending machines to fans on the early Internet.
Sadly, Star Trek is not really included in the list of popular TV shows in Japan. The original series was broadcast in the early 70s under the title Uchu Daisakusen, in a 4 pm time slot that might have been great for American schoolchildren but was terrible for the local market. Besides influencing some future anime creators who were watching, Star Trek didn’t leave a deep and lasting impression on Japan.
Of course, it did win some fans, and you can see this in the many Star Trek references that cropped up in ’80s anime, if you know where to look. My favorite is this shout-out to the original cast embedded into an episode of Dirty Pair. The gesture was returned in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was littered with references to Dirty Pair and other classic anime series.
My hero William Shatner blocked me on Twitter. Read the story in this blog post!
But aside from these exceptions, Star Trek just didn’t make a big cultural splash in Japan. Some reasons might have included:
- No endless re-runs. While I grew up with Star Trek TOS episodes running every weekday in some cases, the only time a series gets re-broadcast in Japan is if it’s owned by a network (TBS, Fuji TV, etc.) that has time to fill. If only some company had purchased permanent ownership of the rights for the Japanese market.
- Star Trek might be too U.S.-centric. I mean, it is basically The United Nations in Space.
- It’s got a huge backstory. In the same way that new fans might be scared away from the U.C. Gundam world, which has 45+ years of series and films in its canon, Star Trek might be hard for Japanese fans to approach.
- Competition from anime. I grew up starved for quality TV shows that asked and answered big questions, which was why I was drawn to anime. Fans in Japan already had access to these kinds of stimulating stories every time they turned on their TV.
I remember back when Heroes season 1 was airing. There was a scene where Hiro and Ando were speaking Japanese together, dropping references to Star Trek’s scientific concepts like any nerds might, using dialogue that had obviously been written first in English and then translated into Japanese. I shook my head, since no Japanese person in history would make Trek references like that. It would be far more likely for Japanese people to reference famous lines from Mobile Suit Gundam, or Jojo, or possibly even Castle in the Sky: Laputa.
Growing up, I was always fascinated with Japan, the land where so many wonderful things seemed to come from. Naturally, the first Japanese person I saw on TV was George Takei as Mr. Sulu. My mother met him at a book signing once, and of course she had to tell him about “her crazy son who ran off to live in Japan because he loved anime.”
It’s a shame that Star Trek wasn’t destined to leave a deep mark on Japanese fans as it did for many of us. But at least some fans realized how closely connected the world could be through the power of shared pop culture. Watching this play out over the span of my life has been truly…
Thanks for reading this blog post on the connection between Japan and the Star Trek franchise. What do you think of Star Trek, as an anime fan? Tell us below!
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