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Although Hikaru is a Japanese first name, Sulu is not a Japanese last name, and no Japanese last name I know sounds remotely like Sulu. As a matter of fact, the Japanese translation of Star Trek spells Sulu using katakana as if it were an English last name. In some subs it is replaced by an actual Japanese last name like Katō!

Has there ever been an in-universe explanation how Hikaru Sulu got his last name? Sulu is clearly not a common English last name either, and Sulu's ethnicity is never given as anything other than Japanese.

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Sulu is a Norwegian name. Maybe his great great great gran-mother was a Viking. -- nordicnames.de/wiki/Sulu –  cytasos Jul 24 at 11:24
    
There is the Sulu Sea southwest of the Philipine Islands. –  Oldcat Jul 24 at 16:45

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According to the Hikaru Sulu article on Memory Alpha, a comprehensive Star Trek wiki:

Sulu's given name, Hikaru, was canonically established in Star Trek VI, though it had been used in fan circles since it was introduced in Vonda N. McIntyre's 1981 novel The Entropy Effect. McIntyre created the name, taking it from The Tale of Genji, because she needed to write a love scene featuring Sulu, and she "couldn't figure out how to write a love scene where the protagonists called each other by their surnames." Hikaru was also given in the script of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as the name of the young boy whom Sulu later realizes is his great-great grandfather.

"Hikaru" is a Japanese name that can mean "light" or several other words, and is quite commonly used for both males and females. 'Sulu' is taken from Sulu sea and it is also the name of a province in the Philippines.

In the Japanese version of Star Trek, his family name was changed to 'Kato', a common surname. Also notable is that his name cannot be truly Japanese, as the Japanese language, while syllabic, does not contain the "L" phoneme in any form. It is not out of the question that Sulu was born of a Japanese-Filipino couple, taking on a Japanese-given name with a Filipino surname, nor is the fact that most American names are mixed-and-matched, and will likely continue to be diversified for the next four hundred years.

It has been conjectured by Michael Okuda and Denise Okuda in the Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home text commentary that Sulu is an anglicized version of the Japanese word tsuru, the word for the red-crested crane, a national treasure of Japan and symbol of leadership, courage, and long life.

However, in the book Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, production executive Herb Solow states that Gene Roddenberry named Sulu after him, as a joking tribute to his surname, which can be (incorrectly) pronounced as "Sulu".

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Yes, obviously Japanese can't contain L, and "suru" is a verb, not a name. "tsuru" is not usually a name though. The Filipino theory makes most sense. –  user54609 Jul 24 at 11:55
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Also, Star Trek 2009 instead translates Sulu as "suuruu", keeping the non-Japanese name. –  user54609 Jul 24 at 11:56
    
While the Romaji transliteration of Japanese spells ル as “ru,” it usually sounds more like “lu” to English speakers and so might appear that way in an informal phonetic spelling of スル (suru), ツル (tsuru), or similar words. –  Bradd Szonye Jul 25 at 0:16
    
As I said, neither スル (to do) or ツル (crane) are usually used for names... –  user54609 Jul 25 at 4:35
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That makes sense – I'm just pointing out that the quotation in the answer is not strictly correct. Japanese does have a phoneme that sounds like L to English speakers. –  Bradd Szonye Jul 25 at 8:21

Hikaru Sulu was meant to be Japanese-Filipino in ethnicity, with a Japanese given name and a Filipino surname. This was part of the diversity theme of Star Trek (especially significant when at the Original Series' first airing, due to the current political climes and what not). George Takei himself commented that Sulu was meant to represent all Asians, in response to a question whether or not he approved of John Cho's casting as Sulu in the JJ Abrams' alternate reality Trek, since Cho is a Korean and not Japanese like Takei.

Not related to your question but a fun fact: the Enterprise crew was specifically formed to highlight diversity: Caucasians represented by Kirk and McCoy (with McCoy the stereotypical hot-blooded 'good old boy'), Uhura representing not only the empowered female but also the African-American niche, Chekov as of course, Eastern Europe/Russia (as although this was not yet the height of the Cold War, but there had already been rising tensions between the USSR and the West at the time), Sulu representing Asia and Scotty representing the UK/West Europe. Spock was supposed to represent the distillation of the different cultures into a rational, progressive culture, hence the Vulcan's logical/stoic demeanor.

TL;DR: Sulu is a Filipino surname, since Hikaru Sulu was meant to be Japanese-Filipino but representing all Asians, as commented by George Takei in an interview. Source? Google search: 'George Takei on John Cho's casting as Sulu'

Live Long and Prosper!

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The Cuban Missile Crisis was 1962. Star Trek only got started ~1964. Surely one could say that Cold War tensions were already quite high. –  njahnke Jul 24 at 16:06
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One could argue, that the crew of every Star Trek series was about diversity, culminating in Worf/Dorn: A black, Russian Klingon serving on a Federation ship and named after a guy who researched multi-cultured communication. –  Einer Jul 24 at 16:42

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