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Sort of related, but here I'm asking about the virtual lack of anyone but people of Japanese descent among the recurring East Asian officers depicted in Star Trek.

We have:

Hikaru Sulu: Japanese-American (b. San Francisco)
Alyssa Ogawa: presumably Japanese or Japanese-American (based on first name?)
Keiko (Ishikawa) O'Brien Japanese (b. Japan)
Hoshi Sato Japanese (b. Kyoto)

as well as Adm. Nakamura and appearances of the USS Yamato and the USS Kyushu.

Whereas, for other Southeast and East Asians, I cannot find any, really, except for:

Harry Kim (b. S. Carolina) has a typically Korean name and note this awesome clip of Garrett Wang, where he explains that apparently Kim was supposed to be Chinese, but even the actor himself didn't know he was Chinese until after the series ended.

And then in Discovery there's the beginnings of a slightly more diverse Asian contingent with merely:

Philippa Georgiou (b. Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia) but with a strangely non-Asian name and
USS Shenzhou presumably named after this Chinese spacecraft.

What are the in- and out-of-universe reasons Star Trek seems to lean Japanese compared to other parts of the region?


I feel like I should also point out, that among those four starring/recurring Japanese roles, half of them are not even played by actors of Japanese ancestry. So the character traits seem to have been set independently of casting with a preference to stick with "Japanese" despite casting decisions, even though the Japanese-ness of these characters (vs. say Chinese or Korean) wasn't really very central to them, at least until later writing (e.g. the ink brush flashback in "Violations" and influence in the Keiko/O'Brien wedding)

  • Ensign Lin is at the conn in TNG: Night Terrors. – Ham Sandwich Mar 6 '18 at 17:13
  • @HamSandwich: OK, that is a single appearance in one scene with the lines " Impulse engines are not responding, sir. " and " We're adrift ". That's not really my point. If anything, this is the except that proves the rule. – ThePopMachine Mar 6 '18 at 17:21
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    Yes we all assumed that Harry Kim was Korean just because of his name... But of course in the future, intermarrying between the different countries is very common, so he could have been called "Depardieu" and still been Chinese! – colmde Mar 7 '18 at 9:52
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    In-universe you've only seen a tiny, tiny, tiny snapshot of Federation culture. I don't think we can draw any conclusions from such a sample size. – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 7 '18 at 10:56
  • Related – ThePopMachine Mar 7 '18 at 16:23
92

I have an out of universe explanation that is based on the fact that three of the five characters and both of the starships with Japanese names first appeared in The Next Generation.

In the 1980s (when TNG was created), Japan's economy and technology made it the major rival to the U.S. in Asia (if not the world). It is understandable that American writers of that time would expect Japanese people and their names to be well represented in the future Starfleet.

Of course times have changed; China and South Korea are both now major economic and high-tech powers, with China seen as the major rival to the U.S. So we see that by the time Firefly was produced, the Chinese language was assumed to be a major component of the future culture.

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    The Firefly example is a good one. I had forgotten that aspect of the show. – DCOPTimDowd Mar 6 '18 at 18:21
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    The perfect answer. This is really obvious to anyone who was young in 1980! – Fattie Mar 8 '18 at 0:55
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    (I'm reminded of the great exchange in Back To The Future ... "All the best stuff's from Japan, Doc..." If that scene was made today, it would be "... from Korea".) – Fattie Mar 8 '18 at 0:56
  • The Firefly argument could have been made as much on numbers than anything else, especially since the most obvious influence is linguistic, and Mandarin has long been the most commonly spoken language on earth (of course we'd also expect a large Spanish influence, but while it's more common as a first language than English, English is more common as a first or second language). – Jon Hanna Mar 8 '18 at 14:30
50

George Takei expressed his opinion about this at a talk I saw him give about 10 years ago. (I'm not sure if this was in response to a question, or if it was part of his prepared talk.)

He said that casting for Star Trek shows (and many television shows, really) had become extremely formulaic. There was almost a roster of required character types to be filled out: one emotionless character, a black character, an alien, etc. The makeup of this roster was heavily based on the highly successful cast of the original Star Trek.

Takei said that since he had been Japanese, that had made Japanese one of the default character types. The roster slot was not quite as rigid as some of the others, but it meant that when casting an East Asian character, there was a strong default tendency to make them Japanese. Overall, he said that Star Trek was wonderful for consistently using minority actors, but (and he phrased this very carefully; he was always positive about Star Trek) it would be wonderful if there were as many roles for people with other Asian backgrounds.

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    @DCOPTimDowd As I stated, it was from a talk he gave, which I attended. – Buzz Mar 6 '18 at 18:24
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    So no transcript? – DCOPTimDowd Mar 6 '18 at 18:51
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    Do you remember where you heard him speak? Someone might be able to track down an audio byte. – chif-ii Mar 6 '18 at 18:57
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    confirming a long-held personal belief that people who manage (as opposed to creating) TV shows and movies have, in general, no clue. "...heavily based on the ... highly successful..." - because... that could be part of its success formula! – Spike0xff Mar 6 '18 at 19:22
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    @Spike0xff only TV shows and movies? How about books about young sorcerers who go to a sorcerous academy? Or how Fifty Shades seems to have ushered in the genre of erotic *trilogies*(goodreads.com/genres/erotic-trilogies)? (I happen to know one author - male - who was told, almost literally, that the book was exceedingly good, but he would need a female pen name, lengthen the book by around 40% and split it in three. "That's what the market wants"). I'm also seeing books whose titles are apparently chosen by a Polygen grammar abstracting that of a previous success... – LSerni Mar 6 '18 at 19:41
6

I haven't seen these ideas brought up, but they seem relatively obvious to me. I also realize it's going to be hard to express this tactfully. It would be nice if anyone could show any research or commentary from Hollywood that would back this up. This deals with casting decisions which can have all kinds of unsavory motivations. Please don't murder me. But in its present form, what follows is speculation:

Here, I'm comparing Japan and/or perception of Japan by the West to other local countries, in particular to China.

  • Hollywood feels there should be an Asian representative in the cast so that the crew seems "plausibly representative of all of Earth"
  • Japan is more Westernized, more orderly and more open to Americans.
  • Japanese phonology is easier to transliterate and easier to pronounce compared especially with Chinese, which is tonal and difficult to approximate
  • Japanese food is probably considered "classier" and healthier than Chinese
  • Japan is respected for its accomplishments in electronics.
  • Japan has a consistently high standard of living and literacy rate.
  • Japan is democratic, free, and well-integrated into international society
  • Japan generally embraces American and Western culture.

In other words, I'm claiming that Star Trek is assigning roles to Japanese characters because they are the "friendly", "relatable", "nice", "not-scary" people from Asia.

It seems to be more than a pattern so there must be something going into the decision.

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    while an interesting commentary - there's really nothing objectively applicable in this to justify it as an answer. Unless there is some sort of memo or answer from a member of any of the various incarnation production staff, this will be mostly an opinion-based question, won't it? I'll hold on voting to close for that reason because there may be some nugget out there in the ether. Maybe Mike Okuda has some thoughts? – NKCampbell Mar 6 '18 at 23:08
  • @NKCampbell: You can take issue with the answer but not the question. You don't VTC a question because "you think there's won't be an objective answer". You VTC a question because "there can't be an objective answer". Since you openly stated that a comment from production staff would provide an answer, then there's no basis to assume an answer would have to be opinion-based. – ThePopMachine Mar 6 '18 at 23:17
  • I was just saying that this isn't really an answer, and, like I said, I'm not voting to close it because there could be an actual production answer. Not sure why the umbrage :). In other words, if what you wrote as an answer was posted as an answer by a brand new user, it would get flagged as 'not an answer, once you have more rep you can make a comment'. Not to say it isn't interesting or probably even correct – NKCampbell Mar 6 '18 at 23:29
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    @NKCampbell: I guess I was hoping this might be a jumping off point for someone to either point to a quote or to point to some research somewhere. I don't imagine this effect is limited to Star Trek. It just afforded us enough data (over six decades, six series, thirteen films) to see a pattern. – ThePopMachine Mar 6 '18 at 23:42
  • @martin, sure but I'm claiming these reasons/biases are getting applied based on the effect in the real world at the time of writing, not based on some presumed logic about what might make sense in the far future – ThePopMachine Mar 7 '18 at 16:30
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In the real world ships tend to draw recruits from particular regions, where the ship is based. Even when recruits are taken from elsewhere they tend to feed to a particular place, I heard a story where the British army would take recruits from the highlands in Fiji and assume the best fit for them was the highland regiment in Scotland since the places share a name and all.

As star fleet would want a diverse crew they may have multiple home ports, one in the US and one in Japan.

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