TOKYO — After 30-plus years as a flagship of American pop culture, the voyages of the Starship Enterprise are now beamed to some 150 countries worldwide — which means that the ship may be the best-known vehicle, real or imaginary, ever created by human beings. According to Joe Okubo, who directs the "Star Trek: Voyager" Web site on Niftyserve, there are about 5 million Trek fans in Japan alone.
I arrived here at the start of a two-month pan-Asian research trip for a new book about why "Star Trek" has become a global myth. The Japanese passion for cultural imports — from Buddhism to baseball, from vintage jazz to jelly donuts — is easy to understand, and my contacts at Paramount insisted that the interest in "Star Trek" was just as obvious.
"It's the technology," they insisted. "The Japanese are obsessed with it. Phasers, tricorders, warp drive — it drives them wild."
It made sense to me, too. The Japanese have an amazing addiction to techno-toys, and they sure do love speed: The Enterprise is to the space shuttle what the beloved shinkansen ("bullet train") is to Amtrak.
But after zooming on the shinkansen more than 1,000 miles across Japan — from the shrines of Kyoto to the frosted volcano cones of Hokkaido — I learned something totally unexpected: The Japanese love "Star Trek" because it's full of metaphors for modern Japan.
On the shinkansen platform I'd caught sight of a poignant sign — one of those bizarre uses of English that you see everywhere in Japan, from the nonsense phrases emblazoned on storefronts ("Eat at Pretty") to the prim and proper schoolgirls carrying day packs emblazoned with the word "Bitch."
This one was an ad for a college in Kyoto called, simply, "Human University." The sign reflected the earnest wish of the Japanese — more theoretical than practical — to be far more diverse and pluralistic than they actually are. In reality, Japan is scarily homogenous. Wherever you turn, whichever direction you look, all you see are Japanese. That only makes the profusion of cultural imports more disconcerting.
"Star Trek: The Next Generation" (known to fans as TNG), which ended its seven-year run on American TV three years ago, is in its fourth season here in Japan, and the ratings are growing steadily. But it is not Patrick Stewart's meditative Captain Picard, nor the samurai-inspired Worf, nor the manga-babe Troi whom the Japanese adore. It's not even the Enterprise itself, despite the ship's vast appeal in a country that likes its environments well-swept, brightly lit and highly plasticized. No, the vast majority of trekkers I interviewed — and I met with fans, Web-heads and Japan scholars in Tokyo, Sapporo, Yokohama and Kyoto — are madly in love with Data.
For those unfamiliar with TNG, Data is a prodigious, white-skinned android with a single tragic wish: He wants to be human. In pursuit of this dream he studies painting, recites poetry, even tries his hand (dismally) at stand-up comedy. No matter how high the level of expertise he reaches, though, the essence of humanity remains beyond his reach.
Riko Kushida, a startlingly lovely journalist, quiz-show personality and Formula One race car driver, is also a huge fan of "Star Trek." We sat together in a sushi bar and struggled valiantly with the language gap as she tried to explain her fascination with the android.
"He's different from the other people around him," she said, "and he knows it. We Japanese know we are different, too. We're like Asians, but we are not really like other Asians. We try to follow Western ways, but we are not Western. So we are isolated. Different from both."
She took out a pen, drew a square within a square, and pushed it across to me. "That middle square is our core, what makes the Japanese what we are. Everything else" — she indicated the outer square — "is soft. Elastic. It's a dilemma. We want to imitate others, but we can't change our identity."
Shintaro Inoshita, a 21-year-old Sapporo programmer with wild, Harpo Marx hair, took Riko's thought and ran it into the economic domain. "In the 17th and 18th century," he said, "Japan cut off all communication with the outside world. And in terms of business, the Japanese are still very old-fashioned. Each company has its own way, and they have a very hard time taking chances with capital ventures. In the future, though, Japanese companies will have to experiment, to give up their mechanistic approach and try new things. Data symbolizes the way the Japanese people have to be willing to change in order to succeed."
Among the older generation, the Japanese attraction to "Star Trek" cuts deeper than Data. Sigenobu Ito, a 41-year-old Hokkaido detective who's been watching the show here for 20 years (the original series first made it to Japanese TV in 1973), pointed out that the ultra-convivial atmosphere that prevails aboard the Enterprise embodies the ancient Japanese concept of wa: harmony. The balancing forces of nature, he explained — sei (action) and dou (stability) — are embodied by the principle characters. In the original series it was Kirk and Spock; in TNG, it's Picard (dou) and Riker (sei).
My own opinion is that part of "Star Trek's" appeal to the Japanese is its archetypal menagerie of characters. One of the weirdest pleasures I've experienced in Japan, in fact, has been watching the show dubbed into Japanese. Like most Western television programs shown in Japan, "Star Trek" is available in bilingual broadcast. You flip a switch to decide which version you want to hear.
After watching two or three episodes, I had to admit: The dubbed voices are eerily excellent. They're so good that I could actually tell which character was speaking even without looking at the screen. That's a stunning achievement. The Japanese Picard has exactly the right blend of reserve and command; Dr. Crusher's Japanese voice is competent yet somehow playful. Riker is suitably rakish, Troi sultry, Worf the perfect samurai. Data's stand-in can't quite match the inimitable Brent Spiner, but he's a convincing enough Japanese 'droid.
The truth is, I shouldn't have been surprised. Centuries of Kabuki and Noh theater have given the Japanese an awesome capacity for conveying the most subtle turns of character and nuance through voice alone. Of all the stars, only LeVar Burton's dubbed voice was annoyingly generic.
But the Japanese inability to convey the vocal shadings of black English is hardly a surprise; during my 10 days here in this "human university," I've seen a grand total of two Africans.