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Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003



One-man media airs his views

Special to The Japan Times

It's 10 a.m. Sunday, and TBS TV's "Sunday Japon" show is getting under way. American entertainer Dave Spector, a regular panelist, shares the stage with a former porn actress, a Korean journalist and a member of the Diet. After an hour of exchanging ripostes with the others on major international and domestic news events, Spector takes center stage and introduces Hollywood's latest cinema offerings. By noon he's in a nearby restaurant unwinding with friends.

News photo
Self-confessed "news junkie" Dave Spector -- in his Tokyo office (above), and in Fuji TV's "Tokudane" studio (below) -- says he spends "practically every waking minute acquiring knowledge about every imaginable topic."
News photo

Certainly the most visible of the gaijin tarento -- as foreign celebrities on Japanese television are termed -- Spector appears on eight or nine TV shows a week. This is, however, only his most visible activity. He is also a regular contributor to tabloid newspapers and weekly magazines, he is often the keynote speaker at conferences -- and he has published 10 books in Japanese.

A Chicago native, Spector was born May 5, 1954. He met his wife, Kyoko, in the United States and they were married in 1981. Two years later, he found himself posted to Japan as a producer for ABC TV's zany "Ripley's Believe It or Not" program. Spector's quick mind, and even faster tongue, have forced even his most outspoken critics to concede that his ability to ad lib and crack jokes in rapid-fire, idiomatic Japanese is nothing short of phenomenal.

Not all the targets of his barbs have found it amusing: The Aum Shinrikyo cult denounced Spector in print as a "geisha of the airwaves" and targeted him as an "enemy" -- which Spector considers a badge of honor.

Looking back on two decades in Japan, last week he shared his impressions of life in the fast lane in a lengthy, relaxed interview for The Japan Times.

How would you describe one of your "typical" days?

One day sort of blends into the next, because I am constantly gathering information and preparing for upcoming programs, so it's really 24/7. Besides the papers, I'm continuously monitoring TV, news, the Internet and communicating with people. It's sort of been my policy to never go on a show tebura, or empty-handed. If I can't provide some new information or relate a thought or two that would be fresh to viewers, or illustrate something with visual material, then I haven't earned the pay.

Every day, I also try to learn between three and five Japanese words or expressions -- though of course at my age, I forget about the same amount.

A typical day for me might be rising at 4:30 a.m. to appear on Fuji TV's "Tokudane" program at 8; then writing a column for the Tokyo Sports Shimbun; then "The Wide" show at NTV from 2 p.m.; and then a variety-show taping at 5 p.m. -- with phone interviews scattered throughout the day. The press calls constantly for quotes and it really keeps me on my toes.

This can't leave you with much time for having fun . . .

Well, if you're a news junkie the work itself can be fun. About the only true relaxation I get is watching tapes of the better U.S. TV dramas and sitcoms that a friend sends me on a regular basis. I should be working out more, but the best thing about television is that you are rarely seen from the waist down.

In general, would you agree that Japanese TV tends to use foreigners more as curiosities than for their ability? Do you feel you've "earned" a place in the mass media here?

I wouldn't for a minute pretend that being a foreigner is not why it came to be. However, I set a goal early on to be different from other gaijin tarento by trying to compete with Japanese rather than with other foreigners. I would say that at this point a lot of my appearances are based on my longtime participation in show business here and knowledge of current affairs that do not relate to my being a gaijin per se.

I spend a great deal of money -- way too much -- to keep up with things (as my wife will eagerly complain), but I think that is why the media keeps calling, because they know I can furnish the latest information and even add to the creative mix by suggesting ideas and guests, and so on. They know I will bring something to the table, and I have the baggy eyes and FedEx bills to prove it.

I've always wondered what goes through your head while all the other people are doing the talking. As the other panelists might include bunkajin, (academics and intellectuals with a very high-level grasp of the language), don't you ever feel a bit intimidated?

It's not the language so much as the fact that the bunkajin and various experts really know the subject and I am way out of their league in many areas. Sometimes I feel like a Little Leaguer going up against Roger Clemens. But that's where it pays to be confrontational . . . to get the spark of debate going.

I have the utmost respect for guests but there are still a few bunkajin, politicians and commentators I relish going head-to-head with, and we have had some heated moments to say the least. Being a gaijin lap dog to Japanese TV because it pays my bills is simply not my style. . . . I'd rather take risks and jeopardize the employment.

When Tokyo Governor Ishihara made his notorious "sangokujin" comment [using this discriminatory term to describe Asians originally from areas formerly under Japanese control, especially Korea and Taiwan]. I participated in a protest news conference at City Hall the next day. If you want to be a fluffball gaijin tarento, that is not what you do.

Which prompts me to ask whether you are amenable to Governor Ishihara's idea to turn the U.S. air base at Yokota into a civilian airport . . .

I'd like to turn Gov. Ishihara into a civilian airport.

Meanwhile, you're also involved in some programs on which you relate gossip and anecdotes about what's going on in the U.S.

Going beyond simply relaying what anyone could read about in English, I've set up a network of reporters and paparazzi-types in the U.S. and Europe with advanced means of delivery. I've scooped many stories before they appeared in the American media by nature of the fact that TV here is live and responsive. Many of the celebrities-caught-with-their-pants-down type stories appear on TV here before they hit the magazines Stateside, so it's a blast to do. If a movie is regarded as a turkey in the U.S., I will say so because I have strict rules about not overfraternizing with movie distributors -- a bad habit of the Japanese media. On the other hand, I will go out of my way to garner attention for important movies like "Bowling For Columbine." I need not point out that there is very little criticism, constructive or otherwise, in the Japanese media, and I have tried to bring a taste of it to the Japanese airwaves.

For a long time, your weekly "Tokyo Saiban" column in Shukan Bunshun magazine ran interviews with notable and notorious Japanese. Who was the most memorable character you ever met?

The whole idea was to "put people on trial," hence the column's title, as saiban means tribunal. To get things off to an appropriate start, I had Ryoichi Sasagawa, who was actually tried for war crimes in the 1940s, as my first guest. To say that set the tone of the subsequent 180-plus interviews would be an understatement. Suffice it to say, potential guests eventually all but declined to appear and it ended after a few years. My goal was to illustrate a more American style of questioning amid the smarmy style of taidan in Japanese journalism. As for Sasakawa and other controversial types, they seemed happy to engage in a more fiery brand of interviewing.

During the 1991 Gulf War, when I went to the Iraqi Embassy [for the column] I was thrown out for trying to break the ice. I took out a pair of new undershorts and said I'd brought them in case I was taken hostage.

Every gaijin gets asked what surprised them the most about Japan. In my case it actually was something from the Tokyo Saiban interviews. I had renowned architect Kurokawa Kishio as my guest. He had recently finished designing the Roppongi Prince Hotel and the conversation somehow drifted to discussing the idiocy of charging hotel guests to use the hotel's pool. In a completely humorous tone, I said that to demonstrate my opposition to the custom I often relieve myself in the pool, even on occasion while standing on the diving board. This got a chuckle from Mr. Kurokawa and sure enough, when the interview was printed, his laugh was included in the text.

The day after the magazine went on sale, two gentleman appeared at my door with concerned expressions. "Spector-san," one said, "We have come from the Prince Hotel to ask you to kindly refrain from urinating in our pool." I couldn't believe that they didn't realize it was a joke, despite the fact that the man who designed their hotel was in full agreement with my remark.

Why is it that some people seem to revel in putting you down?

This goes with the territory of being in the public spotlight, and I can see how many might want to take issue with my presence in the media. At the same time, in any expatriate community there is a degree of "Who is this guy?" which is greatly amplified in Japan because of the media exposure. After all, after a few years here we all consider ourselves "experts" on Japan -- so why should somebody get paid for it?

If a gaijin viewer truly watches on a regular basis and is fluent, then I will gladly accept any disparagement with merit. One can easily happen upon an insipid variety show -- granted there are many -- see myself or one of our "ilk," and conclude we are worse than Charles Manson. I think it only fair to base one's observations on a more complete inspection, with or without U.N. approval.

I had a fairly decent career already in motion back in Los Angeles before becoming sidetracked here . . . I find that many disgruntled gaijin have an unfortunate chip on their shoulder toward anyone who accomplished anything before coming to Japan and certainly after. Not to toot my rappa (trumpet), but I've gone out of my way to help other gaijin and Japanese alike gain opportunities in the media here . . . . It is actually a lot more work than people may realize, which might also account for some peevish attitudes. The field is wide open to anyone who thinks they have more to offer. I welcome the competition.

Was there anything in your educational background that might have led you to showbiz?

To put it politely, I am surely on the "undereducated" side. But in a way, I compensate by spending practically every waking minute acquiring knowledge about every imaginable topic.

Being bilingual -- and the pressure of millions of viewers waiting to hear what you are going to say -- has provided a great impetus to better myself mentally and academically . . . and I truly feel indebted to Japan for enriching my life.

Japanese now talk about having just been through a "lost decade." What do you think Japan should do to avoid "losing" another decade?

I tend to think of the bubble era itself as more of the Lost Decade. It was bizarre to say the least. The whole country was in a gleeful daze not realizing the foundation was about to crumble.

I remember one gentleman at a restaurant at lunchtime. His order was taking forever, so he picked up his cell phone -- and remember this is when calls were quite costly -- looked at the matchbook on the table and dialed the very restaurant that he was in and shouted: "Where's my spaghetti?!"

Collusion in Japan is an accepted national pastime, and it permeates every business from industry down to the yaki-imo (roast sweet potato) vendors.

The present government seems clueless, and even though legislators here are very familiar with the manner in which the U.S. solved its Savings and Loan disaster, it's doubtful they will instigate any wholesale housecleaning -- much less prison sentences. It's like one giant sento (public bath) where everyone is washing the other's back, and I don't see substantial changes until there is more foreign ownership and management. This will slowly make it socially acceptable to do what has to be done.

Ever thought of entering Japanese politics?

Japan is in enough trouble as it is without my help. Besides, I find it highly hypocritical to obtain the required Japanese citizenship while still holding on to the U.S. one. And I certainly can't see giving up my U.S. citizenship. I don't think my relatives who arrived at Ellis Island would appreciate the gesture. And anyway, the Diet building is gloomy and smells like mold.

Since Sept. 11 in particular, how do you feel about being in a position of appearing as a spokesman of the U.S. and its sentiments?

It's a dirty job but somebody's gotta do it. Actually, I certainly do not consider myself a spokesman for the U.S. I am a commentator who happens to be from the U.S.

Do you see yourself staying in Japan forever?

After all this time, I seem to have misplaced my return ticket. I've always said I will go back when the Chicago Cubs win the World Series -- and we know what that means.

Who are some of the Japanese you most admire?

Hibari Misora, the finest singer ever. Danshi Tatekawa, the brilliant rakugo-ka (monologue stage comic). Novelist and writer Akiyuki Nosaka . . . It's hard to say, because I'm fortunate to meet just about everyone at one point.

What's your opinion of Japanese television?

Being in the middle of it, that's kind of hard to answer. Sort of like asking Yoko Ono to critique her own singing. Japanese TV can be incredibly stupid and incredibly creative at the same time. The shows have very loose formats and it's hard to make a blanket statement. I defy anyone to say there is nothing worth watching -- if you look at the TV log for any given time slot, there is at least one decent program worth seeing.

I think of all the genres, the dramas are by far the worst -- made more so by generally bad acting. In their defense, the budgets and markets are small and that really shows up in dramas compared to, say, variety or information shows. Shows like "E.R." cost millions of dollars per episode to produce, but they also generate many times that in sales . . . this just can't happen here.

On closer inspection, Japanese variety shows can be very clever and sophisticated . . . not politically, but at least comically. You have to get over the noise and juvenile antics to discover the gems, though. All in all, compared to working in the U.S. television industry, it is much more familial here . . . and infinitely more spontaneous. American and British TV produces high-quality programming but because there is so much riding on the outcome, it can be tremendously ego-driven and downright hostile. Here in Japan, people both in front of and behind the camera take it less seriously and have more fun with it.

Finally, if you were granted one wish to alter Japan in a positive manner, what would it be?

More Starbucks.

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