Our Lives | BLACK EYE

Dan teaches us how to be 'the man' in Japan

by Baye McNeil

Special To The Japan Times

Every time I turn around, it seems, people are always asking me, “Do you know Dan Smith?” Or, they’ll assume I already know him — what with his being black, working in the media and living in Japan for, like, forever and all. Sometimes I nod that I do, sometimes I even front like I know him (“Oh yeah, Dan’s the man, no doubt!”). But the truth is, I didn’t know the man — nor even of the man — and after the fifth or sixth time I was hit over the head with his name, I figured it was time I did.

Do an online search for Dan Smith — not the British singer or the poker player, I guess it is kind of a common name — and you’re likely to stumble across a number of eye-catching photos. One of him all snuggly with pop star Rihanna grabbed my attention immediately, as did one with him arm-and-arm with action star Tom Cruise like they were college classmates.

Being from New York, though, you’re just as likely to see celebrities in the park picking up their puppy’s dung with plastic gloves as you are to see them on the big screen. So, as a New Yorker, I take pride in not getting all autography and Instagrammy over the rich and famous. New Yorkers leave that to the tourists. However, my Google search served up two images that had me feeling vicariously star-struck.

The first was of Smith and Michael Jackson. Not the adorable, pronounced-nosed Michael with a chimp on his shoulders and a Jheri curl, but the sliced, diced and vitiligo’d “King of Pop” version of Michael. That much-maligned little fanboy in me mouthed a definite “wow” on seeing that shot.

Then there was a video of action star Will Smith and his son, Jaden, giving Dan Smith his props on being the man behind the program “Fox Backstage Pass.” “Now, that’s something,” I caught myself whispering in awe.

Through a mutual friend, I manage to get Smith’s info and email him an introduction. In his reply, the 62-year-old Smith says he too is surprised we haven’t bumped heads on this tiny island in 10 years. We make arrangements to meet a couple of days later over at the Tokyo American Club. You know the place, right? No? Well, if you’re foreign (hence the “American” part) or even a native — and got disposable income out the wazoo — then you probably do. It’s one of those exclusive-type deals, filled with the kind of people I rarely have the occasion to rub elbows with. Even the entrance fees for the club, which start at ¥1.5 million, tells the casual consumer, “Keep it stepping, yo! This ain’t the place for you!” The monthly fee alone would revert me to eating Top Ramen more often than I did as an undergrad.

While we are making our way around this prestigious establishment, Smith gets busy name-dropping in an ultra-cool, Afrocentric casual way. He lets out a “What’s up, Jake?” and a “What’s happening, Lawrence?” — all jovial, handing out pounds and fist bumps, and introducing me to everyone. And once they’ve gone about their business, Smith will lean in and tell me something like, “That dude was the CFO of such-and-such mega-conglomerate” or “That cat used to run this joint before so-and-so took over.” You know, giving me the proper lay of the land. Though he is walking with a bit of a limp, his gait takes on the air of a swagger in the club’s environs. And with good reason, for it was clear to me that not only does everyone in the spot know him, they respect him.

At one point I notice that we are the only people of color in the place that aren’t getting paid to be there, which makes the next moment even more poignant for me. I glance up at the wall we are passing. It is decked with framed photos of all the former presidents of the club. They look down at us, grinning in all their bygone glory, and among them is one familiar face, protruding from this monotony of pale mug shots like a raisin in tapioca: Club President Lance E. Lee.

“You know Lance?” Smith asks, assuming correctly that I do.

“Oh yeah,” I reply. “Lance is the man, no doubt.”

I feel an unexpected and profound sense of pride to be standing next to the first African-American to run a highly successful TV program in Japan while gazing at a photo of Lee, the first and only African-American to preside over the Tokyo American Club in its 87-year history. It is one of those moments that will stick with me for a while.

So, Smith and I are sitting in the club’s leathery well-appointed lounge with a bunch of fat cats, gorging ourselves on freshly popped popcorn and crunchy cheese doodles, sipping Sapporo and shooting the breeze when I tell him a bit about my background. By the time I get to the motivation behind my doing this column, he had me pegged.

“Black Eye, eh?” he says, nodding and smiling. “We’ve got a lot in common, Baye. We see the same issues and came up with similar ways to address them. One of my first enterprises here was a TV show called ‘Black Life in Japan.’ ”

“No s—-?!” I blurt out, wondering why I’d never seen or heard of it.

“Yep. It never aired in Japan, though, only in the U.S. and in Europe,” he replies. The show ran from 2004 until 2007. “It was pretty popular. It led to my appearing on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,’ and that was pretty much what kick-started my television career over here.

“I’m impressed with what you’re doing, though, brother. Keep it up! Never know where it might lead.”

The path it led Smith down was one filled with firsts. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, his parents opened the first black book store in the city, the House of Negro History in 1968, so he never lacked for role models.

Smith believed he could do anything he set his mind to when he came to Asia (he has also worked in Thailand and South Korea). He built his brand from the ground up, initially starting his career in the military, which led him to work at an Okinawan military newspaper called Japan Update. A clash of values led him to leave the world of military journalism and he got a gig on community television in Okinawa.

After cutting his teeth in the south, Smith moved to Tokyo with his family and went freelance. He did jobs for local channels and Black Entertainment Television, and it was around this time he debuted “Black Life in Japan.” Listening to him speak, it’s clear that he has never lacked in perseverance.

Such stories of success aren’t exactly common among non-Japanese residents, even now. But Smith was no stranger to this idea because the same held true in the America he grew up in.

“I’ve learned in Japan it is better to ask forgiveness rather than permission, especially if you are sure you are doing the right thing,” he says. “And trust in your instincts.”

Smith dropped a lot of names during the two plus hours we talked. At one point the New Yorker in me started cringing a bit. I wanted to scream, “I get it! Enough with the name-dropping, already!” But then it dawned on me that I hadn’t really understood the total sum of all his star-studded anecdotes.

He has produced more than 300 episodes of “Fox Backstage Pass,” a show that is recognized as one of the best entertainment shows in Asia; he arranged for the world premiere of the film “Battleship” to be held on the deck of the U.S.S. George Washington aircraft carrier in Yokosuka; and he came up with the idea of unleashing 2,000 “zombies” on Tokyo Tower to promote the launch of the fourth season of the U.S. TV show “The Walking Dead.” Halfway through our chat a colleague called to inquire as to the whereabouts of Keanu Reeves who was in Tokyo to promote his new film, “John Wick” — because Smith might actually know.

It’s not the Hollywood connections that are impressive (well, one or two are). It’s that each story Smith tells is like another section of his resume, another block in building his brand. Having this many triumphs doesn’t come without having as many — or more — failures, but here he is sitting with the big shots in a country that doesn’t often reward outsiders. Smith has spent his career interviewing some pretty captivating people, but sitting across from an African-American man who has accomplished this much makes me think that the most compelling story he has to tell is his own.

The next time someone asks me, “You know Dan, right?” I’ll be able to answer with a straight face, “Of course I know Dan. He’s the man!”

Dan Smith is currently producing an independent reality TV show called, “J Club Divas.” Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp.

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