Name: Dave Spector
Title: Commentator and producer
Hometown: Tokyo via Chicago
Years in Japan: 37
It is hard to imagine Dave Spector doing anything else. Although tempting to call the fun- and pun-loving force of energy that is Spector a workaholic, he enjoys what he does so much that his palpable passion makes “playholic” more accurate.
“I love Japanese television and the broadcasting industry,” he said. “No one is as knowledgeable or obsessed about Japanese television as I am. It’s impossible … because I’m on all the networks and have six monitors on all the time.”
It is this dedication verging on obsession that has helped him become one of the most-recognizable people and perhaps the best-known foreigner in Japan. Sitting in his office in central Tokyo surrounded by TV monitors and pictures with celebrities, he explains that he relished the spotlight from an early age. He appeared in commercials as a child actor in Chicago. Then, in elementary school he encountered Japan.
“When I was in fifth grade, a classmate, a nice kid from Japan, brought manga to school,” he said.
That lit the spark that continues to burn blindingly bright today. Learning about Japan and Japanese became a hobby, prompting Spector to attend Japanese school on weekends. He taught himself kanji and read Japanese magazines, and then books.
After high school, he wanted to live in Japan, but the only avenue he could find was through a student visa. Using his savings from acting, he spent a year at Sophia University, an experience he didn’t enjoy much. He returned to Chicago and studied at a broadcasting trade school, later working in radio.
Set on working in comedy and television, he headed to Los Angeles, but fate was laying other plans for him. It was there he met his wife Kyoko.
“We met in 1980 when Kyoko was a concierge at the New Otani that used to be in Los Angeles. I decided to ask her out. She thought I was very suspicious speaking Japanese. She thought I was half Japanese or something, so she demanded to see my driver’s license to see my name before she’d go out with me,” he said.
As he was making inroads in TV comedy writing, destiny threw him another curveball — an offer in 1983 to come to Japan on a short stint as a producer for the American show “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” He wound up working on it for four years while remaining in Japan. Two weeks turned into a decade living in a hotel and now more than 35 years as a TV personality who deftly walks a fine line mixing corny jokes with witty banter and insightful commentary in a way that seemingly only he can.
Other foreign personalities have come and gone. Chance launched him into orbit and dedication has kept him there. Getting to the top is one thing, but staying is another. Spector attributes his long-lived success to a few factors — timing and determination coupled with expertise in broadcasting and Japanese entertainment, all while representing himself.
Asked about work-life balance and exercise, he deadpans that he has zero balance and said, “I hire someone to exercise for me.” But while he may lack balance, there seems to be no shortage of fun.
Although he once thought of throwing in the towel in the 1980s when he was hit with criticism for comments related to U.S.-Japan trade friction, he says cooler heads prevailed.
“Had I been in America, I’m sure … I’d be working in broadcast behind the scenes,” he said.
The ageless Spector declines to reveal his actual age, jovially insisting that he is 39.
“It’s kind of a running gag. I never mention my age because of ageism. Everyone thinks you’re 15 or 20 years younger if they don’t know. I feel younger if people don’t know. People like to be as youthful as possible and life is too short to be determined by a number,” he said.
As active as he is on camera, he and his company may be more active behind the scenes. Initially, he was furnishing Japanese footage of variety shows and documentaries to American and British television. Over time, he said he changed direction.
“I was the first to supply foreign paparazzi footage from Japan. I have agreements and contracts with all of the possible vendors you can think of. That all started about 20 years ago,” he said. “People come to us for stuff every day, all types of stuff because they figure we might have it.”
A more recently acquired passion is his Twitter account, which boasts over 1.7 million followers and is a medium uniquely suited to his skills.
“Twitter is very rewarding because you’re in total control and if I say something even remotely topical then people embed it into an article or call and want to talk about it,” he said, adding he limits tweets to Japanese puns.
Spector continues to relish his self-described life “detour.” He is a regular on five mainstay programs — one for more than two decades — and shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, he continues to remain more relevant than ever.
“I think I have too much fun for a normal person. I don’t want to retire. I don’t like to go on vacation. I don’t even want to sleep. My work is not stressful because it’s so much fun. It’s only TV … but it’s very rewarding,” he said.
Prolific career built on overlapping passions
One of Japan’s most visible and active foreign celebrities, Dave Spector is a kid from Chicago who made it big on the tube in the heady days of bubble-era Japan to become a fixture on Japanese TV. The acting bug bit him hard as a child and was followed by a passion for manga and the Japanese language. He threw himself into his study of language and pop culture before shifting gears to pursue writing for television sitcoms in Los Angeles, where he met his wife Kyoko, who hails from Chiba, and according to Spector is his much more capable half. As a budding writer, he received an offer to produce programs for an ABC series that sent him on what was to be a short trip to Japan and other parts of Asia. Seeing other foreigners on TV, he decided to give it a go and now, three decades later, the rest is history.
The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.