Saturday, April 24, 2010


Dave Spector

Dave Spector is a Chicago-born Jewish-American TV personality who has been living and working in Japan since the mid-80s.  He's a regular figure several on Japanese TV programs, commenting usually on "foreign" news, though recently also occasionally on Japanese news as well.  Being a blond, white, American foreigner, he's rather a recognizable figure and household name.

 So what's the deal with Dave?

He's one of the most successful and certainly one of the more recognizable foreigners in Japan, that's what.  Still, to foreigners (i.e., Americans) living in Japan, he can seem very strange.  To me, up until I actually read about him and his career, I had seen him several times on TV here and thought him rather annoying.  True, I must admit I felt somewhat envious of his clear success with Japanese life (his Japanese is known to be perfect), but if you watch him then perhaps he might occasionally come off as a sort of stereotype of foreigners.  The thing is, he's got to be one of the top ten most prominent non-Asians on Japanese TV, so his presence also carries a lot of weight.  According to this  Japan Times article, part of his success stems from his ability to digest great amounts of information from the English-speaking world and then relate it to his Japanese audience--especially since, as the JT article claims (and in my experience, I consider it to be more or less true), Japanese news coverage of "foreign issues" tends to occasionally be somewhat lacking in detail or in-depth analysis.  That certainly seems to be the stereotype, and on a couple of occasions I have felt bemused at the style, angle, or amount of news coverage on certain topics while living here in Japan.

That said, why is Dave Spector one of the most reliable of the gaijin talent?  How has he done it?  It's another stereotype (that the JT article touches on) that Japanese people can be wary of or hesitant toward foreigners, whether for language difficulties, cultural differences, or mere stereotype.  The Dave Spector Wikipedia page talks about this idea, and how he responded to it with The Panda Approach.

 The Panda Method

This so-callaed Panda Method is the idea that something that you always hear about but may not know so well personally is much more approachable if you meet it in a controlled environment and it's doing something silly.  That way, you won't feel intimidated, and whatever reservations you have had about the meeting will melt away.  Take a panda for example: they're really wild animals that live in bamboo forests in China, but if you see one in your local zoo running around playfully or munching one of those bamboo shoots in utter cuteness, they don't seem so wild and in fact appear quite cuddly.  With this idea and an intuitive understanding and proclivity toward supporting the American value to stand up for oneself, Dave started out his career with bit parts on TV and worked his way up, doing silly stuff, acting like the hapless foreigner he wasn't (though of course, he appeared to be), all while gradually becoming, as it were, a part of the furniture.  As a foreigner who had grown up with American values combined with a mastery of the language (all three qualities being predictably unexpected), he played the non-threatening part that the culture suggested he play--while at the same time being in command of his career. The net result of this is that he has created his own quite comfortable place that previously was simply absent in the culture.  Furthermore, over the years, he has made the culture work for him, and he's gone from being the silly panda to gaining trust and playing more and more serious roles.

I can relate to a lot of these ideas, also being an American who is living in Japan.  Locals constantly seem impressed by my developing mastery of the language, and I find that people relax quite a bit around me if I act a little silly, which fortunately as far as I'm concerned is my nature.  Moreover, once people see that I can communicate with them in their language, the whole communication process gets a lot easier.  Still, built into Japanese language and culture is a certain "wall" of distance between people that can sometimes seem quite fuzzy.  That wall is inherent to the language, and it depends on the degree of closeness with the person in large part, which also has something to do with age and relative status.  It's not as concrete as you may read about and is certainly more complicated than a textbook will tell you, but broadly speaking, it's true.

When the wall breaks down, people become closer.  American values tend to stress openness, standing up for personal rights and beliefs, and various freedoms.  In Japan, things tend to be different.  A university student's life, for example, is dominated by one or two "student circles" of which one may be a member.  But these aren't your weekend Frisbee clubs or Tuesday-Thursday choir practices.  They also have nothing to do at all with any teachers.  Students tend to have fewer (yet more serious) hobbies, and friends tend to be almost exclusively one's clubmates rather than mostly those who live in the same building.  They're serious, and they meet often, commonly going to dinner together after meetings or having parties as many as several times per month.  I've joined two circles this semester, "XXTRA" (live rock band jam/practice/performance circle) and "Melo Melo" (a cappella circle), and so far it's been a fantastic way to get to know Japanese students, practice the language, and to really feel like I'm experiencing the culture in-depth.  Besides that, it's great practice for my music, something I've missed for too long.

The Other Side of the Wall

There's a new movie coming out in Japan called 「ダーリングは外国人」(My Darling is a Foreigner) that looks at some of these cultural differences from the Japanese perspective.  The movie, based on a manga of the same name, focuses on the relationship between a Japanese woman (Saori) and an American guy (Tony) living in Japan, and various issues that arise over the course of it.  Over the course of these events, various stereotypes are addressed.  However, the manner of addressing these stereotypes is also distinctly Japanese.  The concept of racism as it exists in the States just does not exist in Japan, and stereotyping happens all the time, even stereotyping of their own culture.  In fact, on more than one occasion I have found Japanese people to be surprised at the fact that rice is quite common in America, let alone the fact that Los Angeles is famous for its glut of sushi restaurants.  That's not to say it doesn't happen elsewhere too--in any country in the world, most people don't get the chance to travel, and there's no place like home, right?

On the subject of stereotypes, I read a memorable story in my compendium of Traveler's Tales: Japan that related the experience of a mostly black jazz band from New York City who arrived in Tokyo for a week of performances to find the place set with watermelon.  In America, this action would be questionable at best and could even be called racist.

(From "Department Store Panic" by Jim Leff)
     On the surface, Tokyo seems much like any other big city.  It's easy for a Western visitor to fit comfortably into its familiar urban facade, only rarely glimpsing the breathtaking exoticness that lurks just beneath the surface.
     Notice the mowhawked, body-pierced Japanese youth coming toward you on the Shinjuku sidewalk.  You've seen punkers before; he's hardly worth a second glance.  But watch as he bows to an elderly stranger out of respect for her age.
     You're not in Kansas anymore.
     I was there to perform with a mostly black jazz band, and was appalled when the promoter's welcoming party featured a table full of cut-up watermelon.  I was more horrified still--for different reasons--when I learned that off-season watermelons in Japan run a cool $100 per. was more an ostentatious show of respect than adherence to a stereotype.  Or was it?
     It's nearly impossible to say; East/West cultural correlations are slippery, and sometimes the more you probe and analyze, the less you understand. 

 I can even corroborate the bit about the watermelon.  I recently saw a cantaloupe for sale at the local supermarket--about a third the size of a normal American one--for about ¥2800, the equivalent of about $31.  For one melon.

The more international experience I gain (I have no love of the word "foreign"), the more I come to see how these stereotypes and cultural peculiarities differ.  So far it's been fascinating, and it's certainly a great education for whatever I end up "doing" in life.  I've signed up for classes this fall at Tufts, and that includes my plan to write a senior thesis, concerning something about international culture.  We'll see where that may lead.  Maybe I could become the next Dave Spector...

 Kanazawa University Foreign Students - Asano River Cherry Blossom Viewing Party
(金沢大学留学生 浅川花見)
( April 10, 2010 )

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