TOKYO — DAVID SPECTOR is a relative unknown in his native Chicago, but here in Japan he is a household name. With his bleach-blond hair, and ability to deliver one-liners in flawless Japanese, Mr. Spector has been a fixture in this nation’s often raucous talk-show world for three decades, making him perhaps the most recognizable American living in Japan.
His celebrity is reflected in a grueling schedule. He appears on a regular circuit of “wide” shows, Japan’s rambling and highly animated daytime programs that showcase discussions on a range of celebrity gossip and current events. He stars in advertisements for a range of products, like American sneakers and chocolate bars. And he conducts TV interviews of visiting Hollywood glitterati while still finding time to think up a dozen fresh jokes each day to post on Twitter, where he recently topped a half-million followers.
Now in his 30th year on Japanese television, Mr. Spector has a well-established public persona that is part serious news commentator and part amiable comedian, all powered by a boyish enthusiasm that makes him appear younger than his 50-plus years. (He refuses to disclose his exact age.) Known among other celebrities and the public simply as Dave-san, he has carved out a cultural niche by providing rapid-fire commentary on the latest international paparazzi news, while adding a liberal sprinkling of puns that make Japanese audiences giggle or, more often, groan.
But Mr. Spector’s main claim to fame may simply be his durability. He is the last of the big “gaijin tarento,” or foreign talents — Japanese-speaking foreigners who became celebrities here in the boom years of the 1980s simply by sounding off about life in Japan, and feeding the country’s narcissistic fascination with how the world views it.
He was one of several North Americans who broke into the business in that triumphalist era, when Japan’s economic challenge to the United States created a demand among producers for Caucasians who fit a growing public perception of white people as no longer as dominating and powerful as they once had been.
Instead, the gaijin tarento were chosen for their ability to appear friendly, even clownish — and to add to the overall style of rollicking, slapstick humor found on Japanese television.
TIMES have changed, and a diminished but also more mature Japan seems less obsessed with its standing versus the Western world. Foreign talents these days are just as likely to hail from Iran or Ghana, though they are still called on to provide the occasional laugh at their own expense by tripping up in Japan’s demanding language or culture. While all this can make Mr. Spector appear like a relic from a bygone era, he has also achieved a status that no other foreign talent can match.
“I’ve earned my stripes just by outliving everybody,” Mr. Spector said in an interview in his office with its own small TV studio in central Tokyo. “I have gone beyond the gaijin category. I’m part of the furniture now in Japanese pop culture. I am still a door to the West, but one that is familiar enough to be in their own living room.”
That role of social translator between two cultures is evident in Mr. Spector’s office, where he and his Japanese wife, Kyoko, run a talent agency for Japanese and foreigners. An entire wall is filled with photographs of him hobnobbing with international celebrities — among others, Lady Gaga, Johnny Depp and Caroline Kennedy, the American ambassador to Japan, whose actions have become a regular part of his commentary.
During a recent appearance on “Sunday Japon,” one of the four talk shows he does every week, his status was apparent. Mr. Spector joined eight Japanese celebrities, including a former pornography star, on a garish set decorated with gold pillars, nude Greek statues and huge crystal chandeliers, where they held an animated two-hour conversation about the week’s news and gossip. Mr. Spector played one of the most prominent roles, presiding over a joke-filled 10-minute segment, “Dave Spector’s Worldwide News.”
“We rely on Dave-san for jokes to keep the show moving forward,” said Atsushi Kohinata, a director of the show. “He’s become the longest-lasting foreign talent by making himself indispensable.”
An admitted class clown at his elementary school in Chicago, who first appeared on television as a child actor in commercials for cornflakes and hot dogs, Mr. Spector said he caught the TV bug at an early age, secretly staying up past his bedtime to listen as his father watched “The Tonight Show.” He tried to absorb the show’s brand of humor by filling notebooks with its jokes.
HIS fascination with Japan began in the fifth grade, when a Japanese classmate introduced him to Japan’s manga comics, which Mr. Spector said immediately captivated him for being so colorfully bizarre. He wanted to read them so badly that he said he started taking Japanese-language classes on Saturdays.
“That was the beginning of the two parallel tracks in my life: television and Japan,” Mr. Spector said.
Those two lines converged in 1983, when ABC sent Mr. Spector, then a young TV script writer in Los Angeles, to Tokyo because of his Japanese-language ability to film a few episodes of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” The assignment, which was supposed to last just a few weeks, stretched into months and then years as Mr. Spector said he persuaded the network to let him stay and keep providing them with clips from “these crazy Japanese TV shows that I found here.”
HE said he first appeared on one of those crazy shows in 1984, just so he could have something to brag about to his friends back home. But he soon found himself inundated with requests to appear because he was quicker with jokes and more at ease in the TV world than other foreign talents, many of whom originally came to Japan as English teachers or Mormon missionaries. Eventually, he decided to stay in Japan, partly because the money was better than what he could have earned back in Los Angeles.
“I was a celebrity here, and before I knew it, I was hooked,” said Mr. Spector, whose living room with a sweeping view of the Tokyo skyline is still decorated with the 1970s-era furniture he brought from Los Angeles. Mr. Spector, who has no children, said that he now feels more at home in this clean, well-organized society than he would in the United States.
“I live 90 percent of my life in Japanese,” said Mr. Spector, who said he has only limited contacts with Tokyo’s foreign community.
Mr. Spector attributes his staying power to his willingness to show respect for Japan and its sensibilities, which he says he does by such gestures as keeping more up-to-date on local celebrity news than many Japanese. He said he also avoids being confrontational, both on air and off, though at times he does feel compelled to offer an American viewpoint.
At those times when he criticizes Japan, he said he softens his delivery with statements of affection for the country and its people. He performed that balancing act earlier this year when he became the only commentator on a wide show to criticize the nationalist prime minister for visiting a controversial Tokyo war shrine.
“I cannot come out with guns blazing, but I also don’t want to go around wearing a kimono,” he said. “I know how to walk a fine line, so they allow me to talk about anything, even the most sensitive domestic issues.
“I look on that as my real achievement.”