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Tokyo, Japan (CNN) – It’s a tried and true method of gaining attention in the business world: try something visibly different. For Japanese mobile phone company Softbank, “different” is in the form of 33-year-old Dante Carver.
Carver is a member of the quirky Japanese family that fronts the ad campaign for Softbank. If you haven’t guessed by his name yet, he’s not Japanese. He’s an African-American from New York. Granted, he’s not the only non-Japanese member of the advertising campaign: there’s also the dog, who is the father of the family.
The ad campaign is certainly nonsensical. But it has been a popular and successful ad campaign, running for four years on Japanese television.
The ad propelled Carver into an unusual place in the heart of the Japanese public: a blend of fascination and adulation. CM Databank – a Japanese marketing research company who tracks the country’s top television actors – ranked Carver as Japan’s number one television commercial star. It’s a remarkable achievement in and of itself. That Carver is a black American propels it to “what-the?” status.
Carver never expected to find success in Japan as an actor. He followed a traditional US path: he graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with an international business degree and went to work for an insurance company. But when his job ended, Carver saw a chance: pursue a childhood dream to try acting, a “now or never” moment. That he chose Japan to follow that dream drew criticism from friends and family who thought he was “crazy.”
“I had people around me that said you can’t do it in Japan because you can’t speak the language, you’re obviously not Japanese, it’s impossible. But my personality is very much the opposite. If someone says it can’t be done, I’m going to at least try it. So I tried it and I’ve been lucky, honestly,” says Carver.
Carver’s success is a mixture of luck and timing, says Billboard reporter Rob Schwartz in Tokyo. Schwartz says Jero, an African-American, quarter-Japanese singer, broke barriers for other black Americans in Japanese pop culture. Jero found success three years ago by singing a blend of traditional Japanese enka and modern hip hop.
“Even though it’s a very inward looking country, they are drawn to things from outside to spice up life, to add some variety. Even if it’s put into a little box as a foreign thing, they’re still drawn to that,” says Schwartz. “Does it signal that Japan is changing? I think it does. I think that Carver is an African American signals that Japan is changing. How much it’s changing is an open question. But I don’t think it would have been possible 15 years ago, much less 35 years ago.”
The cultural barriers have turned into a boon for Carver. “If you’re willing to stay open, the differences can become very useful, very positive, where at first, it can seem very harsh, very negative,” says Carver. “So it’s worked out pretty well just from me not being Japanese national.”
Not that being different hasn’t been without its challenges, says Carver, who believes being black in America is as similar as being black in Japan. “A stereotype I had here when I first came is, oh, you drink grape juice, play basketball and listen to rap music. It’s like, wow, it’s like I’m back in Alabama. Arigato.”
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