I’ve been in Japan long enough to ponder proper expatriation. Still can’t answer definitively why I don’t just take the plunge, though.
It wouldn’t have anything to do with nationalism or
patriotism, that much I know. The fact that the Japanese passport has
recently been hailed as the best to have in the world would be more of a
factor than any allegiance I might feel to my former homeland.
Malcolm X once said, “Just because a cat has kittens in an
oven, that doesn’t make them biscuits.” Well, I was never a biscuit,
and in America’s eyes, I knew I would be tolerated but never truly
belong. I was as much an “other” there as I am here. But a part of me — a
part I don’t often acknowledge — longs to belong somewhere.
when I sat to speak with Henry Moreland Seals, one of the newest
Japanese of Japan, I wasn’t curious about the paper process of becoming a
naturalized citizen here. There are several websites that can walk you
through that step by step. Instead I wanted to know his mental and
emotional process as he made the decision that he would sooner salute
the Hinomaru than the Stars and Stripes. Did a desire to belong play a
part? If not, what was the catalyst?
During our conversation,
Seals made it clear to me that he’d found not so much heaven but a home
here in Japan, and that was as much a factor as anything else. He looked
wonderfully comfortable in his skin and in his new naturalized status.
When I congratulated the former African-American, 43 (24 of which he’s
lived in Japan), as if anticipating where I would go with the interview,
right off he dives into the belief system that allows him to navigate
and negotiate whatever obstacles he comes upon here in Japan.
Basically, it’s all about doors.
about doors, man,” the Harvard University alumnus says. “For instance,
when you were discussing blackface, one of the things I was really
impressed with was that you didn’t think it was racism. You said it was
ignorant and offensive and a lot of other things. And I respected that a
lot because that’s how I felt about it.
“I’ve seen a lot of
black-themed Japanese shows here where they’re dancing and whatnot and
think they’re praising black culture. I get it! But, because of the
history they’re not aware of, for us, seeing that is offensive.
there’s a door there! I wanna say to them, ‘Hey, I dig it! You love
James Brown and you feel that soul and that energy you see coming from
us could free you from your shackles.’ To me, that’s great, cause that’s
the door to bringing people together.
“And when you were on the
BBC and you were saying that maybe Japanese should have advisers to
advise them when they’re doing these types of cultural and racialized
comedy that could be easily misinterpreted, and the BBC commentator was
saying, ‘You think they need to hire more black actors?’ But I knew, I
was like, Baye sees the door to really bringing Japanese along, but the
world wants to close that out. I’m focused on bringing us all together,
too. That’s my thing.”
“So, you’re a black Japanese now,” I say. “Was that a difficult decision for you?”
not at all,” he snaps at once. “Actually, the thought of becoming a
Japanese citizen wasn’t even in my mind until about six years ago. It
was then that I found myself. And I realized that certain skills I have
can make me successful. I didn’t worry about my job, I just worked on my
people skills, communicating, sharing, empathy, all the things I was
strong at. Didn’t matter what the job was, because I knew eventually I
would find what I was good at.
“And I did. Now, I love my job. I’m
the vice president of HR at Paidy (a Japanese e-commerce company), I
define the culture of the company, the drive and direction internally,
the policies and incentives, the whole shebang.
“My wife reminded
me one day of what I’d accomplished here,” says the former American of
his other half, Sasha. “That a little boy from rural West Virginia is
helping maneuver multimillion-dollar deals here in Japan. She said,
‘Henry, do you realize what you’ve done with your life?’ I told her no,
because I had set out to change the world! So, I didn’t see it. But my
wife did. She said: ‘You’re leaving this trail of empowerment as you go
on through life. So take inventory of that. Take pride in that!’ And
“So, no, it’s not about color. It’s not even about
culture. At the end of the day, when we work together as people, we get
so much more out of the world. That’s why I’m sitting here, Japanese. I
knew if I were a Japanese citizen, I could show black Americans — show
the world — that you can make it here, that there are other paths to
opportunity. It wasn’t an easy decision, but sometimes making a
difficult choice for the right reason is the right thing to do. ”
“And what would be the right reason?” I ask him.
me give you an example. By me being a black American, coming to Japan
and maybe even running for office, with the visibility I’ll have, I’ll
be able to show people around the world that Japan, yes, it is a racist
country, but it’s not as racist as y’all think it is.
people, and people go where the cookie crumbs lead them. You just have
to be that guy with the most cookie crumbs. Or the loudest, because
people coalesce. They adhere.
“There is injustice everywhere,
every day, but you don’t see any of these people stopping their lives to
stop it or to help, quitting their jobs to go to America to stand with
those over there. They don’t because they look around and say ‘I gotta
make ends meet, and society may not be perfect but the devil over here
is better than the devil over there.’ They make justifications for not
acting. They adhere, for the most part, to what society pushes them to
“So, the goal is to be that push. You got to put yourself into
a position where you’re at the table, you’re defining the agenda, and
you’re defining the world people have to live in.”
“So,” I say, “you don’t feel like you’ve turned your back on your country?”
Think about this — and as black Americans we don’t think about it this
way very often: The average human being comes from an immigrant
background. Their families came from somewhere. We as black Americans
rarely think about that. Those with Caribbean backgrounds or African
heritage, they do, because they came to America as immigrants. We
“Moreover, we’ve been told America is the best country for
us: ‘This the best! Massa treat us good!’ And they sort of do. You can
get a good job, watch the NBA, get your piece of the American dream.
“But immigration is a normal thing. The fact that people
even say to me, ‘You’re immigrating? Aren’t you worried?’ That’s a
sickness! No one said that to the Italians or the French or Russians
coming to America.”
“You don’t think they did?” I ask.
some of them probably did,” Seals says. “But that’s not the narrative.
The narrative is, immigrating is a beautiful thing.”
that’s because America is viewed as the ‘land of opportunity,'” I say.
“But I feel you. Last year I wrote about how some people from African
countries see Japan as the land of opportunity? That blew my mind.”
is a land of opportunity. I have a great life because I have a certain
skill set that’s in demand,” Seals says. “For an African-American,
especially as we create a larger community here, Japan’s very much a
land of opportunity.
“Were your political ambitions a major reason behind your decision to become a citizen here?” I ask him.
it was. I live in Nagareyama, Chiba, one of the fastest growing cities
in Japan, as far as family and population and wealth, and I want to
vote! I want to be involved in the civic process.
“We, my wife and
I, we have a huge presence in my community, visibility-wise. We throw
parties for the community and support local politicians and local
charities, I like volunteering and being active, and I want to vote! I
like the mayor of my town — cool guy! And I want to vote for him!
“I met one of the city council members, young guy, and he told me about
the process, what he did and how he got elected, and I said, ‘I could do
that!’ So, yeah, I wanted to be a citizen to be part of the process. To
let people know I have skin in the game!
“I have a house here and
the hardest thing for me to do in the last 10 years was to leave and go
to Osaka in the wake of the earthquake back in 2011,” says the father
of two. “I did not want to leave. I wanted my Japanese neighbors to know
that this is my home! My wife had to force me, using the story that my
kids could get sick. I understood, of course, but a part of me wanted to
stay because I wanted all of them to know I’ve got skin in the game!”
Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com.