I first met Henry Seals, a fellow American living in Japan, at a Tokyo-based professional networking event in 2013. At that time, I had no idea I was exchanging business cards with someone who would eventually become a Japanese citizen and the first foreign-born, naturalized human rights commissioner in Japan.
Henry is a natural communicator, and this permeates all aspects of his life, from his impressive career to his own YouTube channel. As a long-term resident of Japan, I was especially curious about the impact of Henry’s Japanese citizenship, and in this interview, we dive into that topic and much more.
Japan has a reputation for keeping its foreign population at arm’s length. However, this interview reveals a different story. Most importantly, through Henry’s story, you’ll learn how you can get involved in your community, make a difference, and thrive in Japan, regardless of your nationality.
Reading the Air
What motivated you to major in East Asian studies at Harvard University, and how did this experience lead you to Japan?
I got into East Asian studies because I initially wanted to study linguistics. I wanted to come out of college knowing three or four different languages other than English and speak with anyone in the world. I thought I’d be a consultant or an advisor at some point in my life.
I was told that to earn a linguistics degree, I would only study one language and the rest of my time would be spent on linguistics. I didn’t really understand what linguistics was, but I knew that I wanted to study Japanese. I had been exposed to it in high school through a couple of exchange students and an exchange teacher. I was always hearing about the Japanese economy and other things about Japan. So, when I looked at the East Asian studies major, there was enough room for electives to come out of it learning Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. I ended up only speaking Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, but I could read Korean.
That’s how I ended up with an East Asian studies degree. My purpose was language and communication with others, and East Asian studies were a vehicle to do that. I’m a communicator at heart.
Reading the air is key to being successful in this country.
You’ve built a long, impressive career in Japan, a country where many non-Japanese residents face a glass ceiling. How did you accomplish this, and what advice do you have for those who aspire to do the same?
Reading the air is key to being successful in this country. To read the air, you need to understand the culture. You need to read and listen to a lot of things. On top of that, you have to accept those things. You can’t say, “That’s strange because it’s Japan,” or “That’s not my culture and I don’t think that’s right.”
When someone’s speaking in a group, observe the dynamics at play. Observe the egos and politics at play. Then, the harder part comes. You have to ask yourself, “How do I take my strength and place it in this environment?”
For example, imagine that you’re in a meeting, listening to your Japanese colleagues, and you know you have the solution for the problem being discussed. Your solution may be fine, but is it something that only you can do? If it’s not, then there’s probably someone else at the table who can do it better. They are thinking about the same solution, and their ego is invested in it.
So, think about what is truly you, look around and think, “Who needs this talent from me? Who needs to gain face from my skill? Who can I empower in this environment?” Read the air. It’s not about you. It’s about the environment. I spend most of my life building communities. When I build communities, it’s not about me, even though I wish it were [laughs]. The moment I can’t add value to a community, it will go away.
What I had to do was read the air, understand this culture and market, and find out where I could add value. You have to know who you are. Going back to the meeting example, if I’m a communicator, there must be someone in the room who needs that skill. When I identify that person, I try to be their voice. Then, in time, they will empower me. This might not happen all the time, but it does happen. You’ve got to read and accept the air you are in.
I’ll end with a metaphor. Let’s say we travel to Mars one day. No matter how much you want the atmosphere to change, you won’t be able to take off your helmet and breathe the air. No matter how much you believe that Mars should be different, it will not change for you.
You have to be able to read what’s going on around you to take advantage of the situation. I’m not telling people to change or become Japanese. But in order to use a tool—and the world is a tool—you must understand what that tool is and the best way to use it. Reading the air is a way of understanding your toolkit.
The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Japanese Citizen
You are well known for being one of the few people to go beyond permanent residency and become a full-fledged citizen of Japan. This carries a lot of weight, as you are expected to give up your U.S. citizenship to do so. What motivated you to make this decision?
I was hosting a party at my home and the mayor of my city was there. We were talking about how, as a politician, he was able to implement his agenda about diversity. He had lived in America and is an advocate for African American equality. He had done a lot of work with his church in Texas and had also lived in California as a student. He just has a diverse background. So, I’m sitting there saying, “Wait a minute. Do you mean that in Japan you can be your own person? You can sell an agenda of diversity and people will elect you? That blows away a lot of stereotypes I have.”
I realized what would really make a difference is if I could walk into a room and tell everyone that we’re all in the same boat.
Just to clarify, this is the mayor of Nagareyama in Chiba Prefecture, right?
Yes. His name is Yoshiharu Izaki. He has developed this beautiful city that’s the fastest growing city in Japan when it comes to children and families. It’s a marvel. So, when he was talking to me, I felt I could make a difference here—not just for foreigners but for Japanese people as well.
I realized what would really make a difference is if I could walk into a room and tell everyone that we’re all in the same boat. I could say, “You can follow me because I’m not going to leave you.” I thought a good way to symbolize that would be to become a Japanese citizen.
When I went to file for my citizenship and apply for the interview, I was asked, “Why do you want to become a citizen? You’re an American.” The people there were shocked that I was already a permanent resident and that I wanted to become Japanese. I said the same thing I would say to anyone: “I want to help this country.” That was my answer—simple as that. They looked at me like I was crazy, which I probably am [laughs].
If you live your life based on what other people do, you will always be unfulfilled because you’re not doing you.
As a citizen, I can vote. I can run for office. I’ve voted twice now, and it’s awesome. When I walk into the polling location, no one even looks at me funny. They don’t do a doubletake when I walk in with my voting paperwork.
So that’s why I became a citizen. People ask me if I’m scared to do so, or they say I have turned my back on America. They politicize it to a degree. The way I see it, I’ve got my own road to walk. It’s as simple as that. My road is supported by my family here in Japan and abroad, and this just felt like the right thing to do.
It’s scary, though. As a black man, I’ll hear things like “What about the struggle of black people in America?” I think that I’m illustrating that we can do anything, so I’m not turning my back on anything. I hope that I’m inspiring people to just live their own life. There’s nothing political about this. If you live your life based on what other people do, you will always be unfulfilled because you’re not doing you.
There will always be challenges no matter what you choose in life—no matter what citizenship you hold.
You make a strong case for obtaining Japanese citizenship, especially after I witnessed how many foreign residents of Japan were separated from their families and livelihoods during the early stages of the pandemic. Have you experienced any drawbacks to becoming a Japanese citizen?
The drawback has to do with money. If you’re an American, you can send your money anywhere in the world. As long as you report it and file your taxes, you’re good. Japan, however, is much stricter about sending money in and out of the country.
If you’re someone who wants to live and die in Japan, you’re OK. But if you’re a global person—perhaps you want to retire somewhere else—I wouldn’t suggest Japanese citizenship from that perspective unless you truly feel you are Japanese. If you identify with Japan, then go for it. There will always be challenges no matter what you choose in life—no matter what citizenship you hold. But if you’re thinking that you want the flexibility to travel all over the world, then a U.S. or Singaporean passport would be good.
Getting Involved in the Community
You became the first foreign-born, naturalized human rights commissioner in Japan. What inspired you to pursue this position and how did you achieve it?
Back in 2019, I wanted to run for the city council in my city, Nagareyama. I wanted to run for office and maybe become mayor someday [laughs]. That was my intention at the time. I was planning to run, and local politicians in my city were open to it. They were happy that I wanted to run, but I was advised that I should first work on my brand. People know me, but there are still a lot of people who don’t know me. I was told, “If you run and lose, they’ll always remember that you’re the foreigner who lost.” Additionally, I felt that it was possible that other politicians might be resentful because of my Harvard pedigree and that I’m foreign. People would say, “People may come for you. Do you really want to do this?” Of course, I said I wanted to do it [laughs].
I talked to other politicians from other cities about this, and they all wanted me to run. But in the end, I decided not to and, instead, focus on building my brand. So, I kept working on my brand while volunteering and speaking in my city.
Anyway, once elected, human rights commissioners are basically renewed every two or three years, and a position rarely opens up until an incumbent reaches retirement age. There are several for each city, based on the size of the city, and when an incumbent for my city retired, I got a call from the mayor’s office about an opening. They wanted to nominate me. They asked if I was interested, and I said yes. I had to be vetted by the Ministry of Justice, and once I was approved, the city council elected me. I think I am helping fulfill the mayor’s vision from a diversity, inclusion, and community engagement standpoint.
Our conversation begs the question: how does someone become friends with their local politicians?
I just talk to them. For example, this morning, there was a politician handing out fliers at the train station, and he stopped just to come and shake my hand and talk to me. I knew him, but this is because I attend festivals in my city and speak to people on my own. On one occasion, before I ever knew who he was, the mayor just walked up to me and said, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Henry. Who are you?” I didn’t realize he was the mayor! I just thought he was cool and nice. I complimented him on his yukata and we just started talking. Then, one day, he came by my house with his business card and wanted to talk more.
I have met a lot of other politicians through volunteer work—volunteering for elections and with differently abled people. I love volunteering and meet many people that way, including city council members. I just like learning about people’s stories and people seem to appreciate that.
So, basically, you’re saying it’s a good idea to get involved in your community…
Get involved and be active. We often think that we are going to become leaders in a group by shining and raising our hand to do something. But you can be a leader in an organization by listening to people, or by being someone people feel comfortable opening up to. There are different ways to become a leader. Television tells you that leadership is about being the best, the smartest, or the prettiest. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m smart and pretty [laughs], but I’m certainly not the smartest or the prettiest [laughs]. We need to remember that we should do this in our own special way, reflecting our own unique talents.
You build communities by being invested in people. A lot of politicians get started that way. Sometimes they get jaded because people can be terrible to each other. People can be evil and mean. So, behind closed doors, politicians may say things to vent their frustration at how cruel people can be. However, most politicians I know sincerely care about the people they represent.
Humanity and Community above All Else
Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground in this interview. Do you have any concluding thoughts for our readers?
Right now, because of COVID-19, we’re all scared and frightened by the news and social media. It’s not as if these things are out to get us, but they cause concerns about our health and our jobs. Every time something like this happens, what saves us is our community. What saves us is investing our time in helping others. Diseases don’t only kill you from the inside. They can also kill you from the outside. A disease can make you feel like you don’t want to talk to other people or that people are dangerous. But the reality is that we’re all going to die someday. All that people will remember is your humanity. That’s it. People won’t remember how rich you were. They won’t remember what you owned. All they will remember is how you inspired them or how you made a difference. Don’t forget your humanity. Please go out there and try to build a community in your own way. That’s going to guide you for your career, your family—whatever it is you are pursuing. Community—that’s all I want to say.