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Turning Japanese: Newly naturalized African ex-American has skin in the game

by Baye McNeil

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.

So, 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.

“It’s 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.

“But 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?”

“No, 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 she’s right.

“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.

“Let 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 are 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 do.

“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?”

“Nah! 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 didn’t.

“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. Not bad.

“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.

“Well, some of them probably did,” Seals says. “But that’s not the narrative. The narrative is, immigrating is a beautiful thing.”

“I think 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.”

“Japan 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.

“Yeah, 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.
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