Henry Seals
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Human rights commissioner Henry Seals driving social change in Japan

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By Kathryn Wortley

For Henry Seals, a chief human resources officer and human rights commissioner, empowering people to overcome the challenges they face is the foundation of making a better world. This approach, coupled with a passion for supporting people and delivering positive change, is the driving force behind his professional and philanthropic activities, even his personal life. 

“How do I fix a problem?” Seals says from Nagareyama, Chiba Prefecture, where he is manning a phone line for the public in his capacity as human rights commissioner. “The goal is not to give the person a solution. The goal is to give the person the tools to empower them so they can solve it themselves. We’re trained to do this. And that’s my approach to human rights and HR.” 

Seals’ journey into these two fields was not planned, but the result of others recognizing his talent for working with people and eagerness to contribute to society, he says.

When the Lehman shock occurred in 2008, he was working as a program manager for a large Tokyo-based Dutch insurer and witnessed the devastating impact on the morale of his colleagues as their employer was forced to downsize. 

Drawing on his “gift for listening, asking questions and engaging with people,” Seals had the idea of interviewing the 90 members of the finance division about their career plans, to “help them feel in power and control.” When the company survey data later showed that his project resulted in a 60% increase in employee engagement, the company transferred him to HR to provide the same kind of support to all staff. 

Fifteen years later, Seals is still in HR and has come to increasingly value an important element of it, engagement: “There’s an unconscious myth that people will work for you forever if you keep them motivated. They might, but it’s not common anymore. You want to make people feel really engaged and excited about the work they do and the company they work for so, when they leave, you’ve got a potential customer and brand ambassador.”

Since moving to Nagareyama in 2010, Seals had aspirations to get involved in the city’s development, which city officials had said would focus on embracing diversity. He began volunteering in community groups, such as the neighborhood council, and thinking about how he could support greater public – private collaboration and entrepreneurship.

By 2018, he had secured Japanese citizenship and was ready to run for office locally. But when he learned of the upcoming retirement of a human rights commissioner in the city, he was encouraged to choose that path instead. Becoming a commissioner, a role open only to Japanese citizens, would allow him to continue his involvement in startup businesses — without the limitations he would have as a public official — while supporting his community. 

Seals was subsequently nominated and selected as the first foreign-born human rights commissioner in Japan, in 2019. Through this historic move, he hopes to show that foreigners contribute to the country and to foster better diversity and inclusion in Japanese society. Key to this, he says, is reminding people that he is the commissioner not just for foreigners, but for everyone living in Japan.

As an African American growing up in the United States, he was “very aware” that he was “different” and was treated differently from his white peers. The experience made him realize two things: that he didn’t want anyone else to feel the pain of exclusion and that people are the products of socialization—how they behave with others reflects their background and encounters in the world.  

In the United States, he had created numerous social clubs and groups so, when he arrived in Japan in 1994 as a student, he began to network and gather people together again. 

Most recently he co-founded Black Tokyo Professionals, which aims to create an environment of mutual support and collaboration for Black professionals in Tokyo, and Legacy Foundation Japan, which works for “the betterment of African Americans and those of African descent,” connecting Black communities in Japan to a wider audience. 

“I want to build something for people who come to Japan,” he says of the foundation. “I hope it gives people a safe space where they can contribute to Japan and the world.”

Making a contribution — to individuals, society and Japan — is also something that Seals tries to do on a daily basis. For him, that is what can make the greatest impact. 

“I want to be the change that I want to see in the world,” he says.

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

3 Comments
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Seals was subsequently nominated and selected as the first foreign-born human rights commissioner in Japan, in 2019.

Congratulations to him on such a great accomplishment! Japan has a long way to go in this area. I really hope he gets taken seriously but I have strong doubt.

-4 ( +4 / -8 )

Yes in America,we have sanctions against racism

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

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