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Monday, April 1, 2013 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.
‘Yokohama Yankee’: a family’s lineage in both Japan and America
By David Takami
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan’
by Leslie Helm
Chin Music Press, 360 pp., $16.95
Leslie Helm’s remarkable family memoir begins at a point of personal distress. At a memorial for his father in 1991, he feels conflicted about his relationship with his father and memories of his childhood. A few weeks later, Helm and his wife decide to adopt a Japanese child. This momentous prospect triggers unease about his lifelong ambivalence toward Japan and prompts him to explore his family’s long history in the country.
Now a Seattle resident and editor of Seattle Business magazine, Leslie Helm is bilingual in Japanese and has worked as a journalist in Japan for Business Week and the Los Angeles Times.
Helm’s great grandfather, Julius Helm, traveled from his native Germany to Japan in 1869 near the start of the Meiji Restoration when the country was emerging from 200 years of feudalism and self-imposed isolation. Reformers were eager to modernize Japan and looked to Western Europe and America for guidance. Helm helped upgrade the Japanese military and subsequently built a successful stevedoring business that thrived for more than half a century in the port city of Yokohama.
Many of Helm’s family stories are tied to historical milestones, and the history comes alive through the Helm family members we come to know. We learn about family reactions to the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and the firebombing of Tokyo and Yokohama at the end of World War II. Donald Helm, the author’s father, was a U.S. Army officer during the postwar American Occupation of Japan. Leslie Helm was raised in Japan, attending an international school in Yokohama, before coming to the United States for college.
At the heart of Helm’s memoir lies an intriguing enigma: what does it mean to be raised and educated as a Westerner in a foreign country, yet be connected by blood to that country?
Helm is relentless in his pursuit of the answers. One of the absorbing undercurrents in the book is the Helm family’s mixed feelings for their adopted country and culture. Julius Helm married a Japanese woman in one of the first legally sanctioned marriages between a Japanese citizen and a foreigner. All of Julius Helm’s many descendants were part Japanese, but many of them seem ashamed of that ethnic legacy, preferring to identify themselves as white Westerners. In the aftermath of his father’s death, Leslie Helm muses, “My Dad and I were similar in another respect. Neither of us had ever been comfortable with our Japanese heritage.”
Though he grew up in Japan, Leslie Helm and his family lived in Yokohama’s large foreign enclave, as had previous generations of Helms. As expatriates, the Helms and their friends formed a unique “third culture” belonging to neither Japanese nor Western cultures. The author’s adoption of two Japanese children, whom he and his wife raise in America, deepens his examination of culture and identity.
Helm is a resourceful and talented writer, part researcher and part raconteur. His sleuthing takes him to remote corners of the Japanese archipelago to track down leads about his relatives. His Japanese language skills help him gain access to historical records at Japanese government offices and temples and to interview local officials.
Helm uses his unique cultural and family history to present nuanced and subtle impressions of Japan and foreigners who live in the country, shedding light on both cultures.
David Takami is the author of “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle.”
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