~by Leslie Helm
When Yokohama Yankee: My Family's Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan by Leslie Helm was released in 2013 by Chin Music Press, it immediately caught my attention. I tend to keep my eye on Chin Music Press--the books it publishes are always interesting in addition to being beautifully designed. Yokohama Yankee is no exception. I was delighted when Chin Music Press offered me a copy of Yokohama Yankee for review. Helm was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan and served as foreign correspondent for Business Week and The Los Angeles Times in Tokyo for eight years. Currently, Helm is the executive editor of Seattle Business. Although he holds masters degrees in both journalism and Asian studies and has a background in political science, giving Helm significant expertise from which to draw, Yokohama Yankee is a much more personal work exploring his family's history in Japan and his and his wife's adoption of two Japanese children.
Coming from a multicultural family of German, American, and Japanese ancestry, Leslie Helm's personal relationship with Japan is a complicated one. When he and his wife Marie decided to adopt Japanese children, Helm decided to reconnect with his family's Japanese roots. The Helms' connection to Japan began in 1869 when Helm's great-grandfather Julius Helm, a German immigrant, arrived in Yokohama by way of America. After pursuing a number of different enterprises, including assisting in the modernization and training of Wakayama's military, Julius would marry a Japanese woman and found a shipping company, establishing the Helms as a prominent merchant family in Yokohama. From there, Helm traces his family's relationship with Japan through the decades, interspersing his own personal experiences with the country among the historical discoveries that he makes. Despite the close ties that he and his family held with Yokohama and Japan, they were generally considered foreigners.
Yokohama Yankee is an incredibly engaging, fascinating, and revealing family memoir. Helm ties his present to his past, uncovering connections he wasn't previously aware of and confirming stories he had been told by other family members. The Helms' history in Yokohama Yankee is closely intertwined with the history of Yokohama and Japan--its foreign community, its economic ups and downs, its natural disasters, its wars. All five generations of the Helm family faced varying degrees of discrimination due to their mixed heritage. In Japan they were seen as gaijin and outsiders; in the West they were seen as inferior because of their Asian blood. Deciding to adopt and raise Japanese children also presented its own set of problems and challenges. The culture, purpose, and reasons behind in adoption in Japan tend to be quite different than those in America.
While writing Yokohama Yankee, Helm conducted over one hundred interviews with friends, family members, Japanese scholars, and former employees of the Helm Brothers company. His research encompasses not only his family's history, but also the historical background of Japan. In addition to being an engrossing read with a unique perspective of Japan, Yokohama Yankee is a beautifully presented book. Found in its pages are reproductions of hundreds of historic and family photographs, maps, postcards, stamps, and other ephemera. They were a lovely addition to the book. I enjoyed Yokohama Yankee a great deal. It's a family history, but it's also a history of a country--an insightful story of one multicultural family's five generations and their relationship with Japan.