Yokohama Yankee: My Family's Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan

by Leslie Helm

Hardcover, 2013




Chin Music Press Inc. (2013), 384 pages


"Yokohama Yankee is the first book to look at Japan across five generations with perspective that is both from the inside and through foreign eyes. Helm draws on his great grandfather's unpublished memoir and a wealth of primary source material to bring his family history to life."--Publisher's website.

Media reviews

Helm draws upon his great grandfather's unpublished memoir and primary source material from the Japanese government archives, personal letters, artifacts and interviews with surviving employees of Helm Brothers and family members to bring his poignant and heartbreaking homecoming to life.
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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.
Helm was the Tokyo correspondent for the Los Angeles Times when he realized that the majority of the articles he had written were "critical of Japan in some way." This was surprising considering Helm was born in Japan and is part Japanese himself. In this lovingly researched memoir, he sifts through five generations of Helms living in Japan. The first, Julius, arrived in Japan by way of Germany in 1869. Having missed his boat to China by "the length of [his] nose," Julius whimsically "booked passage on the next ship, which happened to be headed for Yokohama." After a brief stint training former samurai to fight like "Prussians", Julius married a Japanese woman, a highly unusual arrangement for the time. The Helm family story certainly wends an interesting course through history—from the Meiji Restoration through the World Wars—history buffs will relish Helm's painstaking detail and impressive command of the material. Some of the most endearing and personal scenes interwoven throughout the book are of Helm and his wife's process of adopting two Japanese children, Mariko and Eric. Through joys and anxieties, the present-day Helms examine what family ties really mean.
The story of this adoption, interwoven with Helm’s exploration of his own family history and identity, makes this an extremely subtle, rich narrative.

User reviews

LibraryThing member richardderus
Rating: 4* of five

The Book Description: "Yokohama Yankee is a marvelous and eloquent work of family history (that) sheds light on the political, economic, cultural, and racial interactions and tensions between Japan and the United States for more than a century and a half, right up to the present day. This is a humane and insightful book that will be read many years from now."—James Fallows, the Atlantic, author of China Airborne

"Helm mines the many treasures of his family's past, and the multicultural futures of his adopted, Japanese children, to investigate the mysteries of identity that are locked away inside all of us. The family fortune disappears, and relatives scatter in the winds of war and reconstruction. But this lovely story remains, about an erudite man trying to make sense of the world, of the past, and of himself." — Alex Beam, Boston Globe columnist

"Leslie Helm has written a lively and engaging account of his remarkable family history and its intertwining with Japan ... It is a warm and human story that will charm its readers.” — Kenneth B. Pyle, Henry M. Jackson professor of Asian history and Asian studies, University of Washington, and recipient of Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun

"[A] wonderful work full of pathos, insight and humanity.” — Fred G. Notehelfer, emeritus professor of Japanese history at UCLA and author of Japan Through American Eyes: The Journal of Francis Hall, 1859-1866

Leslie Helm's decision to adopt Japanese children launches him on a personal journey through his family's 140 years in Japan, beginning with his great-grandfather, who worked as a military advisor in 1870 and defied custom to marry his Japanese mistress. The family's poignant experiences of love and war help Helm overcome his cynicism and embrace his Japanese and American heritage.

This is the first book to look at Japan across five generations, with perspective that is both from the inside and through foreign eyes. Helm draws on his great-grandfather's unpublished memoir and a wealth of primary source material to bring his family history to life.

My Review: It's the "to life" part of the book description that I want to discuss. How many of us have family secrets? Okay, silly of me to ask. How many of us wish we could spill the family secrets and get away with it? Helm decides to take a look back at the whole sweep of his German-Japanese-American family's riot of repression and dysfunction so as not to have to write Yet Another Adult Child of Alcoholic Father story. I don't like Helm's father Don, not because he's an alkie but because he's a mean drunk. Got no time for that. Me, I'm a happy drunk, I like to laugh and screw and do pep-u-uppo drugs while drinking. Still not someone who should engender and "raise" four kids as Helm senior did. Or didn't, exactly.

So Helm sets out to put the whole sad affair (snort) into a multigenerational context that stops this from being cringe- and yawn-worthy, going into detail about the life of his ancestors in Germany and Japan before and between the World Wars in a well-documented and quite vividly drawn way. It's here that the narrative launches itself into some very interesting territory, and here that the stars are earned. Once we get to Don and Barbara, I don't care anymore because we've heard it all a zillion times and nothing makes this iteration any more interesting than the others were. Leslie and his wife facing racism in Japan was fascinating to me; the sheer incomprehension of Japanese people as to why these weirdos would adopt *strangers* which is to say the children of people they aren't related to makes me a lot clearer on the reason Japan's such a strange place, so much duty and honor and ceremony and so little joy.

I won't quibble with the odd absence of wartime tales and stories. It's a great deal like Memoirs of a Geisha in that way; a paragraph or two of musings and oh will you look at the time it's 1945! What is it that exerts such a very powerful repulsion on those who write about Japan, let alone the Japanese, when WWII comes up?

This trope, or rather tropelessness, aside, the book is an engrossing and edifying read, and a pleasure to look at, and a very entertaining way to spend a day or so. The photos throughout are well-chosen and the design accommodates them exactly as one wishes all publishers would require it to do. This being a Chin Music Press title, that statement could easily go without saying, but I enjoy saying it.

**I requested this ARC from the publisher, who provided it with compliments but without requesting that I publish a review. I enjoyed the book too much not to do that, however.**
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LibraryThing member PhoenixTerran
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.

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LibraryThing member poetreegirl
A man with Japanese, American and German heritage delves into his family history to understand his cultural identity. What follows is an in-depth genealogical search pieced together by documents, journals and meetings with strangers. Filled with photographs and covering more than a century, Helm redefines his notion of family as he uncovers his history and adopts children from Japan.… (more)
LibraryThing member mabith
It chronicles the author's own life and family in Yokohama, Japan and the United States over the generations. It was certainly an interesting story, and their difficulties as outsiders in Japan matches what I've heard from Americans living there. It is certainly the author's investigations of his family that are presented, with only a moderate amount of "Maybe so-and-so would have felt like this when XYZ happened..." rather than a novelized history or the early years.

While the writing isn't tight enough to vault this to the next level of memoirs, it was engaging and I always wanted to keep reading it. The reading also just flew by. The book is full of pictures, both of the Helm family and general atmospheric shots. This is an uncorrected proof, but hopefully the finished version will have captions on all the family photos. The lack of them was fairly annoying.

I have an innate interest in family histories, my own and everyone else's, so this was a good book for me. Again, the writing could have been tighter, but the author is a professional journalist and it wasn't at all bad.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
I really enjoyed this story of the author's discoveries about the lives of his ancestors. His family began as German immigrants to Japan in Victorian times. Mr. Helm has written about life as an outsider in a closed society; about both the separation and integration between immigrants and native Japanese.

Like everyone else who's posted reviews, I loved the pictures and hope for captions!

As the book traces through five generations of the Helm family, it also presents the evolution of Japan through natural disasters and war. It looks deeply at what "family" means, and where people belong. After five generations in Japan, the Helms continue to feel, at times, like outsiders there....and in Germany or America where some of them were born. The author and his wife adopt two Japanese children and live most of the time in Seattle, Washington. So, the issue of racial identity continues to be a feature in their lives. The author presents a thought-provoking picture of this issue that is becoming relevant to an ever-increasing number of people in North America.

Beyond social issues and history, this is also simply a good story about generations of poeple making a life for themselves and their families. Well done!
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LibraryThing member jbealy
Yokohama Yankee: My Family's Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan is a beautifully designed and skillfully written book by journalist Leslie Helm about 5 generations of his family's connection to Japan. Like all good memoirs, Yokohama Yankee deals not only with the author's own feelings as a person of mixed heritage, but Helm has documented the history of the times, from his great-grandfather's 19th century arrival in Japan to his own raising of his adopted Japanese children. That's a lot of history and Helm masterfully weaves it all, from politics and war to race to family to culture, into an accessible read. The book design, which includes many photographs and archival images, adds a whole other fascinating level to the reading. Certainly, if you have an interest in Japanese history or mixed-race heritage and culture, this book should have a preferred spot on your shelf. And if you just appreciate a good story, Yokohama Yankee will not disappoint.… (more)
LibraryThing member marilynsantiago
I have just begun this book and trying to figure out how I can sneak time out of busy weekend to keep on reading. Leslie Helm tells the story of his family the Helm's. His American great grandfather married a Japanese woman and created a huge business empire. The book is the history of this family. It is very good read
LibraryThing member snash
Rather than a memoir of 5 generations (which probably would have required a rendering in historical fiction), the book is a memoir focusing on the author's discovery of his past and adoption of his children. This places the reader at a slight distance from the story of the past generations of German, Japanese, and Americans ancestors but close to the author's own story. Sometimes it is difficult to keep the relationships straight but the family tree in the front of the book helps immensely. There are lots of great pictures and the book is interesting and enjoyable.… (more)
LibraryThing member IsolaBlue
YOKOHAMA YANKEE will appeal to a wide range of readers: those interested in German immigration to and business in Japan from the Victorian times on; those who are intrigued by how a somewhat closed society absorbed immigrants; those who have adopted, are thinking of adopting, or are fascinated by stories of adoption by Americans of Asian babies, and lovers of Japanese history and culture.

Leslie Helm traces his family's history in Japan from the arrival of his German great-grandfather, Julius, and his marriage to a Japanese woman during Victorian times to his own upbringing in Japan and eventual marriage to an American woman and their adoption of two Japanese children. There is a lot of information in Helm's book and many photographs as well. Unfortunately the photographs - at least in the advance reader copy - do not carry captions and this makes piecing some of Helm's story together a bit difficult. There are many times while reading the text when it would have been helpful for the photographs to match up with names of individuals or locations mentioned. Obviously these are mostly family photographs passed down, so perhaps Helm did not feel his knowledge deep enough to commit to definite captions.

The book reads quickly and is quite absorbing, very much like watching a well-produced documentary on PBS. Probably most of us have not thought much about immigrants to Japan during the Victorian era, let alone Germans who started successful businesses. Helm introduces us to a world many do not know and might not hear of at all if it were not for Helm's book. There is a good deal of Japanese history to be learned as well, so as the reader takes in Helm's personal family history, there is also the history of an entire country to think about.

Helm's writing about his own youth in Japan and his later adoption of two Japanese children is fascinating, but takes a backseat to the story of his great-grandfather, Julius, without whom none of the Helms would have a connection to Japan, and the story of Julius's son, Julie, the modern-day Helm's grandfather. The story of their lives, their marriages, and the way they did business in Japan was all very interesting.

The book is not genealogy, per se, as Helm does not fill it with images of birth, marriage, and death certificates or citations to same. It is, however, a beautifully put together family history that is part research, part family stories passed down, and part memoir. The author does supply a very helpful family tree at the beginning of the book, complete with photographs which does help the reader better make the connections between various family members.

The book is definitely worth reading. The only criticism is that one wonders whether Helm took on too much. At times it seems as though just Julius's story could fill the book. The modern-day Helms and their adoption of two Japanese children could fill another. But one does understand why the author wanted it all under one cover, so all the additional information and details on peripheral relatives should just be taken in stride by the reader. No one will complete this book without learning something new.
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LibraryThing member Rayaowen
Very interesting family saga. Well written and informative.
LibraryThing member KarenElissa
I really enjoy this type of book that incorporates a personal narrative with the more general history of the area. I knew very little about the history of Japan so I learned a lot from this book. The story of Helm's family in Japan was interesting and I appreciated all of pictures and artwork throughout the text.
LibraryThing member Yells
Part history and part memoir but written with the excitement of a good fictional family saga. This is a look at five generations of a mixed race family and all their ups and downs as they try to fit in in Japan and the US. Very well done. My only criticism is that the photos, while plentiful and fitting, were quite dark and often hard to see. It is a shame because they really added a personal touch to the story.… (more)
LibraryThing member arelenriel
This book provides an excellent discussion of how prejudice against the Japanese after World War Ii led to one family hiding their ancestry for generations. This was a well written interesting read recommended for anyone interested in history
LibraryThing member thornton37814
Journalist Leslie Helm explores his family's past. It began when a German ancestor immigrated to Japan. Even though his family is now part Japanese, part German, and part American, they have difficulty fitting in any culture. While the narrative does not follow chronological order, it is fairly smooth and workable transition for the reader. Leslie and his wife adopt Japanese children and are faced with some challenges from this as well. I would have liked to have seen more documentation (in the form of citations) in the book although I know that was not the best. The book included many photographs but the subjects and context were not identified. It is hoped this was remedied in the final version. I also caught a few typographical errors and even one instance of the wrong city being named (which was obviously incorrect because of the context). Hopefully, the editors caught these. This is a good introduction to what Japanese culture was like for outsiders throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in Japan. Persons with an interest in Japan will want to read this one. This book was received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers with the expectation that a review would be written.… (more)
LibraryThing member hrabbit
If you are a Japanophile, and if you've spent significant time in Japan or have an interest in modern Japanese history, you are going to want to read this book.
There are many books written by foreigners about their Japan experience, but Helm represents a different sort of gaijin--those gaijin who were born in Japan either by virtue of being from a missionary family, or an old trade family in a port city. Helm is the latter type, and he traces his history and his present life in this book.
He's a fine writer and a fine researcher so this book will shed new light on life in Japan during this period. As others have said, it is interesting enough that you literally cannot put it down. Highly recommended!
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