"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 Helm draws on his great grandfather's unpublished memoir and a wealth of primary source material to bring his family history to life."--Publisher's website.
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 Helm draws on his great-grandfather's unpublished memoir and a wealth of primary source material to bring his family history to life.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.**
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.
Experiments in Manga
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.
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!
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.
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!