Growing up in Yokohama, Japan, in the 1960s, Magnolia resident Leslie Helm struggled with melding his Western and Japanese roots.
“I was no different from their point of view than somebody who just got off the boat and arrived in Japan,” Helm said. “Whether somebody’s been there one day or 140 years made no difference to them: I was an outsider.”
His new book, “Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan,” explores this feeling of otherness. Spanning from 1869, when his Prussian great-grandfather boarded a ship to Japan, up until the present, Helm weaves the historical with his own experiences.
Exploring his history
Helm’s decision to adopt Japanese children inspired him to confront his family history. In 1991, he and his wife, Marie Anchordoguy, chair of the Japan Studies program at the University of Washington, started the adoption process.
“I kind of had inherited a little bit of that ambivalence about Japan,” Helm said. “I wasn’t really Japanese; I wasn’t really American. And I have to say, I had some doubts about whether I could be a good father to Japanese children, with that kind of attitude toward Japan.”
While waiting to hear back about the adoption, Helm began to sift through old photographs of his father’s. He writes that, one day, he was surprised to find a photograph in which his great-grandfather Julius “sat relaxed among a group of stiff Japanese soldiers.”
Helm was amazed to discover that the men in the photograph were some of the most colossal heroes of modern Japan. Saigo Takamori, the inspiration for the film “The Last Samurai,” is among those pictured.
Drawing on his great-grandfather’s unpublished memoir, Helm started to explore his history and build the material for his book.
Working as a farm manager in Germany, Julius struggled with his domineering Prussian landlords. At 28, he left for America and traveled to Minnesota to find farm work.
Frustrated with his time there, he took the transcontinental railroad to San Francisco, intending to board a ship to Shanghai. After missing the ship, he took the next one to Yokohama.
“In those days, it was an exotic place,” Helm said. “People saw growth opportunities there, for trade and so on.”
His great-grandfather worked as a military adviser for a warlord in western Japan, helping him train his military. When he returned to Yokohama in 1872, the town had started changing. Samurai had begun to cut off their top knots, and gas lanterns were being installed along main roads.
He soon met Hiro, Helm’s great-grandmother, and they fell in love. She likely worked as a housekeeper, and in 1875, Helm writes, “Julius asked Hiro to share his room and hired another maid to clean his house.”
Their relationship was strained by customs of the time. Such an act was considered illicit and kept secret.
Yet, Julius was an entrepreneur. In Japan, he made a name for himself by building his own business. He and Hiro married and started a family, eventually having six children who lived into adulthood.
Their children also faced ostracism because of their multinational backgrounds. None of the daughters ever married.
“I think it was difficult because they were part-Japanese,” Helm said. “I don’t think he necessarily wanted his kids to marry Japanese. And whites wouldn’t marry ‘half’ people in those days, so there was a lot of discrimination.”
While briefly living in New York state in 1887, Helm’s grandfather, nicknamed “Julie-chan” by Hiro, was born. He became an American citizen by default. He went on to marry a mixed-race, Japanese-and-Caucasian woman. They had three children, including Helm’s father, Donald.
“I think they all faced identity challenges by being part-Japanese,” Helm said. “I mean my father was born and raised in Japan. Two or three months before Pearl Harbor, they returned to Japan after being warned many times that it would be dangerous to stay. Here he is, identifying with Japan and having been raised there, and suddenly he’s going to a country where, in two or three months, everybody’s gonna hate Japan.”
A ‘Herculian task’
Helm’s discoveries propelled him to keep writing his book. His father died shortly before Helm started the adoption process. He said this emotional, tumultuous period “really had a big impact” in his drive to write the book.
Research opportunities presented themselves when he worked as a journalist in Japan more than 20 years ago. While there, he sought out distant Japanese relatives, constantly seeking more information.
About 10 years ago, Helm began to write the core of his manuscript. He did the majority of his writing in between jobs.
“Once I started working again, I had a hard time writing,” he said.
Helm and his wife bought a home in Magnolia in 1989, when she found work at the University of Washington. They rented the home out and continued to live in Japan until 1993. They moved back to the States after adopting their children.
Helm was inspired to get his book published after noticing Chin Music Press, a Magnolia-based publishing press.
“I had just been sitting on it so long that I really wanted to get it out,” Helm said. “They had just published ‘Shiro’ (‘Shiro: Wit, Wisdom and Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer’). I looked at it and thought, ‘Wow; this is such a cool book.’ And I thought it would be a perfect publisher.”
Bruce Rutledge and Yuko Enomoto started Chin Music Press after leaving their media jobs in Toyko. They met there, married and had two children. Helm previously knew them because he’s attended yoga classes Enomoto teaches in the community.
“For this book…I read actually the first 50 pages — I kind of blew through it,” Enomoto said. “I don’t normally enjoy historical family memoirs, but this, for whatever reason, spoke to me.”
“He had all this family archival footage — just amazing stuff,” Rutledge said. “And not every publisher is willing to do what we did — you know, print in color, spend so much time on the art.”
Producing any piece of writing requires editing. Helm’s original manuscript was nearly double the length of the completed product. Rutledge remarked what “a Herculian task” it was to put together.
“I mean, Leslie’s a great journalist, and it just shows in this. He gets the sources,” Rutledge said. “As a journalist, it really spoke to me.”
Leslie Helm will sign copies of “Yokohama Yankee” at Magnolia’s Bookstore (3206 W. McGraw St.), on March 30 at 2:30 p.m. The book is available for on-line and in stores this week. To learn more about the book, visit lesliehelm.com or www.chinmusicpress.com.
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