The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


December 2013

Family biography explores what it is like to be an outsider in Japan

Custom Media

This is a gem of a book, a sheer delight. It is so well researched and written, and very unexpected. It is a brave, honest, and sometimes very moving account of a family dynasty that most readers will find surprising. I suspect the author at times found it hard to set out some of the facts.

But it is more than just a history. Here “just” is the wrong word, for the history that is explored in these pages is vivid and important. It is a serious exploration of what it means to be of mixed blood and be bicultural, as well as to be born into, and live in, a society that sees you as an outsider. The subtitle says it all: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan.

Outsiders, perhaps, but for an extraordinarily long time the Helm family was a powerful force in Yokohama. At one point the family firm had “several hundred employees, close to a hundred barges, a dozen tugboats, two of Japan’s largest floating cranes, and stevedoring operations in all six of Japan’s largest ports.”

And this was despite the fact that the company and its assets had been all but destroyed in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.

In the post-quake reconstruction, with the prospect of a 1940 Tokyo Olympic Games, the Helm family took the bold step of building a five-story reinforced concrete building that would serve as the headquarters of their business empire. The first floor of Helm House was the business center and, from the third floor up, the building comprised fully furnished apartments.

“It was one of the first buildings in Japan to have a telephone exchange and central air-conditioning. Each kitchen had a gas range, a refrigerator, a coffee maker, and a toaster, all imported from the United States. The living rooms boasted American couches and Chinese carpets. The dining-room tables and chairs were custom-made in Japan, as was the china, each piece stamped with the Helm Brothers HB logo.”

When he committed to the project, Julius Helm—then head of the empire—could not have anticipated the developments of the next several years, when Japan’s aggression in neighboring countries, China in particular, would eventually lead to a war that would put the family in an extraordinary position.

Here were individuals of German descent, others of mixed German–Japanese blood: how were they to respond? The author explores this dilemma in sensitive detail.

Alongside recounting the history of his earlier family, Leslie Helm writes movingly about the decision he and his wife made to adopt first one, and then another, Japanese child.

I have often spoken with friends in bicultural marriages about the concerns they have for their mixed-race children and, indeed, have had the chance to speak with such children themselves. But in the case of the Helms we have—to all intents and purposes; the author has some Japanese blood—a Caucasian couple adopting two Japanese children.

Returning to live in the United States, where they feel they have a better chance of raising their family, the Helms are at first thrilled by their acceptance into a Seattle neighborhood where mixed blood families are not unusual. Yet even here questions arise.

At first within the family itself, when daughter Mariko questions why her skin is so much darker than that of her parents. Then, an encounter in a supermarket—chillingly recounted—when the author, after disciplining his son Eric, is asked to prove that the child is his.

This is a book that works so well on so many levels. It is masterful and deserves the best of attention.

Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan Leslie Helm Chin Music Press Inc. $16.95

Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan
Leslie Helm
Chin Music Press Inc.