The charming and artistic CB Bernard

July 12, 2014


Japan01A few months ago, soon after I posted about CB Bernard here, and about his wonderful scenes of early Japan, I received the following email from Julian Bernard in Canada, a distant relative of my second cousin Bertie. Bertie had been my teacher in high school at Y.I.S. and had taught me an early love for history. I had always been fascinated by his British accent, and until I researched Yokohama Yankee, never really understood how we were related. (His maternal grandfather and my paternal grandfather were brothers.) So I was thrilled when I received this message from his cousin giving me insight into the paternal, British side of his family.

“My heart skipped a beat, or even two, when I came across “A Grandfather’s Love”.  Charles Burton Bernard, was my grandfather.  I met him only once, in 1939, just before he set sail from Vancouver for Yokohama on the final stage of what must have been his last trip outside Japan.  To this day I cherish a number of his drawings and watercolours including four pen and ink drawings which he sent to me, four successive Christmas gifts, from 1936 to 1939…I have no wish to intrude on the Helm family or its Bernard links but I could not resist the urge to tell you how moved I was by your vignette of CBB.”

Kopie von Kopie von Osaka 1877skaliert

That email began my long correspondence with Julian who had spent 30 years with the Business Development Bank of Canada and married Ann, whose father had spent a year and a half in Japan working for Nipponophone, the Japanese subsidiary of EMI, a British recording company. (He wrote a delightful diary of his experiences in Japan that will be the subject of a separate post.) From Julian I learned so much about the Bernard family’s life in Yokohama and how much the family’s experience mirrored those of my own family. Julian found Yokohama Yankee “intensely interesting but also rewarding,”  he said because “It helped me realize that my father’s discomfort with his heritage was not just his but was shared with many others with the same or similar backgrounds.” Julian explained in more detail in a following email:

“George, my father, always told us that he was born in Kingsbridge, Devon and that his mother died when he was young. That was his story and he stuck to it.  Dad was in the Royal Navy in WW1 and in the Canadian Navy in WW2 during which he was commanding officer of the Toronto naval station and later of a base on the east coast; it seems safe to assume the navy had no idea he was half Japanese.  CBB didn’t let the cat out of the bag when he visited us in 1939.  I do remember CBB’s arrival from Montreal at Union Station in Toronto.  I was with my father on the platform, the train arrived, the doors opened, and down stepped a slight, dapper, white haired man with a white goatee wearing a grey three piece suit.  My father said “good afternoon, sir” and the thought flashed through my mind – he called his dad ‘sir’.  In retrospect, I believe it reflected both distance, and respect.  Another incident occurred around 1962/63.  Ann and I were at my parents for Sunday dinner.  The phone rang and Dad went off to answer it.  The conversation was brief and Dad returned to the table.  Someone asked who it was and he replied that it was his nephew, Bertie, who was at Queen’s University in Kingston (mid-way between Toronto and Montreal) for a term and that he would like to visit us.  Of course we all asked when Bertie was coming and Dad’s response was “I told him I didn’t want to see him”.  When we asked why not, Dad stormed upstairs and we didn’t see him again that day.  Obviously, we had hit a sore spot.  That incident got me thinking back to my teens when I wore thick, bottle bottom, glasses.  It happened no more than two or three times but, when I removed my glasses, I had been asked if I had any Asian blood in me.  There was something about my eyes.  Of course I denied it because that was what I had been told but, after the phone call incident, I really began to wonder.

“Only a few days after my father died in 1982, Mother came across Dad’s passport, opened it, and found his birthplace recorded as Yokohama.  They had been married for 54 years and he had never told her!  Within a few weeks Ann and I were in Erieville, NY where cousin Tony was then living and the whole story came tumbling forth; it was the start of my quest to meet as many as possible of my long hidden cousins and to try to understand why the truth had so long been denied.

CBB’s first marriage, to Ura Iida, ended in rancour and it seems inevitable that the collapse of the relationship affected the children.  The story goes that CBB’s partner in the tea business, a man named Down, swindled CBB while CBB was away on one of his frequent trips to England and/or the USA.  Down and Ura had Power of Attorney and, when CBB returned, the business was gone.”

It’s unclear whether CBB’s first wife, Ura, had anything to do with CBB being swindled, Julian later explained. In any case, CBB divorced his wife Ura. After the divorce, Ura’s brother threatened CBB. Apparently CBB felt the threat was a serious one because he began carrying a gun on his person, something that was very rare in Japan in the early 1900s.

CBB took over the care of the children, and, as was the custom among British expatriates, sent them to Britain for their education. Explains Julian: “Of CBB and Ura’s five children, [eldest son] Charles (CEBB) was sent off to England in 1904, when he was 12, to be cared for by CBB’s sisters, Blanche and Grace.  John and George were shipped off early in 1909 at the ages of 11 and 9 respectively while the two girls, Amy and Ciss (Cecile) followed later in 1909 at the ages of 13 and 9 respectively.  Despite the business setbacks, CBB was seemingly still quite well off at the time and governesses, nurses/amahs were employed; judging from a few surviving photos, most of them were English but there was at least one Eurasian…. CBB paid for the children’s first class passages back to England, their upkeep and their public (in the British sense of that word) education.”

The children must have faced a great deal of discrimination in England. Says Julian:  “All were unhappy there, probably because they were “different” and four left England when they could – two to Canada, one to Boston and one to Argentina.  Amy remained in England but then had the misfortune to marry a brute of an army man who never stopped berating her for her ancestry.  Amy’s sole surviving child, now an elderly widow in Scotland, cannot get her head around any of this and continues to refer to Bertie as “the mysterious Japanese cousin”. [Amy’s extensive collection of papers and photographs, Julian later wrote, were edited to remove photographs of Ura, her Japanese mother.]

The grandchildren of that side of the family showed little interest in their Japanese heritage. “Once CBB’s five children of his marriage to Ura Iida left Japan, none ever returned.  There were 9 grandchildren and I was the only one to visit the country,” says Julian.

But the fourth generation is now showing interest. Julian’s youngest son, Chris has visited Japan. Brigid, a great-granddaughter of CBB is apparently planning to study in Japan. Last night I had sushi with Amy Bernard, another grandaughter who represents the Boston side of the family. Her father and grandfather, like her great-grandfather CBB, were both artists. Amy works as a scientist at the Paul Allen Brain Institute in Seattle, just a few miles from where I live. She is one eighth Japanese, and with red hair and fair skin, shows little trace of her Japanese heritage. But she loves Japanese food and is interested in exploring her Japanese roots. She says she will find a way to go to Japan soon. She showed me a photo album she inherited with many charming pictures of CBB’s life in Yokohama.

Every new bit of information I learn about my family help me better understand what my family went through. The Bernard’s experience showed that my family’s experience of trying to hide our mixed race background was hardly unusual. And making those connections allow me to experience the joy of seeing how the fourth generation of the Bernard family is was once again embracing Japan. We owe so much to people like Julian, who spend a lifetime digging into their family histories to uncover a past that tells us more about who we are.

Below is a picture of Julian Bernard at left, with my cousin Bertie Bernard at center, Julian’s wife next to Bertie, Lillian, Bertie’s mother (who helped me so much with my book), and Kyoko, Bertie’s charming and brilliant wife. The Japanese gentleman between Julian and Bertie is Kyoko’s brother.

2000,Feb 11_YCAC



The Importance of Preserving the Present

June 28, 2014

At a recent family gathering, my uncle Ray showed me a scrapbook he had started as a teenager in the early 1940s. “Letters” it says simply on the spine of that ring metal binder. There are tabs for “MOM”, “DON” (my father), “LARRY” (his brother) and “DAD.”

Lovingly pasted into now yellowing pages are the flimsy sheets of letter paper used back then when every ounce counted. In the scrap book are loving letters from his mother (my grandmother Betty) filled with admonitions to “wash your towels every three days,” and to make sure he washies his neck and underarms in the shower. In one letter on July 8, 1943 grandmother writes my uncle about the day my Dad (Don) wore his army uniform for the first time: “(Don) has a little side cap and I must say the whole outfit becomes him. He was strutting around so proudly like a hen that had just laid an egg and didn’t know what was going to happen next.” Or another time when my grandparents were invited to a party in Tokyo that included Princess Takamatsu and the American ambassador to Japan. While everyone else arrived in “dark Cadillacs with uniformed chauffeurs, my grandparents rattled to the entrance to the grand mansion in an old Ford. Grandfather Julie evidently hated the party, saying one such evening was “enough for a lifetime.” But my grandmother dreamed of a day when her son Don, my dad, would move in such circles exchanging small talk with important people. But, of course, like his father, Dad hated such parties. Then there is the letter my grandmother sent the day after I was born demanding my uncle send her $5. Apparently she had bet my uncle that I would be a boy. “I sang and whooped1” wrote my grandmother.

In doing research for Yokohama Yankee, I didn’t have access to this scrapbook. But I had access to many other letters and memoirs. And that got me thinking. What will my great grandchildren read if they want to know more about my generation. In this day of email and Facebook–where important messages are buried among so many trivial words–how can we preserve the memories that the next generation might find useful? It is something I will ponder about. For while I have written much about the past, I say little about the present even though we are going through more momentous changes now than just about any time in history. So what should we be doing to leave behind snapshots of our age, the way way think, the lessons we learn. Or does it even matter now that everything is being electronically recorded online and in computers. Then again, how much of that information is on old videotapes or computer discs that our grandkids won’t have access to?

What do you think? Are you making an effort to pass your thoughts on to your kids and grandkids?


Captain Schinzinger and the Avenging Samurai

May 20, 2014

Here’s an odd, but fascinating story that seems to say more about foreign stereotypes of Japan than it does about Japan. My cousin Stefan Schinzinger found it online. It was scanned from the May 15, 1909 issue of Harpers Weekly by Google books. It is about Captain Albert Schinzinger, who was our great, great uncle, and who represented Krupps, the German arms maker, in Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

harpers title

MATSUDA YASUBE was running betto [groom] for Captain Schinzinger. The captain represented a foreign firm that sold high explosives to the Imperial government: therefore he was great. He lived in a fine house in the European quarter of Tokio – amid an army of servants–as every great man must. There was a squad of these boys, aged from fifteen to fifty, who swept the honorable and pebbly driveway with big brooms made of twigs, and could not do any other kind of work. Then there was the middle-aged boy who came to the front door whenever a caller pushed the electric button, swung the door open majestically, and stood in silence, a very dignified statue swathed in silk and cotton, holding forth a silver tray for the visitor’s honorable card. There were also the boys who attended the furnaces, boys who did the honorable housework, boys who waited on the honorable table of the captain, besides those who cooked the meals, the runners of errands, and various other minor boys whose slight labors no westerner may guess. Each of these attended strictly to his own duty, and could not be driven by Fate herself to do the work of any other. That is the unwritten law.

Over all ruled Takiguchi Tokutaro, whom we should call a major-domo, but whose native style and title is Number One Boy. Of middle age, his clean-shaven face a bronze mask of dignity, with a curl of the lip that recalled the swaggering old daimios [lords] who cut down any that dared stand too near when they travelled along the Tokaido, Takiguchi was a fine figure of a man. He was tall and of powerful build, too; and, although his habitual movement was slow and majestic, as became a person of his high position, he was still as agile as a youth and one to be dreaded in quarrel. It was his physical prowess as much as his lofty office that gave him a habit of truculence toward his inferiors, a habit which they all resented in secret yet dared not resist openly by so much as the angry flutter of an eyelid. No foreigner dreamed of these savage eddies beneath the placid surface of the domestic stream, and many a friend congratulated the captain upon the excellence of his smooth household machinery.
Matsuda Yasube was the only one of the domestic staff who failed to bow low and rub his knees with his palms and draw a long, hissing, deferential inhalation whenever Takiguchi honored him by giving an order. Matsuda was young and fippant, and came of a family that had been honorable for centuries. The ancient feudal idea that personal service is far nobler than any other employment still prevails in Japan. Matsuda was proud as any young lord, and the lofty airs of Takiguchi irritated him beyond endurance. Besides, his own position as running betto made him an important personage, too. He often indulged in a light glance of disrespect at Takiguchi. A betto is a groom. The running betto perches in state beside the coachman on the box of his master’s carriage. Horses and carriages are still so infrequent in Japan that even in Tokio the services of the running betto are necessary to warn people on foot to get out of the way. With arms folded across his deep chest, the running betto emits from his squeezed throat as often as necessary, perhaps oftener, a long-drawn note of warning, a curious vibrant menace, full of affectation of importance.
“Ee-ee-ee-ee!” he cries, and wayfarers scramble aside to let the carriage pass. Or if the roadway be in the least crowded the betto, still shrilling his cry, leaps down from the box, runs ahead, and thrusts and hauls the people out of the way. It is no wonder Matsuda grew prouder day by day. Witness the conduct of our own policemen and guards and platform men whose duty it is to hurl the defenseless citizens as far as they can throw him.
One evening Matsuda squatted in the kitchen, holding his blue wrists over the edge of the hibachi so that his whole body would thereby be warmed. He drew from his girdle a Japanese pipe——a long, thin reed with a tiny silver bowl at the end of it. Into this bowl he pushed a pinch of Japanese tobacco that looked like old brown corn-silk, lit it, and, after three or four pulls, knocked the glowing red dottel [half-smoked tobacco] out on his palm. He refilled the pipe, lit the fresh tobacco from the dottel, and pulled away in comfort. As a matter of fact, the fine, clinging tobacco ash was next to his palm, and the red coal of tobacco lay harmless upon it. But all this was not clear to Katrina, a maid newly come from- Berlin. Her big blue eyes stood out opened wide in amazement.
“Ach, wunderschiin!” she cried.
Matsuda grunted in disdain of admiration from a mere foreigner; above all, a mere woman. Yet he did not fail to repeat his trick several times.
Katrina, still wondering, found Takiguchi in the dining-room superintending the arrangement of the table for dinner and deferentially listening to Captain Schinzinger’s directions about the wines.
“Tell me, Number One Boy,” she said, “why is Matsuda Yasube able to hold a coal of red—hot tobacco in his bare hand and feel no pain?”
“Because he is coarse, brutal person,” replied Takiguchi, bowing politely, but with just enough respect for a foreign female. At that moment Matsuda came swaggering through the dining-room. He fixed himself at insolent ease in front of Takiguchi, his hands resting on his hips, and made a very small and mocking bow.
“Honorable Number One,” he inquired in Japanese, “are you paying the high compliment of talking about me?”
“Out of my way, beast!” Takiguchi growled contemptuously, adding to the insult by uttering it in English. The two stood eye to eye for the space of perhaps two seconds; then young Matsuda, knowing very little English and unaware of the exact meaning

of Number One Boy’s words, slowly swaggered from the room.
Late that night when off duty the runnin betto observed casually to his friend the betto: “Tell me a new word, 0 Norama. San, you who know all the thoughts and words of the outlandish English. What is the meaning of the word “beast?”
“‘Beast,’ young honored friend?” Norama replied, meditatively. “‘Beast”? Oh yes. It means an animal, low, brutal, besotted thing.”
“It has a curious sound like the hissing of a goose.” Matsuda indifferently commented. “I heard it to-day for the first time. It is a new word to me.”
But when he stretched himself on the mat that night sleep was far from him. The air of unconcern which had hidden his personal interest in the new word now gave way to an access of rage as he kept repeating it to himself over and over again. “Beast!” “Beast!” “Beast!” he whispered, and the sound hissed like a serpent in his cars. So the outrageous upstart Takiguchi, whose family dated back barely to the Gen-roku period, a mere two hundred years, had dared to apply a loathsome English epithet to him, a Matsuda, member of a most ancient family of the Satsuma clan, a people who were great long before the time of the first Shogun! The affront was [too much.]

Nevertheless. it was a serene and smiling Matsuda who went about his duties next day. He was a trifle pale, and his eyes were feverishly bright; but there was no trace upon his smooth countenance of revenge, anger, or any other passion. For what says the ancient proverb? “He is indeed a pomegranate who, when he opens his mouth, shows his heart.” So Matsuda. smiled more blandly than usual as he went about the house, and on the box of the carriage his weird, crooning “ Ee-ee-ee-ee!” of warning sounded as loud and clear as ever. Thinking it over afterward, members of the family remembered that for many days the running betto kept out of the way of the Number One Boy except when the master was present. On such occasions he was often seen edging toward Takiguchi, though he never remained near him very long. The conditions were not quite right. The precise details that should accompany a pretty and perfect taking of Japanese revenge are beyond the conception of the outlander. I shall not try to guess at their devious complications.
On the fifteenth evening after the insult Captain Schinzinger was going to dine out. The carriage was ordered for half past six o’clock, and punctually at the minute it swept up the pebbly drive and halted before the great door, Matsuda leaped nimbly down from his perch on the box and took his proper place at the horses’ heads. He was watchful, trim, and serene, without a trace of emotion. As usual, on such occasions, a dozen or so of the household boys arranged themselves in a semicircle around the portal to make proper low bows to the master and wish him good luck on his departure. Number One Boy, with all the dignity of a daimio conducting an honored guest, led the master to the carriage. Captain Schinzinger stepped into the Victoria and sat down. Takiguchi bent forward to tuck the lap robe around his master’s honorable ankles.
The running betto let go the bridle, and in two bounds was beside Takiguchi. His eyes were ablaze, and his cheeks were flushed dull red. With his left hand he plucked the Number One Boy into an upright position, while in his upraised right hand there flashed a keen, glittering knife with a blade almost as broad as a cleaver.
“Tss-ss-ss! Beast!” he hissed as he drove the blade to the hilt into the muscular neck of Takiguchi at the point where the jugular-vein descends into the body. As his victim fell, already dead, as it seemed, Matsuda started on a run, for none of his fellow servants tried to hold him. He ran all the way to the nearest police station, half a mile away. Upon entering, he made a profound bow to the captain sitting in command at the desk, and laid the red knife before him.
“Honorable captain,” he said, with a winning smile and carefully guarding glance and voice so that they should not betray unseemly exultation—“Honorable captain, I have been compelled to kill one who offered me insult. I give my weapon [to you and] give myself to be your prisoner.”
The captain bowed politely and directed the lieutenant to make careful notes of the name, age, and history of the prisoner, the place of the killing, and all other necessary details. Then a policeman, bowing very politely, requested the honorable prisoner to come to his honorable cell. There Matsuda Yasube stretched himself on the mat and slept without a care. He awoke at daylight, and, after a fine hot bath, squatted down to an excellent breakfast of boiled rice, pickled turnip, and tea. He permitted himself the luxury of an exultant smile whenever he felt quite sure no one could see him. But in the midst of one of these self-congratulations a most unpleasant thought jarred upon his satisfaction. He asked to be taken to the police captain at once.
“ Honorable commander,” he said when he had bowed before the desk, “a distressing thought is disturbing me. I have left something undone at the house of my honorable master. If it remains undone, I shall be in disgrace forever. Will you deign to send me to the house for a little time?”
“A matter of honor? You shall go by all means,” the captain graciously replied.
Therefore it was that at nine o‘clock in the morning Captain Shinzinger, upon arising from breakfast, was informed by the acting Number One Boy that Matsuda Yasube craved the honor of an interview with him. The captain went to the porch and found the running betto standing beside a policeman in uniform, who smiled and saluted.
“ Honorable master,” said Miatsuda, after bowing half-way to the floor three times, “I was very selfish last evening. I was so ill-bred, so rustic, in making my private revenge-business disturbing the good ordering of your honorable house. For this I seek most humbly gracious pardoning from you.”
Matsuda’s bowed face was a picture of distress until he heard the kindly tone of Captain Schinzinger’s voice reassuring him.
“You have my pardon, Maisuda,“ he said.
Whereupon Matsuda Yasube bowed deeper than before and cried. “Thank you, sir.” and. “Good-by, master! Sayonara!” and marched away to the police station. There he spent many happy days, indifferent to whether gallows or prison cell awaited him, for he had wiped the stain from his honor and shown true courtesy to the master. So he squatted on the mat and warmed his wrists at the hibachi, and spent most of his waking time in smoking pinches of silky brown tobacco in his little silver pipe and knocking the glowing dottels out on his bare left palm.

samura avenger



How a little piece of Miyazaki’s magical, curative forest of the future was recreated in a copper pit in Butte Montanta.

May 17, 2014


Hayao Miyazaki has always been one of my favorite Japanese artists. His skepticism towards the foibles of mankind is leavened by his humanism, and, ultimately, his optimism that the world, and we humans and the world we live it, will survive in spite of ourselves. I was reminded of this and of my favorite Miyazaki movie, Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa (Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind), when I heard an incredible radio report on NPR recently about a true miracle that occurred at a massive, water-filled copper pit in Butte, Montana.

In Miyazaki’s film, Nausica, you may recall, a nuclear holocaust destroys most of the planet. The film takes place a thousand years later, when a beautiful forest has grown up that produces terribly poisonous plants and insects. The few humans who remain on earth mistake the poisonous forest for the enemy and try to destroy it. Just in time, the young heroine learns that the poisonous forest is really nature’s way of filtering out toxic substances to create ground water that is pure enough to sustain life, including the people on the planet.

Well, in the radio show, which was produced by radio lab, we are introduced to a huge lake that has been cut into an old copper mine. When the mine closed many years ago, we learn, the mining company dynamited it rather than bother to clean it up. Rain mixed with the old remains of the mine creating a soup of sulfuric acid that kept eating into the mountain, sucking ever more toxic metals into the lake and making it ever larger. One day a flock of geese landed in the soup and were found dead the next day.

Much later, a team of chemists comes across a startling discovery: a living substance that seems to be doing what the poisonous forest was doing in Miyazaki’s film. If you’ve seen Miyazaki’s film, you must listen to this marvelously produced radio program. If you haven’t seen the film, you should watch it then listen to the radio program. You will be bowled over by Miyazaki’s imagination and this miracle in Butte, Montana. I don’t want to tell you what the chemists learned because it would ruin the ending of the radio show. What I can tell you is that it has to do with geese and with the self-healing powers of nature. You should listen to the program, It’s radio at its best.






Margaret (Helm) Stone

March 29, 2014

monte-11jpgOf the many relatives I came to know in my research, one of my favorites was Margaret (Helm) Stone. Dad also loved her older cousin, I think, because, like my father, she was a straight shooter. She told you just what she thought. I loved her because of the spunk she showed throughout her life and her continued independence long into her 90s.

She was already close to 90 the first time I visited her at her small cottage in Venice, Los Angeles in 1996. The cottage had a charming garden that she carefully tended and which backed up onto one of Venice’s canals. The house was built at the turn of the century when Venice had been a resort area. Monte bought it in the 1950s when the area had hit hard times.

“I bought this house because it was cheap, but I love it.” She had previously lived in a nice house in Beverly Glenn that she bought when her father died in 1933 leaving her a good inheritance.Marg

Then she married Leonard Stone, a handsome alcoholic who had three daughters from a previous marriage. The previous marriage had suffered, in part, because both Stone and his wife were alcoholics, according to Robert Patterson, Stone’s grandson.

Stone came from wealthy parents. His father had been a stockbroker in Australia working with a brother who was a partner in the same law firm as Herbert Hoover. The two were partners in several mining investments. Stone later move to California and became a mining engineer and the editor of a mining journal. He would short the stock of a mining company than write negative stories about the mine to drive its stock price down so he could buy the share back at a nice profit. Stone’s mother was also from a rich family. Her forebears had been the beneficiaries of a Spanish land grant. Her aunt had been one of the founders of Santa Monica. When Stone’s father ran away, perhaps after his unscrupulous activity was uncovered, Stone’s mother married a shipping magnate and inherited his money when he died a few years later.

So one images that Leonard Stone, the son, must have inherited a fair amount of money. Perhaps some of the money was lost in the 1929 crash. Perhaps he spent it all. In any case, he must have run out of money because in 1932 he was convicted for counterfeiting and spent 18 months in a penitentiary.


Monte probably knew nothing of that history. She remembered Leonard as an idealistic salesman with dreams and lots of ideas that never came to fruition. “He was ahead of his time,” she used to say pointing out that he was the first to come up with the idea of selling cut flowers in the supermarket. “He liked to bend the elbow,” she added, referring to his love for drink. Stone proceeded to spend all of Monte’s substantial inheritance on his various business ideas.

Fortunately, Monte still owned shares of Helm Brothers, which weren’t easy to sell. The couple lived on the $250 a month in dividends from Helm Brothers. But those dividends stopped flowing when World War II began.  Leonard drank more and his health declined. In 1945 the doctor suggested Monte and her husband go to the desert to improve Leonard’s health. A friend got them jobs in Furnace Creek Valley. For nine months, Monte cooked for farm workers while Leonard put in irrigation lines for the date palms.

When they returned to Los Angeles in 1946, there was no place to live. Everybody was coming back from the war and housing was in short supply. She paid some money under the table and got an apartment for $100 a month. Sometime later, perhaps when the war ended and dividends started flowing again from Helm Brothers, Monte and Leonard moved into the Venice house.

The Venice house had a galley kitchen, a tiny living room and two small bedrooms. The first time I met her, I told her she had been one of my Dad’s favorite cousins. She smiled, then said in a husky voice that must have been sexy when she was young: “I remember going to Japan for a Helm Brothers board meeting. People were unhappy because your Dad was competing with Helm Brothers. We threw him out on his ass,” she said. Dad had started a competing company after his uncle had fired him as head of the company. The family had retaliated by removing Dad from the Helm Brothers board. But I could tell that Monte loved my father.

Monte served me tea and cookies, and we sat on the couch and talked as we went through pictures. She had lived a privileged existence as a young girl. She grew up in the Victorian mansion in Yokohama that my great grandfather built in 1902. She attended a French convent in Tokyo. Among her classmates was the Siamese ambassador to Japan.

charles helm kids-9jpgShe remembers her Japanese grandmother’s sister had given all the children gold bracelets. Her house burned down in the great earthquake of 1923 and her father built a grand new house in Hachiojiyama (Helm Hill) near Honmoku.

When Monte first moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s, she lived with her aunt. Her aunt would call her “yellow” and make Monte stay in her room when guests came because she was embarrassed about having a Japanese relative. Her grandmother was Japanese.

Her father, Charles, had taken Japanese citizenship so that Helm Brothers ships could be registered in his name. It took years for Monte to get U.S. citizenship because of the 1924 Exclusion Act which prohibited those of Japanese heritage from getting citizenship. It was only because her mother was white and born American that she was able to get the papers. Monte’s parents were first cousins. Her mother’s father, Gustav, was the brother of her father’s father, Julius. When she finally got U.S. citizenship on June 13 1930, the Evening Herald wrote: “International girl becomes American.”

Not long afterward, Monte had trouble finding a job In the midst of the Great Depression, and she returned to Yokohama taking a second class berth on an NYK ship to save money. When the purser saw her name on the list he said; “Miss Helm, you mustn’t go second class. Your father will be very upset. I’ll put you in first class and your father will pay me back later.”

On the ship Margaret met Hayward Hunter of San Francisco, a young lumber salesman, and quickly fell for him. They spent time together in Yokohama and later Kobe. One evening, they were taking a taxi to Monte’s Uncle Jim and Aunt Elizabeth’s house in Maiko when the taxi stalled right on the train tracks.  The driver was trying to restart the car when Margaret saw the lights of the train coming around the bend. The train rammed into the car knocking it on its side and pushing it up onto the train platform. The top of the car was ripped off. Margaret fell unconscious. They were lucky to be alive.

When Monte had recuperated, she and Hayward took the boat to Yokohama. Monte got off the ship at Yokohama to visit her family. Hayward stayed on the ship to go to San Francisco. She gave him a package to give to her Aunt Betsy in Los Angeles and wrote to her Aunt to meet the ship. She dreamed of marriage to Hayward. Her Aunt Betsy later wrote Monte that when she delivered the package to Hayward, he was there with his wife, who had come to take him home.

Monte could have lived an easy life if she had stayed in Yokohama. But she said she hated the way the foreign wives would hang out at the club and play mahjong all day long. She wanted to be independent. That was why she traveled to Los Angeles and went to secretary school. She was one of the few Helms I knew of her generation who worked most of her life. She couldn’t afford to retire early as most of her cousins had done.

She never felt bitter about the money Leonard had spent. She never felt she ever wanted more than that house in Venice. It had never been remodeled and looked much like it must have looked when it was first built at the turn of the century. Toward the end, she could have sold the house and lived comfortably in a retirement home. Yet she continued to live there taking a bus to do her grocery shopping, and in the end, wearing an oxygen mask as she did the house cleaning.

In the years that followed, I often visited her in Venice. The last time I went with my children. She was so pleased to see them. Before we left, we went out back into the garden she loved so much and I took a picture of her with Eric and Mariko. It is a reminder of one of the many special moments I had connecting to special people in the course of researching my book.






The significance of a family crest

March 16, 2014

Family crests are usually a lot less impressive than we might first want to imagine. Nevertheless, they can still reveal interesting things about your family. When I was a kid, for example, my great aunt used to make a big deal about the Helm family crest. She would tell the story of how sometime back in medieval days, a Helm was honored by his prince for sending his seven sons to battle under the prince. For that loyalty, he received the family crest that hows seven helmets on a shield.

helm crest 3 Helm crest-original







The black and white image shows the family crest as depicted in family documents. The one in red is a version drawn by my cousin, Alan Webster.

When I was about fourteen, in a surge of family pride, relatives had a mold of the family crest made and many of us received jewelry with the crest. My sisters received gold pendants with the mark of the crest, while my brother and I received rings and cuff links. I gave the ring to my son Eric when he turned 18. We Helms were in disarray and seemed to be in search of something to show we were important in some way.

At the beginning of my family search, I made some effort to determine whether there was any significance to the crest. I was very excited to discover that Trudy (Helm) Weber has a seal with the crest. The kind uses to press into wax to seal an envelope. The handle of the sea was a ruby-colored precious stone.  I suspect that Trudy’s father, Karl, or perhaps my great grandfather, Julius Helm, had it made, although it’s possible that the seal may have been older. Perhaps one day someone will have it evaluated to determine its age. But whatever it’s age, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t go back hundreds of years. I have serious questions as to its authenticity.

Why? Well, for one thing, the helmet at the top is a barred helmet, which is reportedly used only for nobility.
images[1]Yet I have come across nothing to suggest we were ever remotely related to nobility. According to stories from my great-grandfather’s sister, Charlotte, the Helm family migrated from the Netherlands. An early story tells of an ancestor who was a pastor in Schleswig Holstein, on the border with Denmark. He apparently had a disagreement with his patron who was loyal to the Pope. Apparently, our pastor ancestor tore off his vestments, threw them on the ground and said angrily “There lies the Pope and here stands the church.” Presumably this story happened sometime around the Thirty Years’ War in the early 1600s, when Catholics and Protestants battled for control of the many principalities in Europe.

The first record we have of the Helm line is of great, great, great-grandfather, Joachim Adolph Friedrich Helm. He was born in Mecklenburg, Trollenhagen and made his way to Woldegk in the north of Germany. There he studied law and became a law court administrator and church economist. We think he might have gotten that post in 1785 when he married Charlotte Dorothea Fuchs, the widow of his predecessor. The father of this widow was a superintendent in the region, presumably somewhat prominent. But the Fuchs were hardly nobles. Over the internet, someone recently connected to my family tree, which gave me access to the family background of the Fuchs. The occupations of two of the earliest people on the family register, which went back five hundred years, were listed as “assistant executioner.”

Joachim’s youngest son, my great-great grandfather, Johann Theodor Julius Helm, was born in 1800 and studied law like his father but ended up going into farming, because he suffered from terrible headaches when he read texts. Instead, he bought a 400-acre farm in Rosow, north of Berlin, where my great-grandfather was born in 1840. So in the case of the Helm crest, there is no evidence of how the family got  the crest, and no sign of nobility.

When it comes to the Japanese side of the family, the family of my great grandmother Hiro Komiya,  there are two crests.






In Japan, with the exception of some very prominent families, crests are relatively informal symbols. Anybody can choose just about any crest. When I first started research into my family, people told me the Komiya crest was the one above with the crossed eagle feathers. But when I met distant relatives, they told me the Komiyas had once been samurai and even had a castle. But the castle had long since been destroyed, and hundreds of years ago our branch of the family had renounced our samurai past to settle down as farmers. Their family crest was the wisteria crest shown above with the drooping flowers making the sides of a circle. I assumed we represented two different branches of the same family. Yet, there was a mystery. On the gravestone of my great-grandfather’s first daughter, who died as a baby, was the wisteria symbol shown below.


Yet, when if finally found the grave of my Japanese great-great grandfather, the grave had the symbol of the two crossed feathers.

At the time I wrote my book, Yokohama Yankee, I couldn’t explain the two different crests for the same family. I have since learned that it is not unusual for a new branch of a family to adopt a new crest. I believe that the family’s original crest was the wisteria crest since that was on a gravestone placed in 1875, when Caroline Helm, the first daughter of Komiya Helm, died as a baby. The second crest, the two crossed feathers, by contrast, was on the grave of a much newer grave for my great great grandfather’s adopted son. The son was adopted when he married my great-great grandfather’s daughter. In an unusual situation, the the biological daughter died, and the adopted son remarried. Since there was now no longer any blood connection with his adopted father’s side of the family, the adopted son appears to have decided to take on the new crest, the crossed eagle feathers. He had the crest with the crossed feathers put on his grave. His father in law’s grave is used, somewhat disrespectfully as one of the stones that support the foundation of the adopted son’s grave.

Crest’s are really only important if they mean something to the family. Although I have mixed family’s about my Helm ancestors and doubt they ever had noble blood, I came to love them in the course of writing my book. And while I’m not crazy about the martial theme of the Helm crest, it is tied to the family’s history. I hope my adopted son and daughter, who carry the Helm name, will also feel some connection to the Helm crest.



Army Japanese Language School and James Cahill

February 23, 2014

army language school_0001 army language school_0002It was sad to learn today of the death of James Cahill, one of the foremost authorities on Chinese Art. It was great, however, to see that the New York Times gave him such a great write up. One thing the Times didn’t mention was that “Jimmy” Cahill, as my parents used to call him, was first introduced to Asian languages when he studied Japanese at the U.S. Army Japanese Language School.

That language school at the University of Michigan, along with the U.S. Navy Japanese Language School, trained a whole generation of Japan experts. Some of the students such as my father, who was in Cahill’s class, were “BIJ”s. They were chosen because they were born and raised in Japan and were proficient in the language. George Moore and Hans Baerwald, also in Dad’s class, were both BIJs and both went on to become professors with expertise in Japan. Most of the other students were chosen based on I.Q. because it was understood that Japanese was such a difficult language to learn. One of the students, Joe Guilfoile, who would later serve on the board of our family company, Helm Brothers, told me that he had been plucked from college and ordered to study French. At the last minute, they said they had plenty of French speakers and needed more people to study Japanese so they moved him into the Japanese language school at Michigan.

Dad used to complain about how tough the school was. (While he had an edge in spoken Japanese, he said it was hard to compete in the written language with all the geniuses at the school who seemed to have photographic memories.) But of course all the students were thrilled not to be fighting at the front, where they would be sent if they didn’t keep up with their grades. Here’s a fund write up on the  Intensive Japanese Language School at Michigan established in 1942.

…hundreds of American soldiers could be seen traversing the streets of Ann Arbor constantly writing invisible Japanese characters in the air—often to the befuddled stares of passing pedestrians. With local interest piqued, in January 1943, Major General George V. Strong, an assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, felt it necessary to dictate the following telegram to the University:


The army, it seems, regarded the Japanese Language School’s presence in Ann Arbor as a military secret. Nevertheless, the Michigan Daily and the Ann Arbor News both found the program too good to ignore and ran frequent stories about it. Student life in the language school was intense. Students were housed in the East Quadrangle and were expected to be dressed and present at 6:08 each morning. Classes were from 8:00 to 10:30am, then resumed at 1:00pm each day except Fridays, when Japanese films were shown. Study hall at 8:00pm was mandatory in the Law Library for all students with lower than B averages; lights out at 10:30. Rumors ran on with stories of tunnels in the basement of East Quad or skillful escapes over gates to avoid bed checks.

War is always tragic. But it’s even more tragic when we go to war, as we often do now, with little or no knowledge of the languages or cultures of the nations where we are fighting. I don’t believe in being nostalgic about war. But it does seem like the language schools were one way in which the U.S. got it right during World War II.


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