A Grandfather’s Love

February 23, 2014

Eloise Bernard Kopie von Kopie von Osaka 1877skaliert

In the course of our long years in Japan, members of the Helm family met and married into many interesting families of old “Japan hands,” of whom one of the most interesting is the Bernard family. My great aunt Lillian was the daughter of Charles Helm and his first cousin Louise. Lillian married Barnie Bernard, whose father was C.B. Bernard. C.B. Bernard came to Yokohama in the early 1870s and was member of many of Yokohama’s early institutions, including YC&AC. Bernard was a tea merchant, but he is best known for his beautiful woodblock prints and water colors.

At the beginning of World War II, Lillian and her family, who were British, had to leave Japan. Since they were part-Japanese, they were not allowed to enter the United States. “Not wanting us to be put in a detention camp,” Pauline writes, “my folks chose to live in Venezuela and later Argentina, during the war years. We went back to Japan in 1949, but Grandpa died in 1947.”
They urged C.B.Bernard to accompany them, but he didn’t want to leave his Japanese wife behind so he stayed. He and his wife spent the war years in a prison camp where they nearly starved to death. At the time, C.B. Bernard had one granddaughter, Lillian’s first daughter Pauline, who he called Peto. During their separation, C.B. Bernard drew little pictures accompanied by stories that he sent to his granddaughter.

The picture above on the top is one of a series of pictures that C.B. Bernard sent to Pauline. (The one on the bottom is a print Bernard did of Osaka.) The picture on the top was accompanied by a note written on letterhead of the Yokohama United Club, a lunch club popular at the time. (My grandfather used to complain that the Yokohama United Club wouldn’t allow him to become a member because he was half Japanese.) The message says:

Dear Peto,
Ask Papi to sing it to you.
January 28 ’41.

The drawing shows Bernard and his wife waving farewell to the ship as it steams off to Argentina. The words were meant to be sung to the tune “It’s a long long way to Tipperary.”
My cousin, and former high school teacher at Yokohama International School, Bertie Bernard, now alternates between homes in London and Yokohama. He is writing a history of the Bernards, and I look forward to reading that book.

A remarkable story from the 1930s of two men who fall in love, and the mother who adopts her son’s gay lover

December 13, 2013


I received a remarkable letter from Chi Carmody, a law professor in Ontario, Canada, who recently came across a cache of photographs while preparing his father’s house for sale. In doing research, he came across my book and sent me photographs with a letter describing the unusual way in which our two families are connected, while also revealing details I had not known about my own family.

The first photograph shows the wedding of Jim Helm to Elizabeth Wiedemann in Yokohama in 1909. Jim Helm, as I describe in Yokohama Yankee, was the tall, athletic old brother of my grandfather Julie. It was Jim’s wife, Elizabeth, who introduced my grandfather Julie to my grandmother Betty in Brooklyn. Carmody reveals an aspect of that relationship I had not known. I had always wondered how Jim met Elizabeth. Well it turns out Elizabeth’s father worked for New York Life Insurance in Yokohama, and the two families likely knew each other.

The second picture shows my grandfather Julie with Elizabeth’s brother’s son, Fred–that is, Elizabeth Wiedemann’s nephew. The picture was taken in the summer of 1923. That may have been the summer Julie first met Betty, or it could have been a subsequent trip. But he would returned from that trip to be faced, soon afterward, with the great Kanto earthquake of September 1923. (I’ll have to check to see if Helm brothers was insured by New York Life. I think they were.)

The fascinating part of the story is how Chi Carmody ended up with all these pictures of the Wiedemanns that he sent me. It turns out that Elizabeth Wiedemann’s brother, Ernst, who had also lived in Yokohama, returned to New York and married Ella Hendrickson (the employee of a printing company), became active in Brooklyn politics and probably got to know George Carmoody, Chi’s grandfather. Ernst and Ella had a single son named Fred who was born about 1916. Fred is the one in the picture with my grandfather, Julie. Ernst died of pneumonia in 1929 at age 47.

Sometime in the mid-1930s, Fred Wiedemann met Charles, the son of George Carmody, the Brooklyn politician who was Chi’s uncle. Charles and Fred lived together and shared a bed, relatives confirm. They both also work for New York Life Insurance Co., like Fred’s father, Ernst. They buy a bungalow at Breezy Point in Brooklyn, then called the “Irish Riviera.” Chi says there are many pictures of the couple enjoying themselves at Breezy Point.

According to family lore, Chi writes, Fred was on one of the U.S. naval vessels that docked at Hiroshima right after the atomic bomb blast. Story has it that the radiation was so strong, many of the men in the ship vomited overboard and later got cancer.

Fred returned to New York after the war and lived with his mother. On weekends Charles and Fred slept together in the front bedroom while Fred’s mother, Ella, occupied the rear of the house. In the summer Charles and Fred lived together at their home at Breezy Point.

In 1950, Fred contracted lung cancer. It’s unclear if the disease was related to his exposure to radiation at Hiroshima. Charles looked after Fred in his dying days and took care of the funeral arrangements. After Fred’s death, Ella invited Charlie to move in with her and informally adopted him.

An Exercise in Trying to Understand Great Grandfather Julius

November 21, 2013

One of the hardest parts of writing Yokohama Yankee was trying to get into the mind of my great-grandfather Julius. He is just so different from me. And his reminiscences include so few details. One early effort, not very successful I’m afraid, was to conduct an imaginary interview with Julius. Here it is.Julius4

l: Why did you leave Germany.

J: It seemed old. Set in its ways. I didn’t want to do what my father wanted me to do. I didn’t want to be responsible for all my siblings. I wanted to see the world. It seemed to me there was so many exciting things happening in the rest of the world.

L; but why not just stay in America.

J: yes it was different. It was exciting in its way. But once I had a taste for this new life, I wanted more. I wanted to keep encountering new experiences. It seemed to me that the only way to live was to keep moving. If you stayed in one place, life just got boring.

L: I did that in the beginning to. I just kept moving and moving. France, India, New York, JapanBoston, back to Japan. What got you into the Wakayama deal.

J; it was just too exciting to turn down. What an opportunity to see the real japan. And to be training soldiers. That is too funny. Japanese no less. I look at the rickshaw man and I cannot imagine him in a uniform. These small fellows with their stern features and their quick smiles. I cannot imagine them with a musket.

J; and then we arrive and these fellows are training with sticks. Can you imagine that. The are marching around like a lot of little boys with sticks thrown over their shoulders. It was a challenge to me to try to make these men into real soldiers. Koppen had done a pretty good job with the officers. But the regular soldiers. That is another story. I had these young samurai fellows and these old guys.

L: yes yes. But what did you feel about Japan. Did you fall in love with it?

J: What a notion. Love? I don’t know. I suppose I loved Germany. Japan. It was this strange place. Everything about it was strange. Did I fall in love with it. No. But I was entranced by it. Every little thing caught me as if I were in some strange fairy tale. The way the ladies are so demure. They may give you a brief glance then they hide their faces. They cover their mouths when they smile. In front of the large warehouses where they sold the material for their kimono. The women would gather and gossip.  There I would hear them laugh like I had never heard them laugh in Yokohama.

There was something about the poorest peddler. The way he balanced his tree hung with pots and pans that was twice his height. He never seemed to tire under his load. He called out a strange tune as he walked in the streets calling for customers. There was a moaning quality to it. At first I found it noisy and disturbing. But then I found it lonely when the sound was not there.

How about Wakayama?

The young girls who carry their baby brothers on their backs. The ladies working in their blue pantaloons in the muddy rice fields. It is all just so beautiful. It is all just so charming. I can just walk and walk and never get tired of it. There is something about the countryside that you do not find in Yokohama. There is a community. There is a sense of belonging. Wakayama had that.


L: How did they treat you in Wakayam.

J: like a god. They thought I was just the greatest thing. They thought I could do magic. I was always showing them how they could do things better. Not just bridges and tunnels. I showed them knots that would keep their shoes tied. And they were showing me all manner of things. I took my first Japanese bath there in one of there large metal tubs. You have to wear wooden geta so you don’t burn your feet because a fire is lit under the steel tub.

They showed me how to use a Japanese bow. The Japanese could shoot the bulls eye of a target while galloping on horseback. I guess what impressed me most was their desire to learn. Once they decided to learn, they worked very hard. They learned quickly. They were not at all like those lazy men on the docks in Yokohama.

They still seem to me like dolls. It is inconceivable that fully grown men and women can be so small. When they walk beside me they take two steps to my one, like children.

Shinto ceremony to bless Helm Yamate Residences

November 17, 2013

helmyamate re4sidence-fbSome years ago, I remember visiting a shinto shrine in Tokyo and being amused when I came across a priest who was chanting as he waved his stick with paper streamers across a brand new company car and chanted as company employees stood and watched. The car trunk and hood were both open so the priest could bless both the engine and the inside of the car. Shinto is often associated with the new so Japanese typically have Shinto weddings. Since Buddhism is associated with the afterlife, funerals usually take place at Buddhist temples. Well I just came across a picture from 1970 that shows a priest giving a blessing to the Helm Yamate Residences apartment building my father built on the bluff that year not far from minato-no-mieru-oka koen. (The park from which he building still stands but now has a different name.

Talk at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard

November 16, 2013

harvard-2I spoke at Harvard in October before a group of students and professors. There was a great discussion following my talk. Toward the end I suggested that Japan should change its narrative about itself from that of a homogeneous country with rigid customs and set values dating back thousands of years to a narrative that focuses more on the country’s proven ability to make radical changes when the need arose. I said that narrative would better enable Japan to adjust to a modern Japan that is increasingly at odds with Japan’s view of itself. A skeptical students said that listening to NPR one keeps hearing about narratives and that since I was a journalist it wasn’t surprising that I would talk about narratives that did I really believe that could change Japan. I pointed to Tokugawa, which determined from the top what kind of society Japan should be and proceeded to create just such a society made up of a strict caste system. then the Meiji government shifted the narrative to focus on the introduction of Western technology and institutions of government and proceeded to transform Japan from the top. Narrative, or story if you prefer to call it that, can indeed be very powerful.

Here is the whole talk:

My day job in Seattle doesn’t have much to do with Japan. So when I sent  a message out last spring to my contacts about my new book, Yokohama Yankee, there was more than a little confusion. Several people assumed it was a book about Ichiro’s new team in New York.

When I went on a book tour in Japan this summer, many of my Japanese audiences were also confused. Turns out “Yankee” is now commonly used in Japan as a word to mean …… juvenile delinquent.

For me the title, Yokohama Yankee, is simply a way to represent the contrasting roles of east and west in the life of my family.

Yokohama, of course, plays a central role in my book. It’s the port city in Japan where my great grandfather first arrived nearly 150 years ago, and where I was born and raised.

It’s also the place where feudal Japan first came face to face with western civilization. Today Yokohama is Japan’s second largest city with four million people, yet it has managed to maintain some of its old world charm. Couples go there for romantic weekends. They like to wander through Chinatown and stroll among the old Victorian houses on the bluff where I grew up.

Yokohama was a beautiful place. This is a hill that my great grandfather bought in Honmoku at the turn of the century for his summer villa.

I have a cousin who still lives on that hill. When he orders sushi at his local place, they still say Herumu-yama desu ne. Shall we deliver to Helm Hill.

I grew up with one foot in the foreign community and the other in the real  Japan. Among my Japanese friends and acquaintances, I tried not to stick out. I did my best to be polite, to avoid being a nuisance and to always be respectful of my elders.

I learned the values of perseverance and stoicism. I had a dentist in Yokohama who used blunt needles that were so painful that I insisted on having my teeth drilled without novacaine. WOW, that hurt. But I always felt good afterward because the dentist would praise me for being able to handle the pain.

When I was with my Western friends, I went out of my way to break rules. We would climb over a chain-linked fence where hundreds of coca cola trucks were parked to steal Coca Cola stickers. We would start fires in abandoned lots. Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t because of foreign, gaijin kids like me that the word “Yankee” came to mean “juvenile delinquent.”

Japanese was my first language because I spent so much of my early years with Japanese nannies.

That’s a picture of me with my older brother and two ladies who worked for us. People would come up to me and touch my platinum blond hair. School boys who scream “You crazy boy.”

Although my spoken Japanese was pretty good, because I was educated in English, my Japanese vocabulary was pretty limited.

As a kid, when my mother took us home by taxi she would tell the driver to go to “gaijin bochi.”

So when Japanese asked me where I lived, I would say in “Gaijin bochi.” They would give me these weird looks.

It took me a while before I realized that gaijin bochi didn’t mean foreigner’s bluff, as I assumed. It meant  “foreigners’ cemetery.”

My mother was telling the taxi driver to go there because the cemetery happened to be right across the street from my house.

I was telling everybody I lived inside the foreign cemetery.

In some ways, I suppose I did. Or rather, much of the cemetery’s history lived inside of me.

The Foreign cemetery was established in 1859 to bury the first foreigners cut down by xenophobic samurai. It is the resting place for more than a dozen of my relatives including my Japanese great grandmother Hiro.

In Japanese culture, taking care of the ancestral graves is an important duty.

But, while I used to cut through the cemetery as a shortcut to grab a bowl of ramen, we NEVER visited our family graves. It was as if my family just wanted to forget the past.

Of course, when we try to bury the past, it can come back to haunt us.

It wasn’t until I moved to the United States for college, at age 17, and was doing my best to act like an American, that I became aware, for the first time, that I was one-fourth Japanese. I have two Japanese great-grandmothers. This is great grandmother Hiro.

The idea that I was part Japanese didn’t square with who I thought I was.  Growing up in Japan as a gaijin, I was defined by who I was NOT. I was NOT Japanese. Being part-Japanese just seemed to confuse things.

Although I had many Japanese-American friends, I was different from them as well. I didn’t look Asian. And I had grown up in Japan, not America. So, for the next 20 years I did my best to avoid the issue of identity altogether.

Now, there are two things in life that are among the most emotional things that can happen to anybody: One is the death of a parent. The other is having children.

Both things happened to me in quick succession in the early 1990s while I was working in Japan as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times

Those two things changed my world.

The first thing that happened was the death of my father. He and I had had a difficult relationship over the years, so I was surprised by the depth of my grief. But I was also afraid. Dad had never come to terms with being part Japanese. He never really found a home in either Japan or America. I was afraid I would end up the same way.

The second event that turned my world upside down was the decision my wife and I made to adopt Japanese children. It seemed a natural thing to do at the time. But when we received a picture of a two-year-old girl, I suddenly began to have doubts.

I couldn’t explain it at the time, but today, I suspect it had something to do with our family’s efforts over several generations to hide our Japanese heritage.

My grandfather, for example, was half Japanese and married a woman who was also half-Japanese. Yet, he sometimes hit my father when he spoke Japanese at home. My half-Japanese father hid his Japanese heritage for much of his life.

Maybe that’s why the first time I met my daughter at the orphanage in Tokyo, I felt my chest tighten up. She was very cute. Yet there was some powerful force inside telling me to walk away, that this just wasn’t going to work.

I don’t think I’m spoiling the ending when I say that Mariko won me over.

I want to read you the section in the book where I describe the first meeting with my daughter Mariko at the orphanage in Tokyo:


Even after we adopted Mariko and, in an incredible stroke of luck, we were able to also adopt my son Eric two months later, I STILL remained ambivalent toward Japan. (I should point out that I was also reporting about Japanese business at a time when there was a great deal of animosity in the U.S. toward Japanese businesses.)

I wondered if I could be a good father with that attitude. THAT’s what set me on the road to explore my family’s long history in Japan.

My book is about that journey, about my effort to rediscover the past and to reconcile my Japanese self with my western self.

Since my family story is so intertwined with modern Japanese history, the book is also about Japan’s efforts, over the past century and a half, to reconcile its national identity with a world so dominated by the West.

The story of Yokohama begins with a classic case of U.S. gunboat diplomacy. In 1853, Commodore Perry and his fleet sailed to Japan, pointed their canons to the shore, and said in effect: “Trade with us or else.”

Japan had been cut off from the rest of the world for 250 years, so technologically and militarily it was far behind the West. It had little choice but to open its doors.

But to keep foreigners from infecting Japanese culture, the Japanese government selected the isolated village of Yokohama and kicked out the villagers.

It then built a foreign settlement on a two-square-mile plot of land that faced the bay on one side, and was cut off from the rest of Japan by rivers and canals on its three other sides.

It was in Yokohama that western technology like horse-drawn carriages, telegraph systems and trains were first introduced to Japan.

When my German great grandfather arrived in Yokohama in 1869, Japan was hiring foreign engineers and other experts in a mad rush to catch up with the west.

They called that imported talent “oyatoi gaikokujin,” which means “foreign hired hand.” I guess you could say it was one of the world’s first “guest worker” programs.

Japan believed that it needed to become militarily strong to avoid being carved up by the West as China had been.

My great grandfather, Julius, who had fought in the Austro-Prussian war, but had come to Japan to seek his fortune, was hired as a military adviser to work for Karl Koppen, who had pulled together a motley crew of men to help modernize Wakayama’s army. As you will recall, Wakayama had been one of the key pillars of the Tokugawa shogunate, but lost power with the Meiji Restoration and the rise of Satsuma and Choshu. Wakayama wanted to restore its influence over the country.

Julius and the other German advisers taught the Japanese soldiers to march, shoot and build pontoon bridges. They believed that if Japanese soldiers were to fight like German soldiers, they would also have to live like them. They required the Japanese soldiers to eat meat, sleep on beds, sits on chairs and wear leather boots.

Here’s a picture of Julius with Japanese soldiers. On the back of this photograph are the names of famous Japanese such as Saigo Takamori. I’m almost certain that most of those names are not accurate, although  Katsu Kaishu, supposedly the man in the suit, does resemble pictures of Kaishu. I still don’t know who in the family wrote those names at the back of the photos. (one of the frustrating things about my search was it often felt like I was going backwards. When I first visited the Wakayama city museum, that picture was on display and it was believed that the men were Wakayama soldiers. The next time I visited, it was gone. The curator said he had done a careful check and none of the soldiers were from Wakayama.) So I really have no idea who the men are, though the medals seem to suggest they fought in the seinan senso against Saigo Takamori.

In any case, as soon as Japan no longer needed the skills of the foreign hired hands like Julius, they were sent home.

Julius decided to stay in Japan.


He married Hiro and they had children.

He also lured four of his siblings to Yokohama

Photo of Siblings

He worked in a variety of businesses.

At one point he bought one of Japan’s first dairy farms and had a brother operate it.


The milk and butter was all sold to westerners because Japanese didn’t like dairy products at the time. In fact, their term for foreigners was “batakusai” stink like butter. At one point the farm caused a bit of a diplomatic incident because it was situated outside the boundaries of the foreign settlement. The matter was resolved when Julius wrote a letter explaining that the milk was necessary for the health of the foreigners in the settlement. The letter writing thing was typical of Japan. I’ve sat in many a koban writing a letter of apology. The story also reminds me of my experience spending a year in India with my wife in the late 1970s. there were no Japanese restaurants and we were desperate for Japanese food. We tried making oyakodonburi, but they didn’t have decent soy sauce. My father sent us a can of Kikkoman. At the post office, they said I would have to pay a $200 custom fee to take the shoyu home. We were students with little money. The agreed to give me the soy sauce tax free after I wrote a letter saying that soy sauce was necessary to my mental health.)


Greatgrandfather Julius eventually started his own trucking and stevedoring company. At the time, most of the trucks were imported from America. They were so heavy that they had to be pulled by large American horses that were also imported at great cost. Consequently in the early 1870s there were only a half dozen horse-drawn trucks in Yokohama. Julius’s great innovation? A lighter truck that could be pulled by two smaller Japanese horses.

Japan, once afraid of being colonized, soon became a colonial power. First it went to war with China and took Taiwan, then it defeated Russia and took Korea. Our family business grew as Japan’s economy expanded.

CHANGE: Julius’s House

Julius took Helm Brothers Public in 1899 and used the money to buy up competitors.  He also built himself a nice house.


The second generation of my family in Japan was very wealthy. They were educated in three continents and spoke four languages. But they struggled with their identities.


None of the three daughters ever married. Though they were beautiful, as children of mixed race, I suspect they were not considered good enough for whites or Japanese. And I suspect Julius thought his daughters were too good to marry other mixed-race kids.

Julius and Hiro’s four sons also faced a lot of challenges. They struggled with their identities, taking citizenship in three separate countries.


Karl, the eldest, took Japanese citizenship so he could register Helm Brothers ships in his name.
Change to Barges

The company used barges to deliver cargo from ships in Yokohama to Tokyo and other areas. But only Japanese citizens were allowed to own ships that operated in Japan’s internal waters. At first he sent his children to German schools. During World War I, when Germany was enemy to Japan, he moved his children to the French schools and started calling himself by the more Anglicized Charles as opposed to his more German name Karl.

Change slide to Jim

The second son was James. He kept his German citizenship and did his military service in Germany. He worked for a bank in St. Petersberg, then for a large firm in New York before taking over Helm Brothers’ Kobe operations.

CHANGE SLIDE: Jim’s three children

Jim discriminated against his own daughter who looked more Japanese. He wouldn’t attend her marriage to a Portuguese Macauan. And he gave that daughter half the inheritance he gave the other children.

CHANGE SLIDE: Julie and Betty

The third son, my grandfather, became American because he happened to be born in Brooklyn. He married Betty, who was also half-Japanese.

Change Slide: Edmund Stucken

Her father, Edmund Stucken, came to Japan during the Meiji period. Among other things, he represented the interests of Tsingtau beer in Japan.


The youngest brother, Willie, liked to party. When World war I started, Japan was allied with Britain, so Germany was the enemy. Now see if you can keep this straight: Willie, who was born and raised in Japan and had a Japanese mother, volunteered to fight with German forces to protect Tsingtau, a German colony in China from the Japanese army.

Kind of complicated. The point is: Willie, fought against Japan, his mother’s country, just to prove he was more of a patriot than any man born in Germany of a German mother.

He was captured and spent 5 years in a Japanese POW camp in Kurume, Kyushu.


Most of the Germans were treated well. Japan wanted to show the west it was civilized so it abided by every detail of the Hague conventions on the treatment of war prisoners.

They had a printing press,

CHANGE SLIDE orchestra

an orchestra

CHANGE SLIDE  conjugal visits

and were even allowed conjugal visits. This is a drawing by one of the prisoners.

But Willie had a tougher time. The camp commander Mazaki Jinzaburo, who would later play a role in the militarization of Japan,  played a cat and mouse game with Willie, ordering the camp barber to help Willie escape just so he could send soldiers to recapture him and throw him into solitary confinement.

I suspect Willie was picked on because he was part Japanese. Newspaper articles at the time described Willie as “Konketsu helm” or Ainoko Helm. The terms mean mixed blood or in-between child, but there is the connotation of mongrel as in mongrel dog.

Change Slide: Ship CUT?

When Willie FINALLY returned to his family in Yokohama at the end of the war, in 1920, Japan’s economy was prosperous. Great grandfather Julius had lived the war years exiled in Japan with his daughter and other German son, Jim. But Helm Brothers continued to flourish under the management of the American son, my grandfather Julie, and his Japanese brother, Charles.


But those good times wouldn’t last.

CHANGE SLIDE !!!!!!!  earthquake 1

In 1923, exactly 90 years ago, Yokohama and Tokyo suffered a devastating earthquake. It was more destructive than the recent one in Fukushima because of fires that killed more than 140,000 people.

CHANGE SLIDE !!!!!!!  earthquake 2

Most foreigners left Yokohama because it looked like the city had no future. My family stayed. Yokohama was their home. Starting from scratch, they built new barges, wagons and warehouses. They bought property from departing foreigners.

By the 1930s, the company was thriving again as was the country. Japan was chosen to host the 1940 summer Olympics.

CHANGE SLIDE !!!!!!!  Helm House

My grandfather Julie believed a new era of Japanese internationalism was coming. So in 1936 he began building a new headquarters and apartment complex called Helm House. It boasted the most modern western conveniences including central air conditioning, coffee pots and toasters imported from America, furniture and chinaware custom-made in Japan, and carpets from China.

At different times, Helm House was home to

Change Slide

the German navy

Change slide

The u.s. 8th army

and the Kanagawa policy department.

Does anyone remember hearing about the 1940 Tokyo Olympics? Of course not. They never happened.

Not long after Helm House was completed in 1938, Japan canceled the Olympics so it could spend its money on an expanding war with China.

The U.S. imposed tough sanctions on oil and steel exports to Japan and tensions rose.

In August, 1941, after the U.S. Embassy had warned Americans more than half a dozen times that it was unsafe to remain in Japan, my grandfather took his family and moved to California. Three months later, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, an attack that triggered a wave of anti-Japanese sentiment.

CHANGE SLIDE !!!!!!!  ANTI-Japanese picture

My father, as a teenager in California, must have felt shame and fear about his Japanese heritage. The family hid their Japanese belongings and asked friends to safekeep their valuables.

When the U.S. government ordered all people of Japanese descent to report to local authorities so they could be sent to internment camps, Dad’s family pretended the order didn’t apply to them. Dad would never forget the day a local newspaper outed  the family by declaring “Helms are Japs.”

Luckily, they never WERE sent to the camps.


My father returned to Japan as an intelligence officer in the U.S. occupation. He arrived in a Yokohama that had once again been leveled—This time by U.S. firebombs.

CHANGE SLIDE !!!!!!!  firebomb

Those bombs, essentially napalm, were dropped on 20 cities across Japan. Between 200,000 and half a million people died in the fires caused by those bombs, most of them civilians.

Changes slide to DIET

This is a picture Dad took of the area around the Diet building.


Change to Haruo Slid

So dad arrived in Japan as victor, but in a nation of starving people.

His job was to interview Japanese soldiers returning from Soviet labor camps. The U.S. wanted to learn more about its new enemy. The goal was also to locate spies, and where possible to recruit them as double agents. The experience must have made him feel even more distant from his Japanese heritage.

Change slides: marriage

Dad married my mother Barbara Schinzinger. She was also born in Japan. She is the daughter of Robert Schinzinger, who taught German language and philosophy in Japan for more than 60 years, mostly at Gakushuin and Tokyo University after the war. Mishima was one of his students. He published a popular German-Japanese dictionary.

Change slide to advertisement

Dad returned to Yokohama and rebuilt Helm Brothers. But there was constant fighting among the Helm relatives now scattered across four continents, a battle that tore apart my family and ultimately ended in a hostile takeover of Helm Brothers by a Hong Kong company in 1973, exactly 40 years ago. I suspect it might have been one of the first hostile takeover bids ever in Japan.

Understanding what happened to my family over that turbulent century helped me to understand Dad, accept Japan and be a better father.


Yet, ironically, while adopting Japanese children and exploring my family heritage helped me embrace my Japanese past, in some ways it also distanced me from Japan.

With two adopted Japanese children, I was more of an outsider in Japan than I had ever been.

Once, when we were checking out of a hotel in the mountains in Japan, the manager of the hotel looked at our family and said:

“So, I assume you two are the teachers and the two kids are your students?”

The notion was absurd since Mariko and Eric were then barely school age at the time. But cross-racial adoption is so unusual in Japan that Japanese simply could not imagine that we could possibly be a family.

We were happy to return to Seattle.

CHANGE SLIDE !!!!!!!        ERIC

THAT’S A PICTURE OF MY SON ERIC taken by my father-in-law on July 4th.

With so many mixed race families in Seattle, and adoptions so common, we easily blended into the community.

I did have one awkward encounter when Eric was about three. We were shopping at the supermarket when Eric started running down the aisle. I ran after him, picked him up and put him in the shopping care. This stern, but well-meaning woman, came up to me and said “PUT HIM DOWN”
What? I said. He’s my son.

“Prove it,” she said.

That really stumped me. How do you prove that a child is your son?

Finally, I just pointed to my son who was laughing in the shopping cart. “Does he look like he’s been kidnapped?” I said.

But for the most part, people in Seattle welcomed us and our family life was much like any other with all the love and tension that every family faces.

I want to read a paragraph that comes at the end of a chapter about a rather frightening rafting trip my son and I took in Oregon on his sixteenth birthday. I almost drowned. It was Eric who pulled me out of the water.




In recent years, I have returned to Japan again and again.

CHANGE: Komiyas

I connected with one Japanese relative who was a Shinto priest.



I discovered another relative who was doing his own search. Turned out his family had tried to hide their German heritage, just as mine had tried to hide our Japanese heritage.

CHANGE: Opa’s students

Another time I was invited to an alumni association gathering where men I their eighties sang old German folk songs. “They called themselves the association who sing the songs taught by Professor Schinzinger.” Decades after my grandfather died, they were still gathering regularly to sing the songs he taught them.

I have rediscovered my love for Japan. I have come to terms with the country.

But I’m not sure that Japan has come to terms with outsiders like myself.

Japan faces a serious crisis. It’s economy is being dragged down by  declining birth rates and an aging population. It must encourage immigration, yet it seems incapable of assimilating outsiders.

There were forty or so member of my family in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s, and at least a couple dozen after World War II. Our family had many assets in Japan until 1973. Yet today, only two cousins still lives in Japan. In one case, the children are now living in London and Washington D.C. In the other case, the children look likely to live in Germany.

In the old days it was partly about visas. And at one time operating as a foreign company in Japan was a lot of trouble. Helm Brothers had to get permission from the Ministry of Finance every time it paid dividends.

But another key reason many of us left Japan was education: Our parents did not want us to go to Japanese schools because of bullying and the examination hell. And they didn’t feel we would get a good education in a Japanese university.

Now it’s true there are some changes afoot. You see a lot of more colleges teaching in English. There are a lot more Japanese choosing to have their kids educated overseas. They are the kikokushijo, the returnees, the mixed-race kids like me. The artists and drifters. There are also more and more foreigners working in Japan from all over the world. So you have a growing proportion of society that is in some way separated from what we would call traditional Japan. They all view themselves as outsiders. I’ve received emails from many people like that who connected with the outsider theme of my book.

Japan’s narrative of itself as a homogeneous society with a culture that goes back thousands of years with these rigid norms and cultural traditions is increasingly divorced from the reality of modern Japan.

When it comes to immigration policy, Japan if flailing. It brings in Brazilian-Japanese workers when there is a worker shortage. Then it sends them home when their presence becomes uncomfortable. The country brings in nurses from the Philippines to fill the need for health care workers but then sends them back as soon as they are trained and learn Japanese because they don’t want them to stay too long

Japanese still won’t adopt children from outside the family for fear their extended family won’t accept the children.

At one time, these attitudes may have represented a form of self-preservation: a need to protect Japanese culture and traditions. But today such practices are self-destructive.

As we all know, Japan’s history contains many periods when they face identity crises and underwent rapid change. Most prominently when Buddhism was introduced to Japan, in the Meiji period when Japan embraced western technology, and after the war.

One wonders if Japan is capable of changing its narrative of itself to focus less on the continuity of the culture and more on its ability at key points in its history to import the best of foreign cultures and adapt it for their own. Such a narrative would better help Japan transition into a period when it must embrace the richness of its new immigrants, in multiracial population and the changing face of the young.

Such a narrative might help to lay the foundation for new policies that could help tackle Japan’s coming challenges in everything from its need to spur innovation to its need to stop the decline in its population.




Race Exhibit is an Eye-opener

September 28, 2013


The Pacific Science Center has a powerful exhibit called RACE: Are we so different? Using an imaginative combination of interviews, history and video imagery, they shed light on a discourse about race in our country that for most of our history has remained shrouded by a fog of misinformation.

The exhibit starts by noting that there is no genetic basis to what we think of as race. “Not one characteristic, trait or even gene distinguishes all the members of one so-called race from all the members of another so-called race. And the gene for skin color is unrelated to genes for any other characteristic whether hair form, blood type or intelligence.

“[Racism] is not about how you look, it’s about how people assign meaning to how you look,” Robin Kelley, a historian, a historian explains.

The other starling revelation is that racism is a relatively modern phenomena dating back to about the 17th century. Prior to that, people judged others based on religion, wealth and status but seldom on skin color. The Greeks, for example, did not classify people according to skin color.

Racism emerged in the United States in large part to justify slavery, which was such a significant party of our early economy. (Slavery did exist before but it was based on the victor enslaving the defeated and had nothing to do with skin color.) While the U.S. was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal,” the country’s elite had to explain why some people did not receive the same privileges as others. The same flawed rationales that were used to put down slaves was used to justify late laws that discriminated against Asians.

The legal arguments for many of our racially based laws, for example, were pretty ludicrous. the naturalization act of 1790, for example, said that only “free white persons” can be U.S. citizens. So how did they define white? Well, one exhibit points out that in 1922, an immigrant Japanese businessman, Takao Ozawa, argued before the Supreme Court that he was whiter than most Europeans. But the court said he could not be defined as white because Japanese were Mongolian rather than Caucasian. But then the following year that same court argued that Asian Indians were not white according to “common understanding” even though they were classified as Caucasians,

Today, aside from discrimination based on skin color, many people also face linguistic discrimination. Studies have shown that people seeking jobs or apartments are often turned away if their accents suggest they might be Chicano or African-American.

The conclusion: We humans have a lot of misperceptions about race that feed into our prejudices. The reality, as Steve Olson writes in “Mapping Human History: Genes race and our common origins,” is that “The chimapanzees living on a single hillside in Africa have more than twice as much variety in their mitochondrial DNA as do all the 6 billion people living on earth…

The exhibit at the Pacific Science Center is on until January. Don’t miss it.



September 20, 2013

I received this document from my friend Jan Baerwald. It is one chapter in a memoir written by Mr. Strauss. We don’t know his first name, but he is the father of Ulrich Strauss, a former diplomat who had been a good friend to Jan and my father, gave my mother her job as a translator at the Tokyo war crimes trials, and who is the author of “The Anguish of Surrender,” a great book about Japanese prisoners of war.  

In the early 1930’s, the “Western” population of Japan, at that time a country of 65 millions, numbered about ten thousand. A “Westerner” was anybody not Japanese, Chinese or Korean. Of these 10000 foreigners 900 were Jews of various nationalities. One half of them called themselves Sephardim. They were descendants of Baghdad Jews who in the 19th century had ventured to Bombay and Shanghai. Some old people among them spoke Arabic, the younger ones English. Their sympathies were with Zionism. The most powerful family-clan, the Sassoons, leaned towards England. One Sassoon, a captain in the Royal Welsh fusiliers, became an English poet of renown, another one was knighted and became Under-Secretary for Air.

                The White-Russian Jews in Japan had fled from Siberia during the American-Japanese intervention in 1918-20. At that time a Japanese division and an American infantry regiment had jointly penetrated up to Lake Baikal in a futile attempt to stem the conquest of Eastern Siberia by the Bolsheviks. They did not even succeed to save the leader of the White Russian army, Admiral Kolchak, who was finally sold by Czech troops to the Communists – for two wagon loads of coal. My secretary was a Siberian Jewess. She escaped the massacre of Nikolaevsk in 1920 and was carried to safety by her parents over the ice of the frozen Amur River. There were not more than one hundred German speaking Jews from Germany, Austria,  Czechoslovakia and last but not least one Swiss Jew – Mr. Weil, the cook of the Grand Hotel in Yokohama. He became important when we had to phone frequently with Shanghai to coordinate our efforts with the refugee committee in that city. We were afraid that the secret police would listen and cause us difficulties. So we asked Mr. Well to telephone with another Swiss in Shanghai. Weil spoke Baseldytsch, the man in Shanghai spoke Bernduetsch; but nevertheless they understood each other, and the Japanese were utterly confused since even they  could not make out what strange languages were spoken.

In 1933 a few refugees from Germany arrived in Japan. Three men, Ernst Baerwald, Henry Steinfeld and I decided to meet when the occasion demanded it and organize help. By 1935 the company for which I was working became Japanese owned. Among us three I was the only one employed by Japanese interests. That was the reason why most government contacts fell to me while Baerwald attended to financial, Steinfeld to logistic problems.

Already in 1933 the waves of Nazism reached Japanese shores. One of the first letters my company, the Columbia records factory, received after Hitler had come to power was to advise us that the recordings of Jewish artists were “no more available”. Mr. Suginami, head of our foreign artists department, came to me with our record catalogue and a big frown: “Mr. Straus, as you know our Government is very friendly with the new German Government and I could well imagine that measures similar to those in Germany may be considered by the Japanese Government, too. After all we have common enemies. Therefore please mark in this catalogue all artists of Jewish ancestry and if you are not sure who is Jewish, the German Consulate will assist you” – I opened the artists section of the catalogue and started with the violinists: Elman, Goldberg, Heifetz, Huberman, Kreisler, Menuhin, Szigheti, Zimbalist. I marked them all. Suginami looked over my shoulder and nodded with deep understanding: “Oh, I see, so-called Aryans – I think that is the right word the Germans are now using – are not allowed to play the violin.”

Early in 1934 after we had placed a few Jewish refugees in Japan my telephone at the Nippon Columbia Company rang. The caller introduced himself as Mr. Suzuki of the Ministry of the Interior. He asked sternly: “Excuse me am I connected with the Jewish Consulate?” I thought only for a split second and said “Yes”. I knew that the Japanese could not imagine any group of people without proper and orderly representation. They knew that German Jews were no more covered by the German Consulate and therefore a Jewish Consulate was not so far-fetched. Mr. Suzuki expressed his satisfaction and continued: “We have a rather difficult case. There is a gentleman in Tokyo who is very sick. He is in hospital but has no family to take care of him. Would you please take the necessary steps,” I asked . “Is he Jewish?” “Well, not exactly, he is a Negro, if that interests you, and he plays the trumpet at the Florida Dance Hall. I am afraid he has tuberculosis. He says that Jamaica is his country. We contacted the British Consulate and they told us that they know the man who claims that he lost his passport but they are not at all sure that he is a British subject. They rather rudely – I have to tell you – declined to take care of him and that is the reason why I am coming to you”. I told Mr. Suzuki that the Jewish Consulate would be highly pleased to fulfill the wish of the Japanese Government whose charitable attitude towards wayward aliens we so greatly admire.

Early in 1936 the attitude of the Japanese Government towards Jewish refugees stiffened considerably. The Japanese had heard that many European Governments curbed the influx of German Jews for fear that they may become a public burden and could not be deported to their country of origin. We were deeply worried about the growing German – Japanese alliance. It was at that time that I wrote a memorandum (attached at the end of this chapter) which I had discussed with my boss Mr. Mikitaro Miho, the president of Nippon Columbia and Mr. Gisuke Aikawa, the owner of the Company. Mr Aikawa had promised me that if I would write a memorandum on “The Jewish question” he would see to it that it would be read by Mr. Goto, the Minister of the Interior. I made sure that the names of many German Jews, especially physicians were well known to the many Japanese who had flocked to German universities. The memorandum was successful. The ordinances which made it so difficult to land Jewish refugees in Japan were withdrawn. As a result of this change in policy a great number of refugees including my parents, my parents-in-law and Carol with her first husband’s family could come to Japan. My work as a “Jewish Consul” let me meet many colorful personalities.

 Wilhelm Foerster

It was not easy to find work for Jewish refugees. Japan had never been allowing any appreciable number of foreigners to make a living there. For all practical purposes there were no industrial enterprises in Japan owned by foreigners. An exception was Mr. Foerster’s turret lathe factory in Omori. Foerster was a compactly built man in his early forties who looked like an ex-convict – and was. In his early youth he went from his native Germany to the United States where he found a job with Ford in Detroit. This job lasted only three weeks when he was fired because he had beaten up his foreman so that the poor fellow had to be hospitalized. From Detroit Foerster went to the Soviet Union. Again he found a job in an automobile factory near Moscow. After two months he was expelled from the Soviet Union because he had beaten up his foreman. He came to Japan in the middle or late twenties, got a loan from the German owner of a honky-tonk and set up a turret lathe plant. He was rather successful. Foerster, prior to 1933 had been a wild anti-semite. The moment Hitler came to power,  Foerster became a militant pro-semite. He declared that from now on he would employ only Jews in his office and he did so. He just hated all authorities and – perhaps – Jews were available at cheaper wages than other foreigners in Japan. In the early 1930’s he engaged in business with another German in Tokyo, who cheated him. Foerster went to his office and beat him up. The man had to be hospitalized. Foerster was hauled into court and the Japanese judge told him: “Mr. Foerster I have to send you to jail in accordance with Japanese law. But I want to tell you that when listening to this I came to the conclusion that you have a valid claim against your accuser since his dealings with you were rather shady.”Foerster shook his head: “I have to decline your kind suggestion, Your Honor” he said “I have beaten up the man and I am quits.”

Foerster had an odd assortment of European employees. It included a Turkish speaking Czech who had studied for the priesthood but had run away the day before ordination. Naturally I was on very good terms with Foerster, the philosemitic oddball. In 1938 I sold him a Viennese engineer named Stern, a sad looking man who always had his head on the left shoulder. He was modest and shy. In the late thirties the Japanese had frequent air raid alarm rehearsals. During one of those blackouts Mr. Stern was arrested because he had taken the opportunity to speak to a Japanese girl on the street. Foerster had lengthy talks with the police on the subject and got Stern released. He then assembled his staff and I was called in because, naturally, I as the engineers’ supplier was co-responsible for his deeds. Finally Foerster with the full dignity of a judge pronounced judgment.  “Mr. Stern is to be conducted to Number Nine, the world-famous whore house in Yokohama – at the company’s expense because he has been found not guilty.” During the war Foerster criticized the Japanese Government and was jailed. When the Americans landed in 1945 Foerster wrote an insulting letter to General MacArthur and was deported.

Friedrich Ratsky

By the year 1938 I had become quite well known among Japanese industrialists as a supplier of experienced – and inexpensive – manpower. More and more Jewish refugees arrived from Germany, many of them with specialized skills which somehow were usable in Japan. One day I got a call: Mr. Yamaguchi the president of the Tottori Iron Works requested my visit. It was only a ten minute drive from Columbia Records where, at that time I had become General Manager. Mr. Yamaguchi received me in his spacious office, surrounded by at least a dozen of his aides. I was duly impressed. Yamaguchi motioned me to be seated:

“Mr. Straus I have heard many good things about you – do you have an expert on armor-plating?”

I looked straight at him: “Mr. Yamaguchi, I have the complete list of Jewish experts available in Germany and also in Shanghai, and if somebody would, indeed, have such an odd profession as an armor-plating expert, I would know it. l can assure you that we don’t have such a man.”

Mr. Yamaguchi smiled: “I think we can help you. We have found in the library of the Imperial University in Tokyo a book on armor-plating, written in the German language and published in Vienna in 1914. It was written by a man named Friedrich Ratsky. He is just the man we want to have.”

“Mr. Yamaguchi” I said “I do not know whether Mr. Ratsky is alive or Jewish but I will try to find out”. The same evening I sent a telegram to the Jewish Community in Vienna – freshly occupied by the Germans which read:

“Friedrich Ratsky author book entitled Armor-plating published                                                               by Heinrich Mueller Vienna 1914 has excellent chance for                                                                    executive position with firstclass Japanese company – Straus”

Four days later I had a reply from Vienna:

“Thanks for your utmost kindness Friedrich Ratsky left                                                                           Vienna for Trieste boarding steamer Hie Maru stop will                                                                        arrive Yokohama hopefully on schedule”

I went to Yamaguchi’s office and declared: “Mr. Yamaguchi, you are a lucky man indeed. Not only is Mr. Ratsky alive and Jewish but I have been authorized by him to negotiate an employment agreement with you”. We sat down. There was a little bit of bargaining but not too much. Finally we agreed on 600 yen a month which at that time had a buying power of 1000 dollars today. Yamaguchi was willing to pay Ratsky’s trip from Europe to Japan, and he volunteered to pay for the return trip too because Ratsky’s agreement ran for two years and Yamaguchi wanted to make sure that his expert would get out of Japan and the reach of competitors after Tottori had learned all there is about armor-plating. After we had agreed on the main points – it took several hours – Yamaguchi suggested: “Mr. Straus I think you now have to send a telegram to Mr. Ratsky and get his agreement to the terms we have negotiated.”

“Oh no, Mr. Yamaguchi, I told you that I have a power of attorney from him. Let’s sign what we have agreed upon.”

“Alright but just a moment, when will Mr.  Ratsky  arrive here?”

I told Yamaguchi that I didn’t know exactly when he would arrive, but it won’t be very long perhaps about six or seven weeks. Of course, I wanted first to have a look at Mr. Ratsky before I delivered him. I signed the agreement. I got a down payment on salary plus the steamer fare. I reported on my deal to the other members of the Jewish Committee, Steinfeld and Baerwald, who both were satisfied with the arrangements made.

The day when the Hie Maru was due to arrive I went to the pier in Yokohama. Down the gangway came a man who had a Tyrolean hat with a kind of huge shaving brush on top. He carried a Scottish plaid over his arm and looked a bit like the kind of pig’s head which one could still sometimes see in the shop windows of old-fashioned butchers in Germany. That, I guessed, was my man. I approached him: “Are you Mr. Ratsky?” “Sure” he nodded “and you are Mr. Straus. You are a wonderful man, Mr. Straus, you got me a job, and I got out of Austria just in the nick of time, really. You know, Hitler had just made his triumphant entry into Vienna.”

We went to the custom’s hall where Mr. Ratsky’s baggage was inspected. There were a lot of apparatuses I had never seen before, but I didn’t want to ask questions. I only looked at Mr. Ratsky and asked: “Are you alone or are you married?”

“No, no, I am not married”

“Excuse me,” I continued, “of course you don’t speak Japanese but do you speak English?”

“No, I don’t speak English”

“Mr. Ratsky, this is a rather strange story, I would, in all my life, not have expected that we could find a Jewish expert on armor-plating.”

He stared at me: “What? Armor-plating? Me?”

“Yes, aren’t you the author of a book on armor-plating published in Vienna in 1914?”

“Oh, my dear Mr. Straus – now I have to tell you a story: My father had been a manufacturer in Styria, in Graz, and he made padlocks, I assure you they were the best padlocks in Europe. The old man made a lot of money, but – somehow he got it into his head that I, his son, should have an engineering degree. I don’t know why  – after all, he got rich without engineering.  But, O.K. I went to Vienna, the wine there was very good. I took some kind of a cram course and passed the exam though I rarely attended the lectures. And then, finally, I found a fellow who for – how much was it? – 500 kronen wrote my thesis on armor-plating.I went back to Graz and, you may believe me, I am the best padlock salesman in Europe.”

A little bit taken aback, I took him by the arm and walked with him out of the customs-hall, and out in the bright sunlight, who was there, but Mr. Yamaguchi, accompanied by at least twenty of his employees. They bowed deeply, Yamaguchi was smiles all over.

“Mr. Straus, we of course knew that such a famous man as Mr. Ratsky would be too modest to like a formal reception and we fully understood that you, therefore, didn’t want us to know that he would arrive on the Hie Maru, but, of course, thanks to our good relations with the steamship companies it was easy for us to get the passenger lists and – here we are. Pardon me, Mr. Straus, is Mr. Ratsky married?” I replied in the negative.

“This is very good. We have a nice house for him in Omori; and we have a very pretty housekeeper for him. But first, we have arranged a little dinner for Mr. Ratsky and you in a well-known tea-house in Omori .And if you would kindly ride with me in my car, our Executive Vice President will ride with Mr. Ratsky.”

In the car Mr. Yamaguchi continued: “By the way we of course don’t expect Mr. Ratsky to know Japanese. We therefore have employed an elderly gentleman to give him language lessons, daily, at the office. For three months Mr. Ratsky will have no duties whatsoever except to learn Japanese.”

In Omori, it was the usual boring geisha-party. I had no chance to talk with Ratsky who was placed at the other side of the room. After two hours and twenty cups of sake Yamaguchi whispered into my ear: “Now, Mr. Straus, it is perhaps the right time to send Mr. Ratsky to his new home and I suggest that you don’t accompany him – to avoid embarrassment when he meets Miss Fumiko, his housekeeper.”

I left, I sweated a bit though it was still spring, and in the evening we had a meeting of the Jewish Committee. I reported. Henry Steinfeld looked worried: “Well, Hans, what can we do? Tomorrow morning you should see Yamaguchi, explain the whole story and give him back his money. But what can we do with a padlock salesman in Japan? I guess the Committee has to support Ratsky. Well, 150 yen a month down the drain, can’t be helped.”

Baerwald was of another opinion. He, a director of the German dye-trust, had been in Japan for over 30 years and had become very tatamisé, as the French say. Tatami is the straw matting covering the floor of Japanese houses. If a man has become tatamisé he has become Japanized without any hope of redemption. Well Baerwald objected: “You know, Hans, the Japanese are funny people; sometimes they just like somebody.”  Steinfeld interrupted: “If they are looking for an armor-plating expert, my dear Ernst, they don’t want somebody they just like”. Baerwald rebutted: “What can we lose anyway? Don’t tell the story to Yamaguchi. We have three months  time. In the meantime the padlock salesman learns some Japanese. Of course we ask him to surrender his salary to us. We put it together with the steamer fare into a new Tottori bank account. We give Ratsky 150 yen a month out of our own pockets. On that he can eat.” Baerwald had been right most of the time, and we two gave in. I saw Ratsky the next day and he agreed with our proposal.

Three months had passed when the telephone rang. It was Yamaguchi:  “Mr. Straus, I am sorry to disturb you but we have to talk with you very urgently. Would you be so kind as to come to us right away.” I said “Yes, Mr. Yamaguchi, I know”. I put my checkbook into my pocket and took a taxi. At the gate of the Tottori Iron Works I was greeted by an elderly Japanese, Ratsky’s language teacher. Ratsky had not learned a word of Japanese, but by that time the teacher spoke Viennese rather fluently. I was ushered into Mr. Yamaguchi’s office. This time only four of his employees were in attendance. I was offered a chair and even a cigar, something rare in Japan at the time. Yamaguchi, after some comments on the weather, mumbled:

“Mr. Straus, this is a very disagreeable matter.”

I muttered “Yes, Mr. Yamaguchi, I know” and reached into my pocket to make sure that I had my checkbook.

Yamaguchi said: “No, my dear Mr. Straus, you cannot know”

“Excuse me, but I think I know”

“No, Mr. Straus, let me explain to you. When we employed Mr. Ratsky I didn’t tell you who our customer is. Now this is of course to be treated strictly confidential; but we know your reputation for discretion and your attachment to Japan. I know you will not talk about it. I have no choice but to disclose to you that our customer is the Imperial Navy”

I suppressed a grin. I resisted the temptation to reveal that I hadn’t thought that anybody else would buy armor-plates. So I just silently bowed.

Yamaguchi got nearly inaudible: “Well, Mr. Straus, I am sorry to inform you that the Imperial Navy has not approved Mr. Ratsky’s employment. We only can express our deepest regrets, we have to obey orders. Now, we have prepared a check for Mr. Ratsky to cover the remainder of his two-year contract. But we have probably taken a man out of an important position in Austria and if Mr. Ratsky or the Jewish Committee has any further claims against Tottori – we consider ourselves a decent company – we are willing to meet these claims.”

I said quickly and bowed again: “I thank you very much. We understand your situation and we have no further claims. We fully sympathize with you” I took Ratsky around the shoulder and whispered to him in German “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

We drove to his house in Omori. The door to the house was opened by a young man. I queried: “Ratsky I was told you had a pretty housekeeper – where is she?”

“Oh I fired her, I didn’t like her”

We went into the house. It was an ordinary Japanese home but it looked strange. It was rather dark as all the walls were decorated with rugs, something no Japanese would ever do.

“Ratsky, what’s that?”

He said with pride: “That is my hobby. I am a rug weaver”

“Is that the equipment I saw at the Yokohama customs?”

“Yes, that’s what I am doing most of the time”

We sat down and I took out my checkbook:

“Mr. Ratsky, the Jewish Committee owes you quite some money. We paid you only 150 yen a month and here is the balance. Mr. Ratsky, you are a well-to-do man now.  May I ask you for a small contribution for the Jewish Committee”

“Certainly” he said and gave me a generous amount.

I asked: “Mr. Ratsky what are you going to do now?”

He beamed: “It’s wonderful: now I am going to weave every day”

I left. In the evening I reported to Baerwald and Steinfeld. Baerwald just said “I told you so, the Japanese are funny people. Sometimes they just like a man”

Three or four weeks passed when my telephone rang and a voice at the other end inquired: “Are you Mr. Straus, do you know Mr. Ratsky?”

I retorted: “I am sorry, but who are you?”

“I am speaking for Mr. Watanabe the president of the Kagoshima Steel Mill. My name is Fujimura.”

“Yes, Mr. Fujumura, I know Mr Ratsky, but I regret to say that Mr. Ratsky’s services are not available”

“But Mr. Straus, you are not well informed so it seems. We know that he is no more with Tottori.”

“That is correct but nevertheless his services are not available because – to be quite frank with you – we, in the Jewish Committee have some people who understand something about engineering and we have found that Mr. Ratsky is actually not an armor-plating expert. He is a padlock salesman. That is the reason why his services are of no use to Kagoshima Steel Mill”

“Yes, Mr. Straus we know that Tottori paid him 600 a month – we are willing to go higher”

“I am awfully sorry, Mr. Fujimura, but what I said is the truth. The Jewish Committee cannot back up Mr. Ratsky any longer, and we decline to negotiate on his behalf anymore. He is not an armor- plating expert. And by the way, Mr. Fujimura, don’t you know why he had to leave Tottori? The customer – you know – has refused to give approval for his employment and I guess there is no other customer for armor-plating in this country”

“Mr. Straus” Mr. Fujimura replied a bit haughtily “I do not want to say anything derogatory about our competitors. Tottori is a very fine company. Their standing, their reputation, are excellent, but, when it comes to political pull – they can’t compare with us. Now, may I tell you that we have the permission of the customer to employ Mr. Ratsky,”

I got desperate: “I am awfully sorry Mr. Fujimura, but he still is not an armor-plating-expert”

“Mr. Straus, we are adult people, we are not children. We know the risks we are taking and we ask you to get us into touch with Mr. Ratsky, since we do not have his address”

I took a deep breath: “By the way did I hear you say a thousand yen per month?”

“Yes, but we know that the trip has been already paid by Tottori, so we are not willing to pay the trip, and we offer him a one year contract starting immediately”

I replied abruptly: “I am awfully sorry but Mr. Ratsky is not used to one year contracts, he only signs two year contracts”

‘Just a moment Mr. Straus” He left the telephone, he came back a bit out of breath: “O.K. – a two year contract but not the trip expenses”

I told him that I would let him know, That evening we had a meeting of the Jewish Committee. Baerwald said: “You know, Hans, the Japanese are funny people – sometimes they just like a man.  And what can happen? You have handled that very well – let him go”

Ratsky had to be informed on his new opportunity. It could not be done in writing: no foreigner would in those days mail a letter in which the name of a Japanese company engaged in defense work would be mentioned. In 1936 an elderly English lady wrote a letter to her sister in England full of chit-chat and social gossip. The letter concluded: “These lines may reach you with some delay because of our censorship” Within 2 days the lady got the following note from her post office: “Dear Sir or Madam as the case may be – we herewith return your letter of March 3rd. Please note that there is no censorship in Japan.”

Under these circumstances I had to visit Mr. Ratsky. I gave his address to the cab driver, the Ohta-ku district, the 6th block, house number 346. We drove in a general southward direction. My driver stopped at a police box and was informed that we were in the 2nd block but that the 6th block was 3 miles to the east and was surrounded by the first, seventh and eleventh blocks. After another half hour we hit a 6th block police box. My driver insisted that I myself talk to the policeman – he would be more inclined to listen to a Westerner than to a lowly cabbie.

“Number 346” the policeman mused “is that near the Tiger Gate or behind the Thunderstorm Shrine” I professed ignorance and wrote down Ratsky’s name.

“Is he bald?” the policeman inquired

“No, he isn’t”

“Is he the man with the 4 naughty children?”

“No, he has no children”

“Ah, maybe he is the man with the wife who talks too much?”

“No, he is not married, but a few months ago he had a very pretty housekeeper”

“Excuse me Sir but you foreigners have strange ideas about beauty – you even don’t recognize the advantages for love-making which a bow-legged lady offers”

“Perhaps it helps you: Mr. Ratsky is an Austrian”

“Now we have it: I know all Australians around here. Does he drink 6 or 12 bottles of beer a day?”

Finally Ratsky’s rug weaving did the trick. We were told that his house number 346 was easy to find: it was adjacent to number 2, settled in the Momoyama period 350 years ago and number 1020 settled under Emperor Taisho (1912-1926). We got a sketch and we found Ratsky. He agreed to go to Kagoshima.

A few days later I accompanied him to the railroad station. After all, he was now a donor. He travelled with all his belongings. The young man from his house came along. He had four cages with canary birds with him. And he left for Kagoshima.

A week later the telephone rang – Ratsky: “Mr. Straus I am back; could I see you right away?”

He came to my office still wearing his Tyrolean hat.

I asked: “What happened?”

He shrugged his shoulders: “The old story”

I stared at him: “What do you mean?”

He explained: “Yes, they had the permission from the Navy, that was correct. But the Tottori spies heard about it and the company bitterly complained about the obvious discrimination – to somebody higher up in the Navy. I got fired. Look here’s the check – two years again.

“Alright Mr. Ratsky. This is a fortuitous situation. Now you can do some more rug-weaving.”

“Yes, and I am going to let my family come”

“So you are married after all?”

“Oh no but there are my parents, my widowed sister and her two sons.”

“You are a good man Mr. Ratsky and if you want to have any advice from the Jewish Committee – money, of course you don’t need – just let us know.”

The family indeed managed to emigrate. One of the nephews had been a medical student at the Vienna University. The Nazi takeover had prevented him from taking his final examination. On the boat he met an American missionary who suggested that he should go to Peking to finish his studies. The young man sent a telegram to his uncle in Tokyo asking him for 30 dollars a month to study in Peking. Ratsky cabled back:

“35 dollars agree” Upon arriving in Peking the young man found out that he could study medicine in Peking alright, but that the lectures and exams were in Chinese. He learned Chinese, married a Swedish girl during the war and is now a famous surgeon in Denver Col.

The second nephew was a junior Austrian judge. What was one to do with a junior Austrian judge in Japan? I made the rounds and finally hit upon Joe Goltz of Columbia Pictures.

“Joe, you need an accountant with good legal knowledge in your difficult business and I have a nice Jewish fellow at 300 yen a month”

“Hans” he said “I have a very good Japanese accountant to whom I pay 75 and I am not going to employ your nice Jewish fellow.”

I pleaded: “Joe, he has an old mother”

“Old mother -O.K., send him over.”

Joe gave him a job. Today he is a successful C.P.A. in New Orleans, La.

Ratsky, when last heard of, and that was in 1950, was in jail in Vienna – on a charge of homosexuality.

Elmira Goldberg

One evening in the late thirties, Narumi our cook came into the living room: “Mr. Straus, there is a lady – no a woman – outside who wants to see you.” I went to the front door and there was a woman of indefinite age. Maybe she was in her mid – or late – fifties. She looked kind of haggard and greyish. She asked me whether I was Mr. Straus, and I asked her to come in. She said that the Jewish emigration office in Berlin had requested her to call on me after arrival in Japan. This was not unusual. We offered her something to eat and to drink but she refused and said that she had already had her dinner. I asked the usual question: “What can we do for you?”

“Oh, absolutely nothing Mr. Straus. I need neither money nor advice. I only came because the people in Berlin told me to call on you.”

That was indeed a new departure. That had never happened before. “May I ask you Miss Goldberg, do you have relatives or friends in Japan, do you know anybody here?”

“Oh yes – I know many people, I have many friends in Japan.”

“How come?”

“Oh, I knew many Japanese gentlemen who studied in Berlin”

“May I ask you what kind of work you did?”

“I was a ballet dancer at the Berlin State Opera.”

I looked at her. She did not look exactly like a ballet dancer but that may have been thirty years ago and I did not ask any further questions. The conversation was pleasant. Miss Goldberg indeed had no requests and she left an hour or no later. I assured her that whenever she would need any advice or if her financial situation changed she should not hesitate to turn to the Jewish Committee.

Several months passed and we did not hear from her any more, but one day Narumi announced that “our” policeman wanted to talk to me. In those days the police made regular calls to all households in their precinct but especially often to those of foreigners. The policeman usually came Saturday afternoon, took off his shoes and went into the kitchen in his stocking feet holding his saber in one hand and his white cotton gloves in the other hand. Usually he only asked: “Any change in your family, any new arrival?” – which once caused Mrs. Baerwald to ask back whether it takes with the Japanese longer than the 9 months it takes with us. Every week the police asked our cook a few cursory questions: what newspapers we are reading, what guests had been to our house and to whom we had written letters. She was supposed to know all this exactly. That Saturday however the policeman just asked bluntly to see me. The cook ushered him into the living room. I offered him a chair. He sat down very uneasily, took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow.

“Mr. Straus” he said after a cup of tea “I have a very important subject to talk over with you which threatens the security of the Empire of Japan – do you know Miss Goldberg?”

“Yes, I do. She has been once at our house”

“Mr. Straus. I do not want you to misunderstand me. I believe that we Japanese are not – allow me to say – as narrow-minded as you Westerners sometimes are. We have much more understanding for human nature and are less harsh than the Christians of the West are.”

“Yes, you are quite right. I have lived in Japan long enough to entirely agree with you.”

“Well, Miss Goldberg is a special case” he continued “the investigation department of the metropolitan police has designated four men for a thorough study of her case.

“Excuse me but what is her case?”

“Honorable Mr. Straus, I can only repeat what I said before that we Japanese are much more liberal in certain matters than you foreigners are, but…..” Then he trailed off.

“Come on” I pleaded “tell me frankly what she did. Did she do anything wrong? Violation of foreign currency regulations?”

“Oh nothing of the kind and if she would have restricted her activities to the professors of the Forestry Department of the Imperial University, we would have nothing to complain about.”

I asked: “Excuse me but what activities are you talking about?”

He said: “She has been a ballet dancer in Berlin.”

I countered: “I don’t think that the Forestry Faculty is interested in ballet dancing, so what is it all about?”

“She is selling her charms as far as we can make out.”

I said “That’s impossible! She is a homely old woman.”

“Mr. Straus, tastes are different in this world and the honorable aged professors of the Forestry Faculty don’t share your opinion. And, if Miss Goldberg, as I said before would restrict her business to the honorable elderly gentlemen – no objection. But recently she has thrown her considerable charms at the students, and that is something about which we are concerned. Not about the sexual aspect of the situation – in that we are not interested – but we have to protect our young people from the dangerous ideas of undisciplined Western democracy” He wiped his brown again.

I remained serious: “I assure you I did not know any of these things, I even do not know where Miss Goldberg is living. But, if you will give me her address I will make it my business to visit her one of these days and since somebody must have vouched for her when she was admitted for residence in Japan – I will try to convince this person that he should try to terminate his guarantee for Miss Goldberg’s behavior, and then what can we do? She will have to go to Shanghai.”

“Oh no, Mr. Straus – that is all wrong. We have nothing against her service to the faculty. We only want to protect our students against liberal influences. This is urgent. We cannot wait. I have a car outside and if you don’t mind we will go together right away.”

Miss Goldberg’s home was nearby. It was a small foreign style house furnished and decorated in the taste of the turn of the century. Over the sofa hung a picture of the last German emperor – on horse-back. I addressed Miss Goldberg rather sternly:

“We have got a report about your mode of living and I have to tell you that the Jewish community cannot tolerate it.”

Our policeman interrupted “Please restrict yourself to the subject: the students”

Miss Goldberg smiled: “But they are such nice boys” but then she promised to abide by the wishes of the Japanese Government, although, she said it was with a very heavy heart that she would refuse the youngsters and restrict herself to her old Berlin customers the faculty members of the Forestry Department. But then she disclosed that there were some gentlemen who were not among her Berlin clientele but were interested in her – faculty members of the Agricultural Department. She inquired whether there were any objections against them. Our policeman drew himself up and pronounced with a sweeping gesture: “Absolutely none: All the faculties are at your disposal.”

Again a few months passed, the doorbell rang, it was Miss Goldberg. I inquired politely:

“Any more trouble with the police?”

“None whatsoever” and then she told me that her sister would come to Japan.

I asked timidly: “Does she – eh – practice the same profession?”

“Oh no, my sister is a dressmaker. She comes with her husband”

I asked: “Does your sister need any financial support from the Committee?”

“Frankly, yes. Since you, a director of the Committee have spoiled my business with the younger generation, I feel it is your moral obligation to support the emigration of my sister”

I had to agree but pointed out that the extent of help depended on the merits of the case. I asked whether the sister could pay for her and her husband’s tickets from Germany to Japan.

“No she can’t” Miss Goldberg answered. “You know of the boycott against Jews in Germany. Her husband has been out of a job for many years and her own business had come to a complete standstill.”

At that time we did not yet get financial support from Jewish organizations in the States. I therefore expressed our regret that at this point we were unable to pay travelling but assured Miss Goldberg that we would take care of her sister once she arrived in Japan.

“It’s too late” Miss Goldberg said, “they are already on the boat.”

“But you told me before that she had no money to pay for travelling expenses.”

“That is correct, but she is coming C.O.D. – you know – cash on delivery”

“No” I said “this is impossible. There is no steamship company which does not demand payment in advance.”

“Yes, that’s the normal way, I know. But I have to tell you that back in Berlin the forestry students were not my only acquaintances. I was also on excellent terms with some of the directors of N.Y.K., the biggest Japanese steamship company who frequently came to Germany. As a special favor to me they have arranged that my sister and my brother-in-law could travel to Japan. They trusted my promise that the Jewish Committee in Tokyo would pay.”

What could we do? We had a meeting of the Jewish Committee. Steinfeld was enthusiastic “A dressmaker is God-sent. There is no European dressmaker in Tokyo. The Japanese dressmakers are lousy. My wife says that the ladies of the diplomatic corps would pay any amount for dresses made by a European. It is now September. At least two hundred diplomats’ wives will need new dresses for the official New Year reception at the Imperial Palace. We are in business.”Baerwald was sceptical. He did not think so highly of the diplomatic corps. He said that these ladies cannot be relied upon as regular customers since they frequently travel to Shanghai to buy dresses there.

The sister and her husband – Mr. and Mrs Gruenbaum arrived and we paid N.Y.K. Both Gruenbaums were pleasant people. We had a meeting of the Jewish Committee with our wives attending. Plans were agreed upon to open a dress shop in a fashionable district. A small house was rented for the purpose. Mrs. Steinfeld travelled to Shanghai to buy French patterns. Now we must know that her husband was a very meticulous man. Every year shortly after New Year he sent a check to the customs in Yokohama. He had recalculated import duties which were underbilled to his company the previous year. He was honest and a bit Prussian. Import duties in Japan for dress patterns were high but Mrs Steinfeld smuggled in a whole suitcase of patterns. After all this was charity.

An ad in the “Japan Advertiser” brought in many customers. Mrs. Gruenbaum worked day and night and on the night before Christmas her house burnt down. All the dresses perished in the flames, and the ladies of the diplomatic corps were faced with the unbearable: to appear with last year’s dresses at the Imperial Reception. That was of course the end of the Gruenbaum dress business.

We then had to turn to Mr. Gruenbaum to whom we had not paid any attention before. We had never even asked him what he did for a living in Germany. It turned out that he had been a salesman for mother-of-pearl buttons. He had never done anything else, all his life. Japan was at that time the world’s biggest exporter of mother-of-pearl buttons and there was absolutely no chance for a foreigner to earn his livelihood in this line. But I had developed a method to determine how uprooted people could be gainfully employed. One of my stock questions was: What would you like to do if you had all the money in the world and if you had plenty of time on your hands.

Mr. Gruenbaum said without hesitation: “Fishing” That was not too good. One could not make a living as a fisherman in Japan. I ventured: “Mr. Gruenbaum don’t you have another hobby?”

“Oh yes, I play the violin,”

“This is just wonderful. Why didn’t you tell us right away? There is a huge demand in Japan for European violinists. Would you please play something for us, so that we can get an idea: I am with Columbia Records and if you are really good we will make recordings with you.”

Mr. Gruenbaum didn’t bring a violin with him from Germany, so we got one from our friend Ernst Baerwald who was a very good amateur and Mr. Gruenbaum treated us to a private recital. It was just awful. He scratched on the noble instrument in such a way that we all got chills down our spines. Nevertheless I was put to work – music was my field. I made the rounds and came across Mr. Takasaki the owner of a small music school. He was enthusiastic although I told him that Mr. Gruenbaum was not a very outstanding artist. “A medium grade or even a bad German violinist is better for the image of my school than none” he said “I can’t pay him much of course, say 150 yen per month.”

Mr. Gruenbaum was duly employed and after three months it was my duty to check whether his employer was satisfied. Mr. Takasaki regretted that unfortunately Mr. Gruenbaum had quit a month ago. Steinfeld and I summoned our fiddler and asked him sternly why he had given up the only position to which he could aspire.

He retorted: “I have private pupils now.”

“But, Mr. Gruenbaum, with private pupils you would have to work very hard to make 150 yen.”

“150 yen isn’t very much for two people, Mr. Straus, but my private pupils pay me 320 yen.”

“Now, Mr. Gruenbaum, how many pupils do you have?”

“Not too many.”

“We have helped you and we think we have the right to be informed. How many pupils do you have?”

“I have one.”

“Who is it? Wait a moment – who could it be? There is a Baron Yamagiwa – he is crazy – everybody in Tokyo knows that – he is the only one who would have sent his son to you.”

“No, it isn’t the Baron – and I am sorry but I was told not to divulge the name.”

We told Mr. Gruenbaum that he owed the Jewish Committee to disclose the name of his pupil. A man who is crazy enough to pay him 320 yen a month would also spend money for other good purposes such as helping other Jewish refugees. We pushed Gruenbaum to the wall and finally it came out: that our friend Ernst Baerwald had taken one lesson a month with Gruenbaum for whom he felt sorry. Baerwald was a much better violinist than Gruenbaum but he was also very goodhearted. Early in 1940 a transport of several hundred refugees came through Japan. They had steamship tickets to the United States but none of them had any money. We decided that each one of the refugees should get five dollars packet money from us. Steinfeld and I overruled Baerwald who pleaded for at least seven dollars per person. Later we found out that Baerwald had put the Committee’s five dollar bills into his right pocket from which he made his disbursements. But if an old woman boarded – and there were many of them – Baerwald reached into his left pocket where he kept his own money and produced an additional five dollars. And if the old woman was from Frankfurt she rated twenty five dollars from the left pocket.

Not all the weird situations we encountered in the Jewish Committee were as harmless as those I have related. There was a Jewish dentist in Tokyo by the name of Silberstein. It was in fall of 1939 when he told us that before he came to Japan he had become engaged to a Polish-Jewish lady who had fled to the Soviet Union when the Germans overran Poland. The Russians put her into a concentration camp in Siberia. Could we do anything to get her out of the camp and bring her to Japan?

Baerwald knew the Japanese Ambassador to Moscow (and later Foreign Minister in the Tojo cabinet) Fumihiko Togo who had a German wife. Baerwald wrote to Togo who succeeded to get Miss Sonia out of the Siberian camp. She was allowed to leave the Soviet Union – a rare occurrence. The first word we had from her was a telegram from Harbin in Manchuria and three days later she arrived in Tokyo. We expected her to be a half-starved, ill dressed woman, the way all refugees from Eastern Poland looked. But she was exceedingly well dressed, by any standard, she was well fed and in excellent spirits. Moreover she was a very attractive woman. She could not marry her fiancé immediately since some papers were lacking. Thus we quartered her with a Japanese musician couple, pupils of our pianist-friend Leonid Kreutzer and close friends of the Konoye family. Viscount Konoye was the leading conductor in Japan, his brother Prince Konoye was the Prime Minister.

A few weeks after Miss Sonia’s arrival, I ran into my old friend Karl Rosenberg who was very susceptible to feminine charms. Several times we had some minor scandals in connection with our friend’s love-life. That time Rosenberg was raving about Miss Sonia. With glowing eyes he told me what a wonderful woman she was and how often he had met her. And then he said: “But now I have to tell you something which is really phantastic: “The Russians did not release her unless she promised to work for them as an undercover agent in Japan” I was flabbergasted. The Jewish community lived a very precarious life. The Nazis tried their best to convince the Japanese that we were just a bunch of communists and should be turned over to the kempetai – the military police, for questioning. We all knew that “questioning” meant torture. Only recently Mr. Cox, the Reuter correspondent had jumped to his death – or been thrown – out of the window at police headquarters. And now the Jewish Committee had put a Soviet spy into the home of a Japanese family closely connected with the Prime Minister’s family! Rosenberg confided in me that on the coming Tuesday he was to go to the back of the Maruzen book store. There in the archeological section he was to meet a man to whom after an exchange of passwords he was to hand a report of Miss Sonia. I implored Rosenberg not to do it under any circumstances, but he was adamant, he insisted to do the beautiful lady a favor.

In desperation I rushed home to get together with Steinfeld and Baerwald but they were both at a summer resort four hours away. I took the next train and at nine o’clock in the evening I met my friends. Baerwald just listened and then just said that he was taking the next train to Tokyo. Only later did we learn that that very night at three thirty in the morning he had the Prime Minister woken up, dragged out of bed and told him the whole story – thus saving our group from disaster. I took it upon myself to meet with Miss Sonia and tried to convince her that while being honest with the Japanese police she should also withstand the expected attempts of the police to now enroll her as a Japanese counter-intelligence agent. When we sailed for the United States on October 31, 1940 a stranger pressed an envelope into my hand. It was an exciting letter from our friend K: The police had minded my attempts to influence Miss Sonia, only by the skin of our teeth did we escape torture or death.

I could go on for a long time telling you about the great Jewish migration in those years. Some of the stories I saw unfolding were comical, many were tragic. There was the exciting affair of a Dr. Kindermann, a German Jew who turned out to be a Nazi informer. There was the sudden arrival of 2700 Polish Jews who had fled to Lithuania at that time still an independent state. In connection with this transport the Japanese Finance Ministry told us how to circumvent its own currency regulations.

In general the Japanese Government went out of its way to help Jewish refugees in Japan. It was less benevolent in Japanese-dominated Shanghai with its 18000 Jews who after the outbreak of the war were brutally treated – but not worse than other Westerners.

There remains a word to be said about the history of Japan’s relations with Judaism and Jews.

In the 1920’s a Dr. Kawamorita asserted that the first emperor of Japan was a scion of the House of King David. Another “scholar” Dr. Oyabe stated that the word Mikado – the ancient title of the Japanese Emperor – can be traced back to Gad, one of the lost 10 tribes of Israel.  One of the Imperial treasures, the sacred Mirror, Oyabe reported, was once owned by King Solomon. A Dr. Fujisawa in 1925 claimed there was a spiritual affinity between Judaism and Shinto based on Origin – “a Chosen People” and aim – “the whole world under one roof” Bishop Nakada of a revivalist church wrote a book in 1930: “God is a sun and a shield” taking its title from the 84th Psalm and interpreting the sun as Japan and the shield as the Star of David. So much for mythology.

But there is no clear-cut dividing line between mythology and history. In 1614 a book written by a Portuguese, Fernao Mendes Pinto, was published posthumously under the title of Peregrinaçam. The author claimed that he discovered Japan in 1543. An admirer of Francis Xavier, he was a member of the Society of Jesus for two years. There is pretty conclusive proof that Pinto was of Jewish origin but the evidence is equally conclusive that he was a very resourceful liar.

When Japan was opened to the West in 1854, Jews arrived from Europe and the Middle East. The first Jewish tombstone in the International Cemetery in Yokohama dates from 1865.

A number of Russian Jewish prisoners of the Russo-Japanese War came to Japan in 1905 after the siege of Port Arthur. Among them was Joseph Trumpeldor whose left arm was amputated in Japan. He was killed in action in Palestine in 1920 and became the hero of militant Zionism. During the Russo-Japanese War Jacob Schiff an American Jewish banker, born near Wuerzburg, secured the first international loan for Japan and became the first non-royal foreigner to be received in private audience by Emperor Meiji. The Japanese loan negotiator was Korekiyo Takahashi whom I met and learned to admire shortly before his assassination on February 26, 1936 when he was Finance Minister in the Okada Cabinet. (His grandson Korenobu called himself Toby when as a student he was our weekly guest in Forest Hills, N.Y. in the early 1950’s. He married a girl of the Tokugawa clan who were shoguns for 250 years and became an IBM executive.)

Only few Japanese became infected with antisemitism when they came in contact with czarist officers in Siberia in 1920 and in Manchuria in 1931.

In 1935 Mr. Gisuke Aikawa purchased Nippon Columbia for whom I was working. The huge Japanese industrial conglomerates – Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo – were opposed to the limitless expansionist plans of the Imperial Army. The Army therefore supported Aikawa, a relative upstart who banked on the new Japanese satellite, called Manchukuo. Aikawa dreamed of hundred thousand Jews settling in Manchuria, since too few Japanese volunteered to emigrate to a country of severe winters and roving bandits. The Russian colony in Harbin grew rapidly after 1901 the year I was born, when the Transiberian Railroad was extended through Chinese dominated Manchuria to Russian Wladiswostok. The Russian influx accelerated after the 1917 Revolution, so that when the Japanese took over in 1931 there were 13000 Russian Jews in Harbin. Contrary to their co-religionists in Western Russia, they spoke Russian not Yiddish; the sympathies of the majority were Zionist. The Japanese authorities in  Manchuria were divided vis-a-vis the “Jewish Problem.” Some made life for the Harbin Jews unbearable so that by 1939 8000 Jews had migrated to Shanghai and Tientsin. It was through Aikawa that I obtained some modicum of influence on Harbin affairs. The Soviets, eager to satisfy Jewish nationalism in Russia, had in 1928 established a Jewish Soviet Republic, Biro Bidjan in Siberia adjacent to the Manchurian border. Biro Bidjan was a complete failure: only a few thousand Russian Jews settled there. Aikawa seriously planned to plant 50000 German Jews in Manchuria. In 1938 an “All Jewish Congress” was held in Harbin. The Zionist flag was unfurled besides the Japanese and the Hatikvah, the Zionist anthem, was sung; but the Tokyo Jews were not invited because they were non-Zionist and the Hongkong and Shanghai Jews did not come because they were pro-Chinese. In 1939 another Harbin conference was staged where the Japanese spokesman Dr. Kotsuji addressed the audience in Hebrew. On December 31, 1940 Yosuke Matsuoka (a former Foreign Minister who had negotiated the Tripartite Pact) declared at a private dinner party at his Tokyo residence: “Anti-Semitism will never be adopted by Japan. True, I concluded a treaty with Hitler but I never promised him to be an anti-Semite. And this is not only my personal opinion, but it is a principle of the entire Japanese empire since the day of its foundation.”

In all my dealings with the Japanese Government on Jewish matters I found compassion and understanding. I would like you, my grandchildren, not to forget this.


Dear Sir:

I have been requested to give a brief outline of the Jewish question and I wish to say that this is not an easy task for me. I am a Jew by religion and origin but at the same time I am a German national. My ancestors have been living in Germany as many centuries as I can trace them back. In the case of my own family our records go back 180 years, in the case of my wife’s family they go back 460 years.

Jews of Palestine origin have come to Germany and other Western European countries as early as 2,000 years back, namely with the Roman legions in the rank of which there always was a number of Jews owing to the Roman domination over Palestine. In the year 70 A.D. the independent Jewish state in Palestine was destroyed by force of arms and then Jews in greater numbers were spread all over Europe and also in Germany. It is not astonishing that the overwhelming majority of German Jews always felt 100% German and the treatment under which they have to suffer now in Germany hits them the more.

Anti-Jewishism or Anti-Semitism as it is often called, has always been a feature in European history owing to the religious discrepancies between the Christian majority and the Jewish minority, especially during the Crusades in the 12th century religious fanatism flared up highly.

During the time the Jews were an independent nation in Palestine they had the same professions as all other people. The majority were farmers whereas trade in old Palestine mostly was in the hands of intellectually more advanced foreigners, such as Phoenicians and Greeks. During the Middle Ages, however, religious oppression excluded Jews from nearly all walks of life except trade, and especially banking business because in those days Christian religion forbade Christians to loan money on an interest basis. About 120 years ago those restrictions were abolished in Germany and from that time on Jews filtered into nearly all professions, but their hard, centuries old training gave them a decided advantage in the field of trade and also in the scientific fields as in the legal and medical profession and it is for this reason that the Jews occupy in all Western countries a more important position than would be due to them in accordance with their small number.

As said above, Jews in Germany are feeling German, Jews in England are feeling English, and Jews in France are feeling French, just the same as Japanese Christians feel Japanese.

Conservatism imbued in the Jewish religion has always made Jews strong supporters of the conservative order in the world and in all countries in which they were treated well, as for instance in England, they have contributed a lot of statesmen to the conservative camp.

There were two men who committed suicide in Germany on November 9th, 1918, the day when the German Emperor had to flee to Holland and the dream of German Imperial might broke down: an old pensioned general and the Jew Albert Bailin, the promoter of German shipping interests and leader of the Hamburg American Line. Thus in the world war, Jews of all nations have fought against each other just the same as Christians of all nations did, and only in times of obvious attacks on the Jews as a group there developed something like a feeling of Jewish solidarity.

Jewish nationalism or Zionism is only 40 years old. It has arisen as a by-product of European neo-nationalism but less than 10% of the Jews living in the whole world adhere to this nationalistic Jewish movement whereas the other 90% do not wish to be anything else than nationals of the country in which they are living and with which they have shared its history.

Jews have been the subject of antagonism in various countries for various reasons. They were an easy object of such an antagonism because they are a well-defined minority group different from the majority by their religion. In addition to these religious differences European Jews were different from other Europeans by certain features which branded them as “foreign”, as “oriental” (Toyo Jin). The family system existing among Jews especially appeared to be rather strange to Westerners. Moreover, their importance in the life of the nation is rather striking and by attacking Jews a party movement is able to promise to its followers to vacate a great number of important positions.

In old tsarist Russia, for instance, Jewish merchants played quite an interesting role and when the Bolshevik movement came into power in 1917 it was the Jewish community in Russia which was hit most severely. The Jews as arch-capitalists were declared more or less enemies of the state, and it is therefore not surprising to find a rather important percentage of Jews among the White Russians refugees in all countries of the world. Furthermore, Jews were persecuted in Russia because most of them adhered stubbornly to the faith of their forefathers and the destructive communists directed their attack against religion which they considered as a bulwark of the capitalistic system. Hundreds of Jewish temples in Russia were burnt down by the Bolshevik hordes; hundreds of Jewish priests were shot and imprisoned. It did not help Jews at all that a few of the Bolshevik leaders, like Trotzky, were of Jewish origin. These depraved demagogues did not feel Jewish at all, just the same as Lenin and Stalin never had at any time felt any sympathy for their fellows-Christians of the bourgeois class.

In Germany, anti-semitism is based on the programme of the Nazi party as laid down in Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf”. Books like Rosenberg’s “Der Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts”, attacking Jewish religion as the foundation stone of Christianity were read widely and together with the political – economical reasons stated above, supported the Government’s campaign, which latter was based on the new creed of the superiority of the Aryan race. The dogma of the purity of the Aryan race was carried as far as, for instance resulting in German members of the Nazi party resigning from the party which is considered to be the elite of the nation, if they want to marry a Japanese girl.

The object of this letter, dear Sir, is to give as unbiased as possible picture of the Jews as a group which I may say, without feeling immodest, has contributed a great deal to the welfare of mankind. Attached is list of few Jews, whose names are well known throughout the world.

There are a few hundreds of Jews living in Japan, all of them of whatever nationality they may be always felt happy and contented in this country because Japan never took any part in any discriminative steps against certain religious or racial groups.

Jews have contributed not a small lot to the progress of science in Japan in their role as teachers of Japanese students abroad. Commercial relations of Japan with Jews of various nationalities are manifold. It is a fact that most of the Japanese export to North and South America and to Africa is taken up by Jewish firms. It is to be hoped that the Japanese Government will show its time honoured sense of fairness against the Jews and will not fall in with methods adopted by Germany for problems which do not exist in Japan. It is especially to be hoped that the discriminative ordinances which seem to have been prepared in connection with the entry of German Jews refugees are withdrawn. The economical conditions in Japan make an influx of foreigners in any greater number entirely impossible. It should be of no concern to the Japanese Government whether a few dozens of refugees find a haven in this country.

DISTRIBUTION OF JEWS IN THE MOST IMPORTANT                                                                                          COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD

EUROPE: Poland






































ASIA: Palestine










British India


China and Manchoukuo
















Union of South Africa


AMERICA: United States






Central America








TOTAL 14,489,400




The Poet: Heinrich   Heine
The Composer: Felix   Mendelsohn
The   Philosophers: Baruch   Spinoza
Henry Bergson
Herman Cohen   (Marburg)
Friedrich   Husserl (Freiburg)
The   Physicians: Paul Ehrlich   (Salvarsan, Ehrlich-Hatta)
August von   Wassermann (bacteriologist)
 James Israel (surgeon)
Albert   Neisser (dermatologist)
Oscar   Minkowsky (internist)
Ismar Boas   (internist)
Heinrich   Finkelstein (children’s diseases)
Hans von   Baeyer (orthopaedist)
The   Physicists: Albert   Einstein (relativity)
Heinrich   Hertz (wave theory)
Niels Bohr
Robert von   Lieben (radio tube)
Albert   Michelsohn
Herman Aron   (electricity)
The Chemists: Fritz Haber   (nitrogen)
Richard   Willstaetter (chinones)
Nicodam Caro   (dyes)
The Jurist: Eduard von   Simson (first president of German
Supreme   Court)
The   Statesman: Disraeli                                                                                          Lord Reading (Viceroy of India_
The Soldier: Sir John   Monash, commander in Chief of the Australian troups in the world war
The   Industrialists: Ludwig Loewe   (machinery)
Leopold von   Casella (Dye trust)
Arthur &   Karl von Weinberg (Dye trust)
Sir Louis   Mond (Brunner, Mond & Co.)
The Bankers: Rothschild
Max M.Warburg   (Hamburg)
Paul   M.Warburg (New York)
Sir Ernest   Cassel (London)
Jacob H.   Schiff (Kuhn, Loeb & Co.)


The Mazama Festival of Books

September 13, 2013

BookFest13_posterI just attended my first literary event last weekend. The Mazama Festival of Books took place in the Methow Valley, about three and a half hours northeast of Seattle. The trip took an extra hour because mudslides had closed a mountain pass. But it was well worth the detour. I had lots of time to get to know the other 17 authors presenting over dinner and drink in one of the most beautiful settings in the world.

Tucked away in the Cascade mountains, the Methow Valley has an alpine feel to it, though the little villages are more Western than European. The valley is so tucked away, many people in Seattle don’t know of its existences. And local residents like to keep it that way. A couple decades ago, they fought efforts by developers to build a ski resort there, a successful battle that prevented that rural paradise from becoming another Vail or Aspen. The local general store sells delicious scones baked with fresh blueberries and blackberries. The local inn serves homemade granola filled with nuts and a giant side dish of fruit. And all around you are mountains, forest and meadows.

The stage for the book festival was set up in a meadow so that the audience could see the mountains rising up behind the speakers. To keep the discussions interesting, Art Gresh, the financier who founded the festival and organized it together with the wonderful folks from Methow Arts, brought in from New York, two beautiful and charming young women: Katherine Lanpher, a journalist and former talkshow host, and Lauren Cerand, a book publicist. They had both read the books of the writers they were interviewing and took charge of the stage with grace and wit while always managing to draw out the best of each writers. I haven’t yet read the works of all the writers but I plan to. Meawhile, I found their lives as engaging as I expect to find their works.

The first session was “Writing Wilderness.” Shannon Huffman Polson, a former Microsoft executive, spoke of her book “A Border Life” about how she set out on a pilgrimage to retrace the steps her parents took when they were killed by a grizzly bear. Asked by Katherine what wilderness was, she defined it as the place in nature where you are no longer in control of your surroundings. Ana Maria Spagna, also on the panel, worked for many years for the park service and lives in an isolated corner of Lake Chelan unconnected to the rest of the world by road. She saw wilderness in a friendlier light, a place where people could live in communion with nature.  Ana is the author of half a dozen books including Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness.

Two other artists who derive their inspiration from nature are Dia Calhoun, a children’s book writer, and  author most recently of “After the River the Sun,” about a boy who loses both his parents to drowning and is sent to live with his uncle in the country. The boy, who initially wants to do nothing more than play games, falls in love with the countryside. Dia says she used to call herself a writer of young adult fiction, but had to keep aiming at a younger audience to find the innocent children she loves to write for.

Nikki Mcclure makes papercuts that are impossible to describe in words. You just have to see the beautiful work.

Nikki says the we are overloaded in modern society. “When you disconnect from that you open your natural senses and they bring you back to yourself.“ She says that when she hears the osprey talking, she can tell the salmon are coming. Many of her woodcuts focus on seasonal themes.

Dia and Nikki both stressed the importance of periodically leaving behind the things that tether us to the modern world and reconnecting with the wilderness. “We forget we are part of nature. We live observed lives,” says Dia. “In nature you are not observed so you can observe.” In addition to writing books, Dia also designs corporate logos to help make a living. She did the Alaska Air logo and the tailwork for Aloha Airlines.

Shawn Vestal read from a short story that drew on his childhood growing up as a Mormon. His writing was beautifully crafted, and was interested to learn that he’d been a newspaper writer most of his life and went back to school in his 40s to get his Masters in Fine Arts. He says the degree taught him to do what he needed to do to write well.

My session was called “The Map of Memory” and I was surprised at how many people connected to my talk about Japan. One of the young men working at the Trail’s End Bookstore, which had all of our works for sale, had studied Japanese for three years while another had actually grown up in Japan. Among others in the audience many had traveled to Japan or done business with the Japanese. All had good memories of japan.

The most fiery session of the festival was the one entitled “under pressure.” Peter Nathaniel Malae, a man of Samoan heritage and  author of Our Frail Blood believes that to write about violence in an authentic way you have to have experienced it—to have it in your bones. “By the age of ten I understood violence. My stories are from real life, not from research.”

He’s a big fan of Hemingway and likes to quote what he wrote in Death in the Afternoon: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eight of it being above water.”  What Hemingway is saying, says Peter, is that “The authority of the story in not in the scene. You feel the force of it.”

Peter says he writes 500 words a day. He writes about the immigrant experience including how, in the process of becoming American, you lose your indigenous culture. He says that all his best friends are imaginary, fictitious characters. “I don’t cook it up. It’s happening in my brain. I’m not aware of it.” He says he believes that books should be at least 51 percent hope for the sake of the reader, but he doesn’t’ think he succeeded with his latest book.

On the stage with Peter was Vanessa Veselka, author of the award-winning book “Zazen.” She says the book is about “What do you do when there is nothing to do.” Or, in more frightening terms “sitting still in fire.” She says there should be a price to pay for ugliness. She says readers are so trained to look for the love story that she is careful to avoid setting scenes that will lead the reader in that direction. She also tries to avoid sanitized discussions of important issues like race. In Zazen, for example, she writes about how her character’s leftist mother is happy to have black grandchildren, a not-so-veiled criticism of the tendency to exoticize race. Vanessa says our nation needs to find something to unify the races. “The center cannot hold. We need something greater than geography and money to sustain a people.”

Sharma Shields read from her funny, beautiful and yet dark book of short stories “Favorite Monster,” while Ellen Welcker read from beautifully moving prose book “The Botanical Garden.”

Peter Mountford read from his upcoming book “The Dismal Science” which, like his earlier book, delves into the moral choices we make as market forces push us to make questionable decisions. Also on his pane was Scott Elliott, a creative writing professor at Whitman who recently completed the beautifully written novel “Temple Grove.”   He says his approach to writing is to “Put characters in places where their principles are challenged.” The key thing, he says is to have a rich question you want to explore. Ideally, you don’t know the answer making it more likely that you will surprise yourself.

Some of my favorite sessions came toward the end. Alexis Smith read from her book “Glacier,” which starts with starkly simple language but keeps adding layer upon layer to the characters as the story progress until, after a short 150 pages, you love the character and hate to leave them behind. On the same panel was Greg Spatz who read from a book of short stories “Half as Happy.” Spatz is a miracle worker who not only writes amazing stories and is a professor of creative writing, but manages to do this while also traveling 100 days of the year playing the fiddle in a band. I ascribe his success to his wonderful wife, who accompanied him to the festival and even played some tunes for us together with her husband.

The last session was presented by Kate Lebo and Jessica Lynn Bonin who collaborated to produce “A Common Book of Pie.” Kate, who teaches pie making, wrote the recipes and the poetry while Jessica painted the illustrations. Part of the book is a kind of astrology of pie. Kate asked members of the audience what their favorite pie was and based on that choice read a poem that described their personalities. Each was charming and perceptive and somehow always seemed appropriate.

I’ve now been invited to read at quakelit, a book festival in San Francisco. It will be a bigger crowd, but I can’t imagine any literary experience as rich and rewarding as the Mazama Book Festival.

Insects, people and families: On the nature of the individual and the group

August 23, 2013

I’ve been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful book “Flight Behavior,” and I am struck be her description of the Monarch butterflies and the extent to which each butterfly, as beautiful as it may be, is irrelevant by itself. It can only be understood as part of this mass migration of innumerable butterflies that die and are born and each year follow the same path until something goes wrong. Kingsolver’s point, of course, is that global warming disrupts things in such a fundamental way that it throws everything off course changing the very nature of the place in which we live and people that we are.

But on the way home, I heard someone talking about how, in so many religions, there is a philosophy that the individual finds some kind of transcendental state when he or she recognizes that we are really one with the world. We don’t really live as individuals, we really are part of this grand organism, some greater design. It then occured to me that looking at family history is a way of taking one piece of that grand organism and understanding a small part of it. Surely it’s insufficient. A study of family alone leaves out the friends and aquaintances and special relationships including bosses and lovers that has such a profound influence on us. Yet, perhaps it is one step toward deeper understanding.

Mother’s Alzheimers is steadily getting worse. Was it 6 years ago that she strolled into my kitchen and said she had “crossed the border” into Alzheimers? She had been have strange experiences of traveling of seeing strange places. She told me once she was living “an active life–in my mind.” Once, on the way back from an overnight stay at the hospital, she described hearing some noises and climbing up the stairs to find there was a grand ball taking place. Someone gave her a glass of wine. Later she danced. “I had a wonderful time,’ she said. “In the hospital?” I asked. She said yes.

Today, as I was taking her home she kept getting confused about where she had lived when. “I remember living with a couple for my room and board,” she said. Yes, that was in college I said.

“Well, you are going to have to help me map it all out, one day,” I’m getting very confused. It reminded me of the time a couple years ago when Marie found a scrap of paper on which my mother had tried to write the names of all us kids as well as the names of our wives and children. She had given up after filling in just a few names.

Fortunately, she continues to enjoy life and to be appreciative of those around her.

Our memories extend far beyond what we remember and are shaped greatly by our state of mind at any given moment.

August 21, 2013

I recently completed “The Sense of an Ending,” the exquisitely crafted novel by Julian Barnes. What struck me was the way the main character’s memory of events changes in seemingly small, but significant ways over the course of his life. Actions he took based on one view of events that once seemed harmless, later prove to have devastating consequences. What the character remembers changes, because he evolves as a human being so that he looks at the world in a different way. As a young student, he is particularly angry and remembers those things that rationalize his view of the world and support the actions he has taken. When he looks back on those same events later in life, he remembers details that undercut his earlier version of those same events.

I think of it this way. Suppose you do a Google search on Japan. The first time you type into the search box:  “Japan, beauty, culture” you might come up with articles and posts that would portray Japanese beautiful gardens, its stunning Kabuki theater and its bold woodblock prints. But if you were to type in “Japan, insular, nuclear waste” you would come up with articles that portray the darker side of Japan. The better you know Japan–or the more you understand the complexity of life–the more careful you would be in choosing those key words to come up with a full picture of Japan. In the same way, the frame of mind we are in when we go about remembering something invariably has a big impact on the kinds of events and images that we draw from our memory banks.

The book struck me because the way I looked at Japan and my family–the things I remembered and understood–evolved a great deal from the beginning of the book to the end. I know understand that simply by framing my book as one about living for five generations as outsiders in Japan, invariably had a significant impact on what I drew from my memory and what I understood about Japan. The book was written over many years, and by the time I completed the book, I was a quite different person, and I tried to allow that more mature perspective to add depth to the feelings and sentiments I expressed in the earlier chapters.

Today, as I meet people who read my book but also knew my father, many are surprised by this “dark” side of him. They have fond memories of my father, and wonder if I was sometimes unfair to him. Perhaps I was. But of course, many of them knew my father when he was in the army and in college, the happiest time of his life. I knew him at his worst, and at a time when I was most impressionable.


I do not regret what I wrote. But I continue the journey the book began of understanding who my father was as a man–his strengths and shortcomings–and learning from him long after we buried him splitting his ashes between the foreign cemetery in Yokohama and the cemetery in Piedmont, California.

dad gravw piedmont

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