Here’s an odd, but fascinating story that seems to say more about foreign stereotypes of Japan than it does about Japan. My cousin Stefan Schinzinger found it online. It was scanned from the May 15, 1909 issue of Harpers Weekly by Google books. It is about Captain Albert Schinzinger, who was our great, great uncle, and who represented Krupps, the German arms maker, in Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
MATSUDA YASUBE was running betto [groom] for Captain Schinzinger. The captain represented a foreign firm that sold high explosives to the Imperial government: therefore he was great. He lived in a fine house in the European quarter of Tokio – amid an army of servants–as every great man must. There was a squad of these boys, aged from fifteen to fifty, who swept the honorable and pebbly driveway with big brooms made of twigs, and could not do any other kind of work. Then there was the middle-aged boy who came to the front door whenever a caller pushed the electric button, swung the door open majestically, and stood in silence, a very dignified statue swathed in silk and cotton, holding forth a silver tray for the visitor’s honorable card. There were also the boys who attended the furnaces, boys who did the honorable housework, boys who waited on the honorable table of the captain, besides those who cooked the meals, the runners of errands, and various other minor boys whose slight labors no westerner may guess. Each of these attended strictly to his own duty, and could not be driven by Fate herself to do the work of any other. That is the unwritten law.
Over all ruled Takiguchi Tokutaro, whom we should call a major-domo, but whose native style and title is Number One Boy. Of middle age, his clean-shaven face a bronze mask of dignity, with a curl of the lip that recalled the swaggering old daimios [lords] who cut down any that dared stand too near when they travelled along the Tokaido, Takiguchi was a fine figure of a man. He was tall and of powerful build, too; and, although his habitual movement was slow and majestic, as became a person of his high position, he was still as agile as a youth and one to be dreaded in quarrel. It was his physical prowess as much as his lofty office that gave him a habit of truculence toward his inferiors, a habit which they all resented in secret yet dared not resist openly by so much as the angry flutter of an eyelid. No foreigner dreamed of these savage eddies beneath the placid surface of the domestic stream, and many a friend congratulated the captain upon the excellence of his smooth household machinery.
Matsuda Yasube was the only one of the domestic staff who failed to bow low and rub his knees with his palms and draw a long, hissing, deferential inhalation whenever Takiguchi honored him by giving an order. Matsuda was young and fippant, and came of a family that had been honorable for centuries. The ancient feudal idea that personal service is far nobler than any other employment still prevails in Japan. Matsuda was proud as any young lord, and the lofty airs of Takiguchi irritated him beyond endurance. Besides, his own position as running betto made him an important personage, too. He often indulged in a light glance of disrespect at Takiguchi. A betto is a groom. The running betto perches in state beside the coachman on the box of his master’s carriage. Horses and carriages are still so infrequent in Japan that even in Tokio the services of the running betto are necessary to warn people on foot to get out of the way. With arms folded across his deep chest, the running betto emits from his squeezed throat as often as necessary, perhaps oftener, a long-drawn note of warning, a curious vibrant menace, full of affectation of importance.
“Ee-ee-ee-ee!” he cries, and wayfarers scramble aside to let the carriage pass. Or if the roadway be in the least crowded the betto, still shrilling his cry, leaps down from the box, runs ahead, and thrusts and hauls the people out of the way. It is no wonder Matsuda grew prouder day by day. Witness the conduct of our own policemen and guards and platform men whose duty it is to hurl the defenseless citizens as far as they can throw him.
One evening Matsuda squatted in the kitchen, holding his blue wrists over the edge of the hibachi so that his whole body would thereby be warmed. He drew from his girdle a Japanese pipe——a long, thin reed with a tiny silver bowl at the end of it. Into this bowl he pushed a pinch of Japanese tobacco that looked like old brown corn-silk, lit it, and, after three or four pulls, knocked the glowing red dottel [half-smoked tobacco] out on his palm. He refilled the pipe, lit the fresh tobacco from the dottel, and pulled away in comfort. As a matter of fact, the fine, clinging tobacco ash was next to his palm, and the red coal of tobacco lay harmless upon it. But all this was not clear to Katrina, a maid newly come from- Berlin. Her big blue eyes stood out opened wide in amazement.
“Ach, wunderschiin!” she cried.
Matsuda grunted in disdain of admiration from a mere foreigner; above all, a mere woman. Yet he did not fail to repeat his trick several times.
Katrina, still wondering, found Takiguchi in the dining-room superintending the arrangement of the table for dinner and deferentially listening to Captain Schinzinger’s directions about the wines.
“Tell me, Number One Boy,” she said, “why is Matsuda Yasube able to hold a coal of red—hot tobacco in his bare hand and feel no pain?”
“Because he is coarse, brutal person,” replied Takiguchi, bowing politely, but with just enough respect for a foreign female. At that moment Matsuda came swaggering through the dining-room. He fixed himself at insolent ease in front of Takiguchi, his hands resting on his hips, and made a very small and mocking bow.
“Honorable Number One,” he inquired in Japanese, “are you paying the high compliment of talking about me?”
“Out of my way, beast!” Takiguchi growled contemptuously, adding to the insult by uttering it in English. The two stood eye to eye for the space of perhaps two seconds; then young Matsuda, knowing very little English and unaware of the exact meaning
of Number One Boy’s words, slowly swaggered from the room.
Late that night when off duty the runnin betto observed casually to his friend the betto: “Tell me a new word, 0 Norama. San, you who know all the thoughts and words of the outlandish English. What is the meaning of the word “beast?”
“‘Beast,’ young honored friend?” Norama replied, meditatively. “‘Beast”? Oh yes. It means an animal, low, brutal, besotted thing.”
“It has a curious sound like the hissing of a goose.” Matsuda indifferently commented. “I heard it to-day for the first time. It is a new word to me.”
But when he stretched himself on the mat that night sleep was far from him. The air of unconcern which had hidden his personal interest in the new word now gave way to an access of rage as he kept repeating it to himself over and over again. “Beast!” “Beast!” “Beast!” he whispered, and the sound hissed like a serpent in his cars. So the outrageous upstart Takiguchi, whose family dated back barely to the Gen-roku period, a mere two hundred years, had dared to apply a loathsome English epithet to him, a Matsuda, member of a most ancient family of the Satsuma clan, a people who were great long before the time of the first Shogun! The affront was [too much.]
Nevertheless. it was a serene and smiling Matsuda who went about his duties next day. He was a trifle pale, and his eyes were feverishly bright; but there was no trace upon his smooth countenance of revenge, anger, or any other passion. For what says the ancient proverb? “He is indeed a pomegranate who, when he opens his mouth, shows his heart.” So Matsuda. smiled more blandly than usual as he went about the house, and on the box of the carriage his weird, crooning “ Ee-ee-ee-ee!” of warning sounded as loud and clear as ever. Thinking it over afterward, members of the family remembered that for many days the running betto kept out of the way of the Number One Boy except when the master was present. On such occasions he was often seen edging toward Takiguchi, though he never remained near him very long. The conditions were not quite right. The precise details that should accompany a pretty and perfect taking of Japanese revenge are beyond the conception of the outlander. I shall not try to guess at their devious complications.
On the fifteenth evening after the insult Captain Schinzinger was going to dine out. The carriage was ordered for half past six o’clock, and punctually at the minute it swept up the pebbly drive and halted before the great door, Matsuda leaped nimbly down from his perch on the box and took his proper place at the horses’ heads. He was watchful, trim, and serene, without a trace of emotion. As usual, on such occasions, a dozen or so of the household boys arranged themselves in a semicircle around the portal to make proper low bows to the master and wish him good luck on his departure. Number One Boy, with all the dignity of a daimio conducting an honored guest, led the master to the carriage. Captain Schinzinger stepped into the Victoria and sat down. Takiguchi bent forward to tuck the lap robe around his master’s honorable ankles.
The running betto let go the bridle, and in two bounds was beside Takiguchi. His eyes were ablaze, and his cheeks were flushed dull red. With his left hand he plucked the Number One Boy into an upright position, while in his upraised right hand there flashed a keen, glittering knife with a blade almost as broad as a cleaver.
“Tss-ss-ss! Beast!” he hissed as he drove the blade to the hilt into the muscular neck of Takiguchi at the point where the jugular-vein descends into the body. As his victim fell, already dead, as it seemed, Matsuda started on a run, for none of his fellow servants tried to hold him. He ran all the way to the nearest police station, half a mile away. Upon entering, he made a profound bow to the captain sitting in command at the desk, and laid the red knife before him.
“Honorable captain,” he said, with a winning smile and carefully guarding glance and voice so that they should not betray unseemly exultation—“Honorable captain, I have been compelled to kill one who offered me insult. I give my weapon [to you and] give myself to be your prisoner.”
The captain bowed politely and directed the lieutenant to make careful notes of the name, age, and history of the prisoner, the place of the killing, and all other necessary details. Then a policeman, bowing very politely, requested the honorable prisoner to come to his honorable cell. There Matsuda Yasube stretched himself on the mat and slept without a care. He awoke at daylight, and, after a fine hot bath, squatted down to an excellent breakfast of boiled rice, pickled turnip, and tea. He permitted himself the luxury of an exultant smile whenever he felt quite sure no one could see him. But in the midst of one of these self-congratulations a most unpleasant thought jarred upon his satisfaction. He asked to be taken to the police captain at once.
“ Honorable commander,” he said when he had bowed before the desk, “a distressing thought is disturbing me. I have left something undone at the house of my honorable master. If it remains undone, I shall be in disgrace forever. Will you deign to send me to the house for a little time?”
“A matter of honor? You shall go by all means,” the captain graciously replied.
Therefore it was that at nine o‘clock in the morning Captain Shinzinger, upon arising from breakfast, was informed by the acting Number One Boy that Matsuda Yasube craved the honor of an interview with him. The captain went to the porch and found the running betto standing beside a policeman in uniform, who smiled and saluted.
“ Honorable master,” said Miatsuda, after bowing half-way to the floor three times, “I was very selfish last evening. I was so ill-bred, so rustic, in making my private revenge-business disturbing the good ordering of your honorable house. For this I seek most humbly gracious pardoning from you.”
Matsuda’s bowed face was a picture of distress until he heard the kindly tone of Captain Schinzinger’s voice reassuring him.
“You have my pardon, Maisuda,“ he said.
Whereupon Matsuda Yasube bowed deeper than before and cried. “Thank you, sir.” and. “Good-by, master! Sayonara!” and marched away to the police station. There he spent many happy days, indifferent to whether gallows or prison cell awaited him, for he had wiped the stain from his honor and shown true courtesy to the master. So he squatted on the mat and warmed his wrists at the hibachi, and spent most of his waking time in smoking pinches of silky brown tobacco in his little silver pipe and knocking the glowing dottels out on his bare left palm.
It was sad to learn today of the death of James Cahill, one of the foremost authorities on Chinese Art. It was great, however, to see that the New York Times gave him such a great write up. One thing the Times didn’t mention was that “Jimmy” Cahill, as my parents used to call him, was first introduced to Asian languages when he studied Japanese at the U.S. Army Japanese Language School.
That language school at the University of Michigan, along with the U.S. Navy Japanese Language School, trained a whole generation of Japan experts. Some of the students such as my father, who was in Cahill’s class, were “BIJ”s. They were chosen because they were born and raised in Japan and were proficient in the language. George Moore and Hans Baerwald, also in Dad’s class, were both BIJs and both went on to become professors with expertise in Japan. Most of the other students were chosen based on I.Q. because it was understood that Japanese was such a difficult language to learn. One of the students, Joe Guilfoile, who would later serve on the board of our family company, Helm Brothers, told me that he had been plucked from college and ordered to study French. At the last minute, they said they had plenty of French speakers and needed more people to study Japanese so they moved him into the Japanese language school at Michigan.
Dad used to complain about how tough the school was. (While he had an edge in spoken Japanese, he said it was hard to compete in the written language with all the geniuses at the school who seemed to have photographic memories.) But of course all the students were thrilled not to be fighting at the front, where they would be sent if they didn’t keep up with their grades. Here’s a fund write up on the Intensive Japanese Language School at Michigan established in 1942.
…hundreds of American soldiers could be seen traversing the streets of Ann Arbor constantly writing invisible Japanese characters in the air—often to the befuddled stares of passing pedestrians. With local interest piqued, in January 1943, Major General George V. Strong, an assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, felt it necessary to dictate the following telegram to the University:
“IT IS THE DESIRE OF THE WAR DEPARTMENT THAT NO REPEAT NO PUBLICITY OF ANY KIND BE GIVEN THE ARMY LANGUAGE SCHOOL AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN YOUR COOPERATION WILL BE APPRECIATED.”
The army, it seems, regarded the Japanese Language School’s presence in Ann Arbor as a military secret. Nevertheless, the Michigan Daily and the Ann Arbor News both found the program too good to ignore and ran frequent stories about it. Student life in the language school was intense. Students were housed in the East Quadrangle and were expected to be dressed and present at 6:08 each morning. Classes were from 8:00 to 10:30am, then resumed at 1:00pm each day except Fridays, when Japanese films were shown. Study hall at 8:00pm was mandatory in the Law Library for all students with lower than B averages; lights out at 10:30. Rumors ran on with stories of tunnels in the basement of East Quad or skillful escapes over gates to avoid bed checks.
War is always tragic. But it’s even more tragic when we go to war, as we often do now, with little or no knowledge of the languages or cultures of the nations where we are fighting. I don’t believe in being nostalgic about war. But it does seem like the language schools were one way in which the U.S. got it right during World War II.
Most family stories include tales of relatives who made great successes of thier lives as well as those who failed miserabily. Yokohama Yankee is no exception. Many members of my family, Including my father, did relatively well financially, but were not necessarily happy in their personal lives. When I share stories with my cousins, we often talk about how many of the members of our parents generation became alcoholics at one time or another. Some overcame those challenges. Some did not.
Families who pass on these stories of tragedy and success are doing a better job of preparing their children for the tough times ahead accourding to an article today in the New York Times by Bruce Feiler Feiler cites a study of four dozen families that concluded that “The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” The rationale, says Feiler, was that people who knew more of their families had a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves, something that crossed several generations.
Feiler quotes management guru Jim Collins arguing that a successful family can be similar to a succcessful business enterprise. Collins recommended that families, like good corporations, should have a mission statement that helps to identify their core values.
I’m not sure I believe all of this. It seems to me that the family that passes on to its children all those family stories would also tend to be the families that were well functioning and spent more time together. Since the kids of families who have their act together probably, on the whole, deal better with adversity, than those that do not, the study of the four dozen families that asked family members how much they knew about their grandparents may have simply been measuring the extent to which a family was cohesive and well-organized rather than the extent to which a child feel’s like he or she is part of some kind of intergenerational enterprise..
Even so, as wrirter, I like this notion that stories are important. But, of course, I tend to think stories are important for the lessons they teach regardless of whether those stories about your own family or about someone else’s family. After all, that’s one reason we read: to learn from the experiences of others.
Nothing forces you to confront your own identity quite as sharply as the decision to adopt a child. At least that was my experience. On meeting my daughter for the first time at a Japanese orphanage, I found myself wondering if I could ever be a good father to a Japanese child when I was so ambivalent about Japan, a country in which I was born and raised. It was that discomfort, combined with the death of my unhappy father that set my on my journey into my family’s long history in Japan. A journey that would force me to explore a dark part of myself I never wanted to confront..
So what did I learn. For one thing, I learned just how difficult it is to talk about issues of race, culture and identity. They are tied up in so many other things, each of which comes with so much baggage..
My father, for example, was also born and raised in Japan. Both his parents were half Japanese. Both were raised in Japan. Growing up, I often heard my father say sharp things about “the Japanese.” At first I thought it was because of all the frustrations he faced dealing with the Japanese bureaucracy as a business person. As I drilled down, however, I learned more about how my father grew up hiding his Japanese heritage first as a high school student, when he was shocked one morning to wake up and read in the local newspaper the headline “Piedmont Helms Japs,” and later as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Occupation of Japan.
I asked one of my father’s white childhood friends about this issue of identity and she insisted Dad never faced discrimination but always had this “chip on his shoulder about the whole race thing.” What she didn’t realize, I now understand, is that even if we “mixed bloods” seldom face overt discrimination, we often internalize subtle cues. Why did I never admit to myself growing up, that I was part Japanese, for example? Nobody discriminated against me for being part Japanese. After all, I passed as white. I assume it was because I adopted all the insecurities of my father.
When you are raised without a strong sense of who you are, you become extremely sensitive to what people say around you. One great uncle Jim, for example, never forgot it when he was at a sports club in Kobe and overheard someone in the locker room at the sports club say: “Jim’s a good sort. He knows his place.” Doesn’t sound like a horribly racist thing to say, but Jim never got over that remark.
I learned on Friday that the printer had completed printing my book far earlier than expected. A friend emailed me that Amazon had sent him a message saying he would be receiving the book at the end of February, full month earlier than they had reported earlier. I found it hard to focus at work as I planned to pick up the book at my publishers house later that day. (The advantages of having a local publisher!)
I love the book. The designer, Josh Powell, is also based in Seattle so that allowed us to go back and forth on a lot of the pictures in the book. Just before sending the book to the printers, we added a picture of my son with the American flag in the chapter opener about my family coming home to Seattle. So when I opened up the newly printed book I was tickled to find yeat another picture I hadn’t realized Josh was going to use.
The picture is of me on a boat wearing a silly sun hat. Perhaps I may have been whisting, but I suspect I was just looking dorky, like I often did.The photo may be the Josh’s ironic take on the title “Yokohama Yankee.” But I like the picture because of the counterpoint between this picture and a cute picture of my son, later in the book, with the American flag.
In a wonderful piece in the New York Times today, Alexander Stille, author of the family memoir, “The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace,” makes the point that the writer of a family memoir “is taking events that belong to several people, appropriating them for himself, and turning them into something that feels alien to those who have lived them.” The writer invariably simplifies some of the secondary characters, he says, portraying them in a way that may seem unfamiliar to the characters themselves.
Stille’s story hits home to me as I wait for my memoir “Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan” to hit the book stores in mid-March. Like Stille, a couple of family members are uncomfortable with what I have written. One uncle, in particular, had been insistent that I send him a copy of the manuscript. When I sent him an early version of the book and didn’t hear from him for eight months, I was surprised and followed up with an email asking him for any comments and corrections. He answered emphatically: “I do NOT have any comments and I do NOT have any corrections.” So I was taken aback when I received a note a month ago, weeks after it was too late to make any corrections. He said he loved the book, but thought my portrayal of my father and grandfather was harsh.Although it was very late, I told him that if there was anything factually inaccurate, I might still be able to make some minor changes. He told me to leave it as it was..
The interaction with my uncle left me feeling a little uncomfortable. In retrospect, I wish I had been as persistent as Stille was in getting an earlier response from his aunt who, like my uncle, had been clearly reluctant to read the manuscript.
But even if I had tried to respond to my uncle’s concerns, I wonder if he would have been satisfied. Brenda Peterson, the author of the wonderful memoir “I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding rapture here on earth,” told me early in the process of writing my book that I should be prepared to have family members upset with what I wrote. If they don’t like what your write, she said, “Tell them to write their own book.”
Peterson’s point, of course, is that the writer, looking at a person or event from his or her perspective, is invariably going to portray things in a way that seems unfamiliar to other members of the family. We are all different people with different experiences, so it’s hardly surprising that we look at similar situations in different ways. If you have siblings, I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you have completely different memories of the same event.
In my uncle’s case, our perspectives are particularly different because the man who was my difficult father, was his much-respected older brother. And his strongest memories of my father were of him as a young man before he faced life’s toughest challenges. So he found it impossible to believe my father was the difficult man I depicted in my book
There is another reason my uncle may have found my father unfamiliar. What drove me to write the family memoir in the first place was that my decision to adopt Japanese children had raised tough questions about my identity–about the extent to which I had avoided accepting my Japanese heritage. My memoir, therefore, focused on the way the characters in my family, over five generations, addressed the issue of identity. No doubt my grandfather and father were honest and generous, and I do mention those traits. But the incidences I highlight in my memoir are those that shed light on how my family addressed their lives as outsiders in both the United States and Japan. Looking at my family members, and how they experienced life in Japan across two world wars, through that particular lens, revealed a family some of my relatives may not have been familiar with. That’s not surprising, since for generations my relatives had refused to discuss their Japanese heritage. In my father’s case, it was only very late in life that he admitted to me, for example, that his half-Japanese father beat him when he spoke Japanese at home and that his half-Japanese mother suffered discrimination both in Japan and the United States.
I’ve told my relatives that the book reflects my own particular perspective. Even if they don’t share that perspective, I hope they will enjoy my story of the family’s experiences as they survived a particularly fascinating, sometimes heart-wrenching, century-and-a-half of modern Japanese history.
Over the many years that I worked on Yokohama Yankee, every time someone asked me what the book was about, I struggled to answer. It’s about Japan and my family and adoption I would mumble. It wasn’t until I started receiving endorsements, the blurbs that go on the back of the book, that I began to understand what ought to have been obvious from the start. I was writing a book about race and identity.
I failed to see this because I regarded myself as white. When discussing issues of race, being white rarely seems a matter of interest. Race typically comes up in the United States in the context of diversity or discrimination.. Whites still have many advantages by virtue of being the dominant race, in spite of efforts at affirmative action.
Yet, in the course of writing my book and doing research on my father and my grandfather’s family, I came to understand that the experience of racism can be transmitted even if the skin color is not.
My father, for example, was beaten by his father whenever he spoke Japanese. He was half-Japanese but he was an American citizen. He left Japan with his family to live out the war years in California. There he had to hide his Japanese heritage for his family risked being sent to the internment camps where all people of Japanese blood were being detained. Dad studied Japanese during the war and served in the U.S. Occupation of Japan. There, too, he hid his Japanese.
That experience was a deep part of Dad’s psyche and resulted in a kind of split personality. Dad could be kind and generous to the Japanese, but at the same time he could act in the most racist way toward them. And he was deeply insecure and unsure about his identity. He transmitted that uncertainty to me. Without ever being aware of it, I inherited that split identity. I always thought it had more to do with growing up as an :”outsider” in Japan. And I’m sure that experience exacerbated things. But ultimately, it was more about the absence of a core identity as either Japanese or American. I’ve learned that, this is not such a terrible thing. There are many people in the world like me. There are the first generation immigrants who are slowly losing the ways of their mother country the longer they stay in America and yet continue to feel like outsiders here. It is a great feature of America that, in spite of instances of racism, this country is more open to people of other cultures than just about any other country in the world. We have had to. Because, if you think about it, that’s who we are as a nation.. . .
Yokohama Yankee is finally finished. I’ve made the last changes I can make before the file goes to the printer. I’m happy with the book, but its an odd feeling. I remember a writer who said that she didn’t want to write a memoir because that would set her life in stone. She could no longer change or shape her past. I’m not sure I completely agree with her, but there is a lot of truth to what she says. Writing about yourself and your family is a process of self-revelation. Of course there is the years of research and the countless interviews. But all that information is filtered and transformed into narrative in the process of writing. The writing itself shapes the memory and what you remember of an event. Even if I write another book, I won’t be able to change that.
Even so, it’s good to have the book completed. I remember going through my great- grandfather’s reminiscences and wishing there were more details. I remember opening my grandmother Betty Stucken Helm’s notebook and reading the first few paragraphs of what was supposed to be her life’s story. She ended with “Oh the stories I could tell.” My father, too, made an effort to start a family history. He went on for two or three pages before ending. Now I have a book. It’s intensely personal. I look at the five generations of my family in Japan through my own feeling of growing up as an outsider in Japan and adopting two children there. Relatives who grew up in New Zealand, Germany or the United States may have a very different take on the family. My uncle, for example, was unhappy with my portrayal of his father. But he was a younger child and he had a very different experience of his father than my father Don. I suspect there could be 10 memoirs written of the Helm family’s long presence in Japan and they could all be very different. One might glorify the family. Another might focus on the business. Since I started my exploration from the perspective of being an outsider, I have no doubt that this particular portal into the family color the decisions I made about what to write and how to portray it.
The book is done and I’m nervous. I feel very exposed and vulnerable. But I feel good about what I’ve written.