My Commencement Speech to the YIS Class of 2013, My 40th Reunion and the 40th anniversary of YIS as a full high school.

July 21, 2013

Congratulations graduates of the Yokohama International School Class of 2013. Congratulations mothers, fathers, teachers and all the rest of you who have played a role in raising these fine young men and women.

Thank you so much for letting me celebrate this special day with you. What an impressive group you are. You come from Australia, Canada, Denmark, China, Finland, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, the Philippines, New Zealand, South Africa, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. AND, of course, in every one of you, whether by blood or by culture or both, there is much of Japan, of Yokohama and of YIS. That’s a rich legacy, and as you go out into the world, treasure it for it will serve you well.

Never forget that you attended school and shared friendships in a very special city. Yokohama is a place where two great cultures of the West and East first came together in a major way 150 years ago. And all of you educated as you have been in a  multi-national, multi-ethnic, multicultural school. Those cross-cultural  smarts are part of your DNA. The world needs people like you. Don’t hide that talent. Nurture it. One day, when you least expect it you will find those talents a huge asset.

Yokohama is also synonymous with resilience. It has survived and thrived in the face of as much hardship as perhaps any city in the world. In 1866, soon after it was founded as a western settlement, virtually the whole town was wiped out by fire. In 1923, 90 years ago, a massive earthquake ignited a firestorm that killed 140,000 people in Tokyo and Yokohama.

Most foreigners left Yokohama. They believed nothing was left here for them. The rest went to work to rebuild the city. Among those hardy souls who had the gumption, the guts to build, from those ashes, a new school. Yokohama International School was founded just a year after the earthquake.  What greater symbol of hope can there be after a major disaster than to build a new school.

Just two decades later, Yokohama was once again destroyed, this time by firebombs. Yet Yokohama and YIS rose again. So as you go out into the world you face the hardships you will invariably face, remember Yokohama. Remember how it came back again and again and again.  Whatever sorrow, you must have the courage to face it, embrace it and then go on with life.

Look for the silver lining. In Japan, there is an old saying “with fire comes prosperity.” That’s because fires offer an opportunity to start afresh.

Five years ago I got into a fight with my boss and I was fired for the first time in my life. I was at times furious at other times depressed. But I took the time to renew old contacts and soon found another, better job. More importantly, I took the time to finish a book that was recently published. Getting fired turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me.

Like many of you, I spent a lot of time at YIS. In 1959, my first day of school, my father carried me over his shoulder to nursery school while I screamed. I was four years old. I ended up loving it. Nursery and kindergarten were the only grades in which I ever got straight A’s.

I struggle through a lot of school. I remember penmanship class. I was about 8. I sat at an old wooden desk as the teacher explained, yet again, that good penmanship would be key to my future.

I picked up my dip  pen. Seems like the middle ages but we still used a little stick with a steel nib at the end. I dipped the pen into the ink pot on my desk and began to write, watching as bubbles of ink formed on the curls of my ps and qs. After every few sentences, I picked up some blotting paper to soak up the extra ink. As I wrote there was this constant sense of impending disaster. You see, I knew that it was only a matter of time.

I would forget to use the blotting paper and the edge of my sleeve would catch  the bubbles of ink and smear them across the paper If penmanship with the key to the future, I was doomed.

I wish I could whisper in that little kids ear. “Don’t sweat it, in a couple of years they’ll have these really cool new devices called ballpoint pens. Since I also tended to have trouble organizing my thoughts, maybe I would also tell him about the computers that would make it so easy to rewrite things that even someone as scatter brained as I was could actually make a living as a writer. I don’t think I would have believed the future me.

So Lesson #1:  What often seem like insurmountable obstacles can suddenly disappear. Don’t be discouraged. If something interests you, if you care enough about it, you will be astonished by the force you have within you to accomplish what you want.

Let’s jump forward to 1969. I was in 8th grade. I didn’t want to change schools but it looked like I would have little choice. We had no high school at the time. A few teachers including Edward Bernard and Ian Kerr, who are here today, and a group of parents decided, why not create a high school. If you think about it, it was a crazy idea: to build a new high school on some of the most expensive land in Japan.

I expect creating a new school today would require years of study and endless meetings. But YIS just started adding one new grade every year. We were a pathetic lot at first. Nine people in my graduating class. I’m not sure how well we were prepared for college. But we survived. And the school just kept getting better and better.

So lesson two. Great things can come from small steps. The trick is to keep at it. That’s how we can make the world a better place. Start small, with something manageable. But keep at it. I know. Some things seem impossible. Climate scientists are telling us today that we are headed toward inevitable disaster. If we continue our current rate of carbon emissions, in less than a decade we could reach the point of no return. Temperatures rise, deserts spread, ocean levels climb and ocean acidification kills off most of the coral in the world. By 2050 something like a million species will disappear from the earth.

I have to admit it’s a scary prospect. But you know, in 1973 when I graduated from YIS, the Soviet Union and the United States were pointing thousands of nuclear weapons at each other. We knew that the world could come to an end at some point. It was just a question of time before some idiot pushed the button.

Miracles do happen. The cold war ended without destroying the planet. Of course, unlike with the cold war, when it comes to climate change every one in the planet needs to get involved. It will require every skill from engineering and biology to computer sciences and diplomacy. It will require empathy toward people on the other side of the planet. It will require understanding other cultures.

You see, for all the talk of globalization, we are still a planet at war with itself. We are divided by wealth, by ethnicity, by religion and yes, by national borders. Yet addressing climate change, by its very nature must involve the whole planet.

What great group of people to start taking this on than you here today. You have important cross cultural skills. Combine that with the power of social networking, and you as individuals have powers and possibilities to create change that previous generations could not have dreamed of.

It’s important to help address those issues. But don’t let the fear of the future cloud the present. Indeed don’t let anything whether its your future education, your future mate or your future  children cloud your experience of the present, because, in the end, that’s all there is.

When you are at work, work with all your heart. When he are with friends and your parents talk with them. Listen to them. laugh with them. When you are in the woods, listen to the wind and the birds.In the end, as you well know, the money you earn make keep you comfortable, but it is the people you love that you will treasure.

What make me hopeful is young people like yourselves. You have an awareness of the many cultures around the world that few others have. Combine that with the power of social networks and the great advances in technology, and you as individuals have the power to create change that previous generations could not have dreamed of.

Never forget that you shared very special friendships in a very special city and at a very special school. Living in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic environment, cross-cultural smarts are part of your DNA.

The world needs people like you. Don’t hide that talent. Nurture it. On day, when you least expect it, you will find they are a huge asset to you and to the world.


Leslie Helm

About the Author

Leslie Helm

Leslie Helm was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, where his family has lived since 1869. He has worked as Tokyo correspondent for Business Week and the Los Angeles Times. It was during his years abroad that he adopted two Japanese children and began the research that would result in Yokohama Yankee. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine. Leslie graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in Asian studies. He attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on a U.S. Japan Friendship Commission fellowship. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine.

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