What’s the Book About?

January 16, 2013

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.. . .

 

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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