Visiting Japan: A tense six talks in five days during which I voyage into the past and. perhaps, into the future.

July 30, 2013

I’ve always had trouble when it comes to speaking in front of people. So I was terrified enough when my high school, YIS, asked me last fall to be the commencement speaker for the class of 2013. That’s a heavy responsibility. But it’s also a long trip. And since my book was coming out a few months before the June graduation, I decided to tack on some book talks.

Before I knew it I had scheduled six talks in five days. Two of the talks where one-and-a-half hour sessions in Japanese! I hadn’t given a speech in Japanese in 30 years. And never for more than 15 minutes. Now they were asked me to give 45-minute talks. I could feel the tension rising as the day approached.

I wasn’t going to wing these talks. I wrote out my commencement speech and my book speech. And I asked a Japanese friend, Kozy Amemiya, to translate my book speech into Japanese. I planned to read it.But I hadn’t read Japanese aloud since I was in grade school. And my Japanese was very rusty. But it was a challenge I wanted to take on. It was about time I did something to improve my Japanese. But I didn’t have enough time to prepare while working full time, so I had another friend, Yoko, read the speech into a digital tape recorder so I could listen to it and get the rhythm of the talk down.

On the 9-hour trip to Japan, I spent almost the entire time listening to the speech on my digital recorder as I followed the text. There were so many kanji characters I couldn’t read so I had to jot down phonetic notes to help me along. The more I practiced, the more I realized how foolish I had been to agree to speak for 45 minutes in Japanese. I’ve never given an English speech that lasted more than 30 minutes, I suddenly realized.

One benefit: My short book speeches in English now seemed easy. When I stood before three hundred or so students and parents at the Yokohama International School graduation on Saturday morning, I was relaxed. Everyone seemed attentive and that added to my confidence.

But it was hot in the room and the ceremony went on and on. It was steaming hot in the auditorium. For some reason the decision was made not to open the windows. Yet there was no air conditioning, so the school had given out Japanese fans to everyone, and the audience were all fanning themselves as I stood up on the podium.

The talk went well, I thought. I had spent 14 or 15 years at that school so it was an emotional experience. But I knew the audience and that helped me get my message across. Most of them, like me, had spent much of their lives in Yokohama. And like me, many were part Japanese. Mixtures of Japanese and South African, Australian and every flavor of European.One of the graduates was the son of a YIS alumni who I knew. Two of my former high school teachers were there. They gave me high marks for the talk.

The following day, Sunday, I gave my book talk at the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club. Here was another place where I had spent much of my youth. As I waited to speak, I looked over at the huge athletic field in the distance. There were two Japanese teams playing soccer. The club was now facing hard times so it was renting the field to any team willing to pay. There was game after game. The field was never idle as it had often been in my day. The lawn bowl green was much as I had remembered it. Everybody in their whites, playing quietly, as if there was all in a silent film. I peeked my head in the bowling alley next door to the room where I was speaking. With just four lanes, the bowling alley seemed tiny. And nobody was playing so it felt empty, almost haunted. In my day it had always been packed, the sounds of bowling pins crashing flooded the room with a constant clatter.And I thought I could hear the distant echo of that sound as I looked down the dark empty alleys.

I knew the  YC&AC audience would be tougher than any audience in the United States, Japan was nothing knew to them. Many of them had lived in Japan for generations. Many of them were part Japanese. Many of them knew my father. I wasn’t sure how they would react. Soon after I finished my talk, one woman stood up feeling clearly a little irritated. “I don’t know why you are carrying all this baggage,” she said. “I’m half-Japanese and I’m proud of it.”  A man got up to say I had been too hard on my father. He said my father had helped him so much when he had been down and out and that I should know what a good man my father had been. I nodded my head. It was true. He had helped many people out. I felt myself feeling smaller.

Then John Hasegawa stood up. I had know him as Johnny Paul. He had been several grades ahead of me at YIS. A bit of a mischief maker, as I recall. His mother had taught my Japanese class. John told the group that he knew exactly where I was coming from. He had been raised as John Paul because his mother knew he would have trouble growing up part-Japanese and had wanted him to have an identity as a foreigner. He later learned that Paul was a made up name. His real name was Hasegawa. Paul had long felt alienated both in Japan and in the U.S. He said my book touched a deep chord in him. And then there were many others who stood up to agree. Afterward, the box of books we had prepared quickly sold out. I felt I had passed some kind of test in front of the toughest audience.

But the next day, Monday, was yet another challenge. This time I was to speak at the Foreign Correspondence Club of Japan. This had been my home on two assignments as foreign correspondent. On my second assignment I had been vice president in charge of working with the club staff, so I knew many of the people who worked there. Only a few foreign correspondents were still there from my day, but I had also invited many Japanese friends to the talk, so there were close to a hundred in the audience. Many of the Japanese in the audience couldn’t understand my talk, but fortunately, before the talk we had a video in Japanese that had been put together by my translator, Yumiko, which gave the basics of my family story..

this talk when relatively well. The biggest challenge turned out to be trying to spend time afterward with all the different Japanese friends I had invited. Normally we met with people separately. We had never met two sets of friends together let alone several dozen. It was awkward. People pushed envelopes in my hand. When I got home, I was throwing away papers when I came across a blank, unopened envelope. When I opened it, I found 10 crisp $50 bills. When I finally figured out who the gift was from, I asked the friend why the gift. They had helped me, not the other way around. “Just a gift in celebration,” the friend said. .

Now I had a day off. On Tuesday, through contacts with a friend, I had the opportunity to meet a descendant of a Japanese shogun. He had read my book and loved it. He said he would mention it to some friends of his at NHK, Japan’s public television station. He looked at me soberly and said: “You know, there are just a few books that I read so thoroughly I take with me to the bathroom to read. This was one of them,”

Wednesday was my first Japanese talk. A professor who was a friend of Yumiko, the Japanese woman who is translating my book, had asked me to speak to her class at Yokohama City University. I figured that since it was a small class, there would be no problem. Still, I practiced several times again, listing to the tap of the speech any time I was sitting on a train.

But when I stood before that small class of no more than 30 students, I froze. The light wasn’t good, and I realized I had printed out the speech in letters that were too small to read easily. I felt like a third grader being asked to stand before the class and read a passage from a book full of difficult words I couldn’t pronounce. I struggled with many of the kanji characters and read much more slowly than I should have. Afterward, the students had few questions, and I found it awkward filling out the time. One young man who had spent most of his life in Canada, stopped by to talk to me afterward. “Why didn’t you just speak in English,” he asked. I was embarrassed.

I had another talk that afternoon in Tokyo. I took a train and subway to the German Institute for Japanese Studies. It is one of several institutes around the world sponsored by the German government. It supports serious research on a variety of current issues in Japan. Fortunately, I wasn’t expected to speak in German. I was please that John Campbell was there. He is a well known scholar of Japanese studies and I had read his work in college. There were several German scholars and a few foreign residents who had read the review of my book in the Japan Times earlier in the week. This time there were less than 10 people. It was fun talking to the group. One of the German scholars spoke of how many of the students of her generation used the dictionary written by my grandfather, Robert Schinzinger. “We used to say ‘Where’s my Schinzinger,” she recalled. There was much interest in the adoption system in Japan.

Finally, my last talk was at Rikkyo University, another class of Japanese students. But this time there were more than 80 students. I had practiced some more so this time my reading was a little better, although I was still embarrassingly slow. Fortunately, after the talk we had a vigorous question and answer session. While my talk was formal and a little stilted, now I could speak colloquial Japanese and I felt totally comfortable. The professor told me over drinks later that the Q&A session had been the best part. I promised myself that the next time, even if they asked me to speak 45 minutes, I would do only a short written speech and do the rest in a discussion format, which I enjoyed so much more.

The trip was rewarding, however, An editor from a Japanese publishing house attended my last talk and told me he was interested in publishing my book in Japanese. I met with a Japanese literary agency, Uni Japan, which is now representing me. They have presented proposals to five publishers and are waiting for a reply. So it was a busy week. But in a short time I had passed through several stages of my early life including the school, the athletic club and the press club. The Japanese talks presented me with a new challenge, one I will face again and again if all goes well and my book finally published in Japanese.

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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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