Yokohama Yankee

Leslie Helm’s decision to adopt Japanese children launches him on a personal journey through his family’s 140 years in Japan, beginning with his German great-grandfather, who worked as a military adviser in 1870 and defied custom to marry his Japanese mistress. The family’s poignant experiences of love and war help Helm learn to embrace his Japanese and American heritage.

Yokohama Yankee is the first book to look at Japan across five generations both from the inside and through foreign eyes. Helm draws extensively on primary source material including his great grandfather’s unpublished memoir to bring his family history to life. The book also contains a wealth of photographs, maps, illustrations, postcards and ephemera from the late 19th century to the present day.




Praise for Yokohama Yankee

Yokohama Yankee’ is a marvelous and eloquent work of family history…(it) sheds light on the political, economic, cultural, and racial interactions and tensions between Japan and the United States for more than a century and a half, right up to the present day. This is a humane and and insightful book that will be read many years from now.. James Fallows, the Atlantic, author of China Airborne

Like a sword cleaving a bittersweet fruit, Leslie Helm’s saga of his mixed-blood family in Japan cuts to the inescapable isolation of being white in a country where blood still means so much. Yokohama Yankee is a painfully intimate story that spans more than a century and brings the wrenching history of modern Japan into a focus that is both razor sharp and deeply human.
–Blaine Harden, author of Escape from Camp 14 and former Tokyo bureau chief of The Washington Post

Leslie Helm has written a lively and engaging account of his remarkable family history and its intertwining with Japan.  He relates the experiences of five generations from the time of his great grandfather’s arrival in Yokohama in 1869 down to the present and tells what it was like to live in Japan but still be an outsider. It is a warm and human story that will charm its readers.” — Kenneth B. Pyle, Henry M. Jackson professor of Asian history and Asian studies, University of Washington and recipient of Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun

One of the finest correspondents to have reported on Japan, Leslie Helm tells the riveting, sometimes painful,story of his multinational, biracial merchant family.  Living in Yokohama for generations in war and peace, the Helms are at the heart of Japan’s long modern history without ever actually becoming “Japanese.” —Sheldon Garon, Nissan Professor in Japanese Studies, Professor of History and East Asian Studies, Princeton University

Gaijin is the saga of five generations of a family of German and American immigrants in the raucous seaport of Yokohama. Leslie Helms tells with verve his fascinating family history pieced together from letters, interviews, and personal recollection. It is partly the story of racial identity as the members of the family intermix with Japanese. Author Helms confronts his own feelings as a person of mixed heritage and touchingly recounts his efforts to bond with his adopted children. Gaijin is a must read for anyone interested in Japanese history or the rearing of adopted children.
-Burritt Sabin, author of A Historical Guide to Yokohama

The legacy of three great civilizations course through Leslie Helm’s family. His great- grandfather, a Prussian entrepreneur, introduced 19th century military tactics into feudal Japan and later made a fortune in Yokohama. His grandfather and father, both American citizens but ethnically half-Japanese, spent World War II in California, fearing that the family would be interned as enemy aliens. They eventually return to Japan, as does Leslie, again and again, searching for elusive points of tangency between his /gaijin/ (“foreigner”) life and the wondrous, often impenetrable culture of the Island Kingdom. This is a fascinating book, skillfully told, about a family’s search for identity over three turbulent centuries. Leslie Helm mines the many treasures of his family’s past, and the multicultural futures of his adopted, Japanese children, to investigate the mysteries of identity that are locked away inside all of us. The family fortune disappears, and relatives scatter in the winds of war and reconstruction. But this lovely story remains, about an erudite man trying to make sense of the world, of the past, and of himself.
-Alex Beam, Boston Globe columnist

I just finished reading the manuscript of Leslie Helm’s book, Yokohama Yankee. It is a wonderful work, full of pathos, insight, and humanity. The history of his family in Yokohama and the vagaries that five generations of Helms went through in running one of the very important foreign firms in Japan is beautifully written. I just kept sitting before my computer hour after hour, thinking of the many experiences that the author and his family went through that resonated so clearly with my own life in Japan as a child and an adult. What I particularly liked about the book is the way in which it integrated the historical with the contemporary. I also am impressed with the manner in which the personal elements are linked to the broader historical, sociological, and cultural issues.

The author’s love/hate relationship with Japan is shared by many of us who grew up living in Japan and is an essential feature of the East/West dilemma that confronts the modern history of Westerner residing there. As the author shows so clearly most long term residents of Japan learn to work through the cultural complexity and make peace with their environment with time. Helm’s book gives us a nice perspective on the process by which such cultural accommodation has been achieved. While this book is important at the personal level, it is even more important as a historical document that reveals the experiences of Helm Bros. and the men who built that firm in Yokohama. The story is really remarkable, taking us through the Meiji Restoration, World War I, the Great Earthquake of 1923, World War II, and finally Japa’�s postwar recovery. Each of these events comes alive through the personal perspective of family members who lived in Yokohama for nearly a century and a half. The author should be congratulated for the way he has captured their lives and times.
-Fred G. Notehelfer, Emeritus Professor of Japanese History, Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles


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