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Yokohama Yankee: My Family's Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan [Paperback]

Leslie Helm
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 12 2013

"A lovely, unsettling family story and a vivid traversal of modern Japanese history that will impress the jaded Japan scholar and inspire the curious general reader or memoir fan." — Library Journal

Helm was the Tokyo correspondent for the Los Angeles Times when he realized that the majority of the articles he had written were "critical of Japan in some way." This was surprising considering Helm was born in Japan and is part Japanese himself. In this lovingly researched memoir, he sifts through five generations of Helms living in Japan...history buffs will relish Helm's painstaking detail and impressive command of the material. — Publishers Weekly

"Yokohama Yankee is a marvelous and eloquent work of family history. What makes it more remarkable is this family's history also 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 insightful book that will be read many years from now." — James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and 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 ... 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 of Japanese history at Princeton University


"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


“[A] wonderful work full of pathos, insight and humanity.” — Fred G. Notehelfer, emeritus professor of Japanese history at UCLA and author of Japan Through American Eyes: The Journal of Francis Hall, 1859-1866


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 great-grandfather, who worked as a military advisor in 1870 and defied custom to marry his Japanese mistress. The family's poignant experiences of love and war help Helm overcome his cynicism and embrace his Japanese and American heritage.


This is the first book to look at Japan across five generations, with perspective that is both from the inside and through foreign eyes. Helm draws on his great-grandfather's unpublished memoir and a wealth of primary source material to bring his family history to life.


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About the Author

Leslie Helm is a veteran reporter and editor with more than 20 years experience working for local and national publications. Currently, he is the editor of Seattle Business, a monthly magazine. He also served as executive editor of Washington CEO Magazine. Helm began his career with Business Week, reporting for the magazine first as Tokyo correspondent and later as Boston bureau chief. He returned to Tokyo to cover Japan and Korea as correspondent for The Los Angeles Times before moving to Seattle for the Times to cover business in the Northwest. Helm earned a master of science from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He also has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master of arts in Asian studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Helm was born and raised in Japan and speaks fluent French and Japanese.

Customer Reviews

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece July 19 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
What a delightful book. Leslie is a master in weaving his family history with world affairs. It is fascinating to read, with beautiful pictures to look at. This book should not be missed.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  77 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A View of Japan Few of Us Know March 1 2013
By IsolaBlue - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
YOKOHAMA YANKEE will appeal to a wide range of readers: those interested in German immigration to and business in Japan from the Victorian times on; those who are intrigued by how a somewhat closed society absorbed immigrants; those who have adopted, are thinking of adopting, or are fascinated by stories of adoption by Americans of Asian babies, and lovers of Japanese history and culture.

Leslie Helm traces his family's history in Japan from the arrival of his German great-grandfather, Julius, and his marriage to a Japanese woman during Victorian times to his own upbringing in Japan and eventual marriage to an American woman and their adoption of two Japanese children. There is a lot of information in Helm's book and many photographs as well. Unfortunately the photographs - at least in the advance reader copy - do not carry captions and this makes piecing some of Helm's story together a bit difficult. There are many times while reading the text when it would have been helpful for the photographs to match up with names of individuals or locations mentioned. Obviously these are mostly family photographs passed down, so perhaps Helm did not feel his knowledge deep enough to commit to definite captions.

The book reads quickly and is quite absorbing, very much like watching a well-produced documentary on PBS. Probably most of us have not thought much about immigrants to Japan during the Victorian era, let alone Germans who started successful businesses. Helm introduces us to a world many do not know and might not hear of at all if it were not for Helm's book. There is a good deal of Japanese history to be learned as well, so as the reader takes in Helm's personal family history, there is also the history of an entire country to think about.

Helm's writing about his own youth in Japan and his later adoption of two Japanese children is fascinating, but takes a backseat to the story of his great-grandfather, Julius, without whom none of the Helms would have a connection to Japan, and the story of Julius's son, Julie, the modern-day Helm's grandfather. The story of their lives, their marriages, and the way they did business in Japan was all very interesting.

The book is not genealogy, per se, as Helm does not fill it with images of birth, marriage, and death certificates or citations to same. It is, however, a beautifully put together family history that is part research, part family stories passed down, and part memoir. The author does supply a very helpful family tree at the beginning of the book, complete with photographs which does help the reader better make the connections between various family members.

The book is definitely worth reading. The only criticism is that one wonders whether Helm took on too much. At times it seems as though just Julius's story could fill the book. The modern-day Helms and their adoption of two Japanese children could fill another. But one does understand why the author wanted it all under one cover, so all the additional information and details on peripheral relatives should just be taken in stride by the reader. No one will complete this book without learning something new.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Book! March 10 2013
By Fred George Notehelfer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I just finished reading 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 Japan'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.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Visually compelling, beautiful book. March 2 2013
By Doctor JM - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I don't often read memoirs, but this book has such arresting photos and is so beautifully produced, that I found myself looking at nearly every page before starting on the first chapter. This heartbreaking story navigates the cross currents of identity and history. At a time when we click to read, this book reminds me of what I most love in a real publication: the wonderfully told story, real characters that I care about, and the actual volume in my hands. While I like the the virtual world, Yokohama Yankee reminds me that occasionally, what is best is to sit down with a real beautiful book.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is why we love "real" books March 19 2013
By Loves food - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I pre-ordered this book on the recommendation of the author's brother. Having grown up in the same area and around the same time as the author I couldn't wait to get my hands on something that would bring back the "familiar" Japan I used to know.
When the book came I sat right down and read a couple of chapters. Then I stopped. I realized this was not the kind of book I thought it would be. It is BETTER than I thought it would be.
I decided to stop looking for the familiar and start the book all over again. I wanted to see it for the book Leslie Helm intended it to be. I am so glad I did.
This is a stunning book. The artwork, layout, photos and prints are all best appreciated in book form. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone as an eBook. unless there is no other option. I found myself going back to the genealogy page and other photos for reference several times.
Besides this being a book with rare, documented insight into Japan at a time of transformation and through two wars it gives wonderful detail into other non-historical aspects of Japan that we might otherwise never encounter.
This is a book about belonging and not belonging. Wanting to belong and not wanting to belong. Being accepted and not accepted and finally...about being accepting.
Interspersed the historical chapters are Leslie Helm's personal stories and questions about his family, about Japan and more questions raised after the the adoption of his two children in Japan. This chronicles the history the Helms, a well know foreign family in Yokohama from the late 1800's until now. A family for whom through marriage, intermarriage and business association, questions of comfort with identity( familial, cultural, social and national allegiance) seemed to be always present.
I enjoyed reading about the foreign population of Yokohama in the early years. Leslie writes in detail about the many events, natural and man-made that would play a part in the lives and fortunes of Japan and of course, the Helm family.
He is honest in his self assessment as a person, writer, a father and a son.
You don't have to have lived in Japan to appreciate this book, There are many people for whom " home" is somewhere that in retrospect they never really fit or were accepted as they believed they were.. But it is still the "home" they think about. I have bought 11 books so far...the perfect gift for someone who has lived there.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A True Gift March 24 2013
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I absolutely loved Leslie Helm's Yokohama Yankee. While I have never met the author, I did go to high school with his brother, Chris. I was also born in Yokohama to American parents and had the experience of living in two cultures simultaneously. Leslie's research both of Japan and his family was truly a gift to all of us. Even if you have never lived in Japan, you will love the touching stories of his family and his own childhood, as well as the amazing history of Yokohama and her people and customs. Thank you, Leslie, for your beautiful work. I will treasure Yokohama Yankee always.
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