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Scrutinizing identity through one’s family

by Michael Hoffman

Lucky great-grandfather Julius. This first member of the Helm family to settle in Japan was “as rooted in his German identity as an old oak tree.” For his mixed-race descendants, life would not be so simple.

YOKOHAMA YANKEE: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan, by Leslie Helm. Chin Music Press, 2013, 336 pp., $16.95 (paperback)

Yokohama in 1869 had something of the “wild west” about it. Twenty years earlier it had been a backwater fishing village of 80 households. Japan then had been a “closed country.” Now it was open a crack, the Black Ships of the American Navy having demanded and secured trading privileges in the 1850s. Yokohama, possessing a natural harbor, grew into Japan’s biggest foreign settlement. “The scum of Europe,” was one British visitor’s acid summation of the crowd he met there.

Julius Helm (1840-1922) was a German farm boy who aimed to better himself and migrated to the United States. The life there didn’t satisfy him, and he thought next of China. He boarded a train to San Francisco but missed the China boat “by the length of my nose.” The next boat out was bound for Yokohama. So to Yokohama he went. The year was 1869.

Those were the early days of the man who founded Helm Brothers, “the largest foreign-owned stevedoring and forwarding company in Japan,” with “office buildings, apartment complexes, warehouses cranes, tugboats and barges in every major Japanese port.” It survived two world wars and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, remaining in the family until it was sold to a Hong Kong firm in 1972.

“Yokohama Yankee” is more than the history of a business and more than the history of a family. Former Los Angeles Times journalist Leslie Helm, Julius Helm’s great-grandson, was born in Yokohama in 1955. His real theme is identity — identities, rather. Most people have one, some have none, others have multiple identities that clash and clamor rather than harmonize.

Julius, the pioneer, faced earthier problems — first survival, then getting a fledgling business off the ground. His indomitable spirit overcame grievous reverses. In a memoir, he wrote, “The more people called me a slave to my business, the happier I felt. I was working for myself and I could see the results of my efforts.”

Defying convention, he married a Japanese woman and fathered seven children. One of them, the author’s paternal grandfather, chanced to be born in the U.S. during his parents’ brief sojourn there. Thus American citizenship crept into the family. Pearl Harbor wrenched the resulting identity crisis into the light of day: “Now Japan — the country of his mother — and Germany — the country of his father — were allies in a war against the country of which he was a citizen, the United States.”

There’s a kind of warp this book takes us through. History plays strange tricks on people — on multi-identity people most of all. The author’s grandfather Julie (short for Julius Jr.) found himself one September day in 1923 running from a hysterical Japanese mob wreaking fury on ethnic Koreans. It was just after the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Koreans, somehow, were believed to be poisoning wells; Julie, somehow, was taken for Korean. Years later, settled for a time in the U.S., he was taken for Latin-American — which saved him from the mass internment of Japanese-Americans following Pearl Harbor.

The author’s mother, a one-time championship swimmer, as a teenager proudly sported a swastika. She was born into a German family in Yokohama. Her father was a professor of philosophy who publicly reviled Nazism but allowed his children, for the sake of their social lives, to join the local version of Hitler Youth.

And so there, in a photo included in the book, is the author’s mom at 17, smilingly accepting a swimming award. “Prominently printed on the center of her shirt, between her youthful breasts, was a swastika … I cannot help feeling Hitler’s evil touched my mother.”

The author’s own childhood was full of anomalies. A Japan-born American citizen, perfectly bilingual, he was neither quite Japanese nor quite American. What was he, then — a “gaijin”? Is a word that essentially means “non-Japanese” — a pure negative — an adequate identity? Years later he would agonize over whether some of the derogatory reporting he did from Japan was honest criticism or subconscious revenge against the culture that had excluded him.

He and his American wife adopted two Japanese children and discovered new dimensions of the identity crisis. “Why is my skin so dark?” his daughter Mariko would ask as a child. At 16 she was saying, “I realize that it is us, our family, who have to teach people that it’s OK to look different.” But it was a long rocky road, with probably more rocks ahead.

The truly tragic figure is the author’s father, Donald Helm (1926-1991). A rakish, good-looking, gifted boy, intellectually acute and culturally sensitive, he seemed to have had it in him to make more than the others of his complex, conflicted heritage. For a time he ran the family firm, but “it wasn’t the life of culture and intellectual stimulation he had imagined for himself.” What was the fatal flaw in his character that turned his every victory into defeat? Was it the “Japanese” in him? Some mumbled remarks over too much Scotch in his last years suggest he thought so. Certainly the “Japanese” in him made it impossible for him to be comfortable in his own skin — a condition he passed on to his son, whose struggle with it and partial triumph over it are the best of what this book has to teach us.

Michael Hoffman’s latest novel is “The Naked Ear.” Leslie Helm will be appearing at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Tokyo on Monday and the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo on Wednesday among other venues while he is visiting Japan.