Nihonjinron, the theory of “Japaneseness”, the belief that “the Japanese are a special race of people”, is briefly introduced by Leslie Helm at the beginning of his family memoir, Yokohama Yankee. Over the next three hundred pages, he will write around this theory, never directly about it, making his book both subtle and frustrating. His narrative loops in and out of different time periods, different lives, different parts of the world, never completely confronting the question of what it is to be Japanese in a body that declares itself a foreigner, but always glancing and hinting at the surreal state of “shifting from one dimension to another.”
My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan is the subtitle to Yokohama Yankee. The title itself is ambiguous, because the only fully Western member of the Helm family was German, not a Yankee at all. None of patriarch Julius Helm’s children, born of a Japanese mother, publicly assumed any identity other than German. Julius’s youngest son, captured as a German soldier fighting in China during the first World War, was a Japanese prisoner of war and identified in the press as “ainoko” or “in between.” The word also, Leslie Helms explains, means “mongrel dog.” “What was it like to be compared to a mongrel dog?” he asks. It’s a question that he explores by describing the short and tortured life of his own father, a narrative that weaves in and out of his family history from the first chapter to the last.
Half Japanese, Donald Helm was the son of a business magnate who was born in the United States, had an American passport, grew up as a German, and married a woman who was also German/Japanese. Surrounded by Western friends from different countries who all spoke English, Donald left Japan when he was fourteen for California, at the beginning of World War II.
His family spent the war hiding their Japanese blood to avoid internment. “They’ll say we are Japanese,” Donald’s father told him in 1943 when the FBI was on the way to the Helm household, “It’s a lie. Just ignore it. Remember we are Americans.” Soon after the visitation, the local newspaper’s headline blared “Piedmont Helms Japs.” It was perhaps the first time Donald had been directly confronted with the knowledge that on both sides of his family, he was half Japanese, as well as German, and an American citizen.
It’s a sad irony that at the one time when the Helm family’s German and Japanese heritage would have been buttressed by the alliance between Germany and Japan, the U.S. passports of Donald’s family again put them in the position of being outsiders. When Donald returned to Japan, he came back as one of the country's conquerors, part of the occupying army.
His son Leslie was born in Japan, raised as American, and is one-quarter Japanese. “Growing up in Japan as a foreigner, a gaijin, that outsider status became a central part of my identity…always on display, separated from the society around me.”
Not until much later in his life, when he and his American wife adopt two children who are fully Japanese, does Leslie understand that the society and culture of Japan can also bestow “outsider status” upon its own citizens. The bloodlines and pedigrees of Japanese families, the knowledge of who one’s forbears were, makes adoption unpopular. “If Japanese families found it so difficult to adopt Japanese children just because they were biologically unrelated to them, I asked, how could they ever hope to accept people from different cultures?”
Although the five generations of the Helm family in Japan were successful and respectable, part of their family history, the Japanese part, was almost thoroughly obscured, while much of their heritage in Germany would always be a mystery. Yokohama Yankee uncovers the Japanese roots of this family, the dazzling and often tragic history of the nation that would never claim them, and the details of Leslie’s search to reconcile the disparities that had destroyed his father. It is a book that is both oblique and revealing, one that raises as many questions as it answers.~Janet Brown
This review was previously published in the International Examiner.