Oh, To Be Japanese!

By Sheila K. JohnsonMarch 13, 2013

Yokohama Yankee by Leslie Helm

MANY FOREIGNERS have fallen in love with Japan — its physical beauty, its culture, its people. Most of these foreigners have been men, and some have married Japanese women or taken Japanese male lovers. A few have become naturalized Japanese citizens, but this can be a difficult process unless one happens to be Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904), a famous early visitor and explicator of things Japanese who was adopted into his wife’s family, or Donald Keene (born 1922), an equally famous contemporary Japanologist, who became a citizen as an act of solidarity with Japan in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. 

In his book Yokohama Yankee, Leslie Helm tells the story of his part-German, part-Japanese, part-American family from the arrival of his great-grandfather Julius Helm in Yokohama in 1869 to his own adoption of two Japanese children in 1992. Intertwined with this story he recounts the vicissitudes of Japan’s history during this time — two world wars, massive earthquakes in 1923 and 1995, and his own ambivalence about being part Japanese and yet always being regarded there as an outsider, a gaijin.    

It is important to the Helm family story to understand that, until 1987, only children born to a Japanese father and a foreign mother could become Japanese nationals. The American sociologist William Wetherall, who married a Japanese woman and had two children with her, challenged this law because he wanted his children to have Japanese citizenship. After a lengthy legal battle the law was changed by giving the mother’s rights legal status.

Wetherall insists that Japanese citizenship laws have never been racist — as early 20th century American laws denying US citizenship to “Orientals” assuredly were. He argues that Japanese laws were merely rooted in the patrilineal social structure and household registers. But, given that Japan was a virtually monoracial society and enforced the exclusion of Westerners from its shores until the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1854, being a Japanese citizen has been, for all intents and purposes, the same thing as being ethnically Japanese.

In 1869, Leslie Helm’s great-grandfather Julius arrived in Yokohama from Germany. He’d first traveled to the US and briefly tried farming in Montana before taking the transcontinental railroad to San Francisco and then a ship to Japan. Yokohama was just becoming a busy port with ships bringing machinery and manufactured goods from Europe and the US before heading back loaded with silks, tea, and porcelain. Julius Helm quickly saw an opportunity to create a stevedoring and portage company; he soon owned horses, carts, and warehouses, and became a prosperous man. By 1871, he’d sent for two of his brothers from Germany and made them partners, and in 1875 he married his Japanese housekeeper, Hiro, who bore him seven children.

Julius and his brood lived in an area of Yokohama known as “The Bluff,” which became a foreign enclave complete with churches, schools, shops, and a hospital. But because the children grew up with Japanese nursemaids and servants, they inevitably grew up speaking, if not reading, Japanese. 

Julius was a restless man and also wanted some of his children to have European educations, so he sent some of the older ones back to Germany. And in 1887 he and his pregnant wife happened to be in Brooklyn, where she gave birth to Leslie Helm’s grandfather, Julie, making him an American citizen. Over the years, the family and the business would endure the 1904–1905 Russo–Japanese War, out of which Japan acquired Korea; and World War I, when Japan was allied with England against Germany and gained the German enclaves in China. One of Julius’s sons went to fight with the Germans in Tsingtao, was captured by Japanese soldiers, and spent more than five years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, an odd fate for a man with a Japanese mother.

Julius, the patriarch, died in May of 1922, a little more than a year before the September 1923 earthquake that destroyed both Tokyo and Yokohama with a loss of 140,000 lives. However, Julie, the author’s grandfather, survived and with his older brother bought up the property of foreigners who’d decided to leave Japan. Julie also married a woman who, like himself, was half German, half Japanese. They would have three sons, one of them Leslie Helm’s father, Don. 

During the 1930s, Japan became increasingly militarist and chauvinist, although the part-German, part-Japanese, part-American Helm clan continued to prosper. In 1938, they proudly opened Helm House, a five-story, reinforced concrete building that served as both their company’s headquarters and also contained 31 modern, fully furnished apartments designed to attract an international clientele. During World War II the Japanese government took control of it and rented it to the German Navy, and during the US Occupation it was used by officers of the Eighth Army. However, some of the Helm uncles and cousins who had retained their German citizenship managed to continue operating the firm during the war.

Meanwhile, in September of 1941, Leslie Helm’s grandfather Julie, who was half Japanese but with American citizenship, and his wife Betty, who was half German and half Japanese, arrived in California with their three sons, and settled in a house in Piedmont. After February of the following year, when President Roosevelt signed the infamous Executive Order 9066, they could easily have been interned as enemy aliens, but they kept a low profile and nothing happened. In June of 1943, Leslie’s father Don graduated from high school at the age of 16 and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. As soon as he turned 18 he enlisted in the US Army, and there — when his superiors learned he could speak Japanese — he was quickly recruited as a translator to interrogate prisoners of war. While at Berkeley, he’d also met his future wife who, like himself, was of German heritage but had been born and raised in Japan. 

Leslie Helm’s father served for two years in the postwar American Occupation of Japan and then returned to the University of California to study and marry the woman he’d met there. As Helm comments:

How strange it is to think that if California’s anti-miscegenation laws, which banned inter-racial marriage, had not been struck down by the California Supreme Court in 1948, my father would not have been allowed to marry my mother because of his mixed-Japanese heritage. It was also ironic that Mom had been a beneficiary of America’s racist laws. The United States had a quota of immigrants for each country. Mom had no trouble getting a visa to enter the United States because she was born in Japan and fell under the Japan quota. The Japan quota of immigrants was always undersubscribed because, under U.S. law, people of Japanese blood could not immigrate to the United States. To enter America under the Japanese quota, you had to be born in Japan, but because of the exclusion laws, you could not enter with Japanese blood! 

And this, in a nutshell, brings us to the author himself, born in Japan in 1955, after his father had returned to Yokohama to run the family business, and raised there until 1973 when he came to the University of California, Berkeley. Helm met his future wife, Marie Anchordoguy — now a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle — when they both worked part-time for a Japanese company based in Berkeley. She, an American of Basque descent, had already spent a year as an exchange student in Japan and was seriously studying the language. Helm had held a variety of jobs and ultimately became a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, which sent him to Tokyo as a correspondent in 1990. In 1992, after discovering they could not have biological children, they decided to adopt two Japanese children, a girl and a boy.

The story of this adoption, interwoven with Helm’s exploration of his own family history and identity, makes this an extremely subtle, rich narrative. There are many ironies. Because Helm does not look Japanese, in Japan people often seem skeptical and become distant when he tells them he has Japanese ancestors. When the family was staying at an inn in Nikko, the innkeeper “looked at me and Marie quizzically, then asked, ‘So you must be the teachers and they are your students?’ This was a ridiculous suggestion since Mariko was nine and Eric six. Yet this was the only way she could explain our presence together.” Yet back in Seattle, when Helm took young Eric to the grocery store, let him run around, and then started to lift him back in the cart, a woman who saw him suddenly demanded “Put that child down.” When Helm said, “What do you mean? He’s my son,” the woman replied, “Can you prove it?”  

Helm ends the story of his family’s connection with Japan by noting that it will now be continued through his children, who “will have their own journeys to take, their own stories to write.” I’m looking forward to reading that sequel.


LARB Contributor

Sheila K. Johnson is an anthropologist, gerontologist, and freelance writer. She’s the author of Idle Haven: Community-Building Among the Working-class Retired (University of California Press, 1971) and The Japanese Through American Eyes (Stanford University Press, 1988). She is currently working on a memoir about her long marriage to scholar and writer Chalmers Johnson.


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