Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan, by Leslie Helm, is a very lovely and informative book. From his own family history to assimilation in Japan, to feelings of insecurity and not belonging within the scheme of society, Helm describes with sharpness and sensitivity how his childhood years formed the foundation for his perspective of Japan.
It mattered not that his ancestors forged a place within the social strata of Yokohama and beyond. It didn’t matter that they were known for their businesses produced jobs for the citizens or that the business helped bring money and other business ventures to the community. It made no difference that they were viewed with respect and shown dignity. What mattered to Helm, was the fact that he was of mixed heritage within an environment that stemmed five generations. During those generations the Japanese did not readily accept blended marriages.
One example of that is his relatives who were not Japanese were buried in the “foreign cemetery”. A cemetery reserved for those who were not Japanese nationals.
Helm’s insecurities eventually led him to trace his family ancestry, the generations that preceded him, in Japan. One of the reasons that prompted him to do so was due to the fact that he adopted two Japanese children. He wanted to learn more about his own heritage in order to help them with their own identities and backgrounds. He did not want them to feel the way he did, as a child.
Yokohama Yankee is more than a book regarding the five generations that came before Helm. It is a book that depicts assimilation, childhood insecurity, and identity in a land where you don’t necessarily feel that you belong, a land where you don’t feel you resemble anyone else. The book portrays Leslie Helm as feeling as if he was treated differently than others, even though he was born in Japan.
I found Yokohama Yankee to be a satisfying story, and one that encompassed not only Helm’s family history, but also the history of Yokohama and other areas of Japan. The cultural aspects were interesting. It was fascinating to read, and gave me a clearer picture of the country, its history, its cultural mores and its view of Americans.
I recommend Yokohama Yankee to everyone.