The author’s German great-grandfather Julius Helm first came to Japan in 1869, and spent most of his life after that developing a thriving shipping business. Being on the “ground floor” as it were, of Japan’s first major economic development since it was opened to outside trade, his business was in a unique position to capitalize on Yokohama’s bustling port. As a company, Helm Brothers existed throughout two world wars, fires, earthquakes, and Japan’s rapid postwar changes.
The author writes about his extended family and how they managed to coexist for over a hundred years in a culture that never completely excepted them. The family was biracial (Julius had married a Japanese woman) and as the world wars entered their lives, certain members of the family wound up taking different sides in the conflicts.
Yokohama Yankee is a rich observation of what family and identity really mean. The author has to come to terms with personal prejudices and attitudes to Japanese culture and his own Japanese heritage, as he returns repeatedly to the country for work, for genealogical research, and for pleasure. He and his wife also adopt two Japanese children, and it proves to be a challenge to raise them as Americans, and to have an appreciation for their birth country.
The book is beautifully illustrated with many paintings and vintage photographs of Japan from the 1800s to the present.
(William Hicks, Information Services)