Sheila K. Johnson on Yokohama Yankee

Sheila K. Johnson on Yokohama Yankee

Los Angeles Review of Books

Sheila K. Johnson, Anthropologist, Gerontologist, and Freelance Writer

Oh, To Be Japanese!

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…

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