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Leslie Helm's book explores identity, culture conflicts in Japan-based family business

Leslie Helm, editor of Seattle Business magazine, has come to have almost a second calling as an on-the-road speaker to discuss his book, Yokohama Yankee, that explores his two identities, part American and part Japanese, and the impact the clash of those cultures has had on him and his family.


Helm was born and raised in Yokohama, where his German-born great grandfather came in 1869 to create what became a family-owned business that for much of the last century was the largest stevedoring company in Japan. His book chronicles the three generations of leadership of Helm Brothers and the constant conflict of cultural identity that faced him, his U.S.-born father and his grandfather, who was born in Japan but had American citizenship.


In recent weeks, Helm has had several speaking appearances in Seattle, as well as book signings, and a talk before the Japan-America Society of Southern California. Now he's preparing to head off to Japan in early June for two talks in Yokohama and, on June 10, the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo.

Leslie Helm
Leslie Helm



The Foreign Correspondents Club appearance will likely bring back memories because Helm was one himself, working first as Tokyocorrespondent for Business Week in the mid-80s and in the '90s for the Los Angeles Times. It's likely his birth and upbringing in Japan before he headed to the U.S. for his higher education at U Cal Berkeley and Columbia might have made the idea of his being a "foreign" correspondent in Tokyo a bit amusing.


And his talk in Japan may also stir memories of what he recalls in the book, with obvious amusement, as the "frequent invitations to speak on Japanese television as Business Week's Tokyo correspondent. I was 26 and I would smugly discuss foreign affairs as if I were some pundit rather than just a curiosity-a white-faced journalist who happened to speak Japanese." His blond hair and fair complexion belie the fact he's one quarter Japanese.


The nature of the book, by a skilled writer weaving historical events, family successes and challenges and identity conflicts over more than 120 years leading up to his and his wife's decision to adopt Japanese children, is an intriguing look at what it's like to face cultural challenges in Japan.


It was about six weeks after attending his father's funeral in California in 1992, where he found himself gripped by the mix of anger and awe he had for his father, that Helm and his wife , having discovered they could not have biological children, decided to adopt two Japanese children, a girl and a boy.


Helm says he was "trying to go beyond a Japanese niche" in writing the book. "There are other aspects," he said. "It's a business study, a look at family business, and has some universal things like father-son relationship and adoption issues."


 As is frequently the case, there was serendipity in his great grandfather Julius's arrival in Japan. Having come to the U.S. from his native Germany, where he had been a trainer in the Prussian army, he headed for San Francisco to catch a boat to China. He missed that boat, but caught the next one to Yokohama.




With his Prussian army background, he first got a job as a War Lord advisor, Helm recalls, but soon perceived a business opportunity and in 1869 started a stevedoring business, inviting his brothers from Germany to join him in what soon became Helm Brothers.


"An astute businessman, he went public in 1899 and used the capital to buy up competitors," Helm said. "Eventually he had built the largest stevedoring company of its kind in Japan." And it's been suggested over the years that the family played a large part in building Yokohama into an international city


The ebb and flow of the company thereafter, through two wars and a massive earthquake, is compellingly chronicled, leading to the 1953 date when his father, Donald, only 90 days back from the U.S., was thrust into the role of head of the company. He was only 27, with no previous business experience, when his father decided suddenly to retire and move to Piedmont, CA, leaving his son to find his own way as the Helm at the helm.


What followed is detailed in what may make Helm's story far better fodder for a study on the challenges of maintaining a multi-generation family business then merely a look at the cultural challenges of being a successful foreign-owned business in Japan.


Over the next nearly 20 years, Donald Helm's challenges with the company saw him leave in anger to start a competitor, then be lured back by his relatives, for whom he conducted a precise accounting to determine the actual value of the company to pin down what it was worth to each.


"By 1973 there were just too many relatives who were shareholders to hold the company under family ownership, so what ensued that year was maybe the first hostile takeover in Japan as a Hong Kong company that had bought the shares of several family members forced the sale," Helm said.


Helm, who has been editor of Seattle Business magazine for four years after serving in the same role with the defunct Washington CEO magazine, has begun to accumulate accolades in addition to speaking invitations. He got a "starred" review in the June issue of Library Journal that circulates to 100,000 librarians. He told me the starred review is given to a relatively small selection of books each month.


And the book, now in its second printing, has been reviewed in Publisher's Weekly, the main journal for bookstores.


"I love that the Seattle Public Library bought 12 copies of my book and still has a queue of 79 people waiting to read it," Helm enthused.

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