What grades and in what years were you atYIS?
From nursery school in 1960 until graduation in 1973.
Where you are currently based, and what is your occupation?
I live in Seattle. I recently retired after working for seven years at Business Week, a decade at the Los Angeles Times and a decade as editor of Seattle Business magazine. I now work in nonprofits. I spent last year leading a team of writers that put together non-partisan candidate guides for every major senate and governor’s race in the country for the 2020 elections. Our guides, specifically aimed at young people across the country, were read by millions of voters, and were critical in getting accurate information out about the policy positions of key candidates at a time when there was so much misinformation spread through social media. I am now a trustee of our community council, and am working on getting a bike trail built in our neighborhood. I am also working with YIS alumna Mary Corbett to organize a reunion in Yokohama timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of YIS in 2024.
Which teachers played an important role in your time at YIS?
I had the most amazing group of teachers. There was Ed Bernard, who gave us all an incredible grounding in world history. There was Stelark, a great artist and pioneer in exploring world of cyborgs. I participated in one of his events, crawling on the floor in a church in jockey shorts dragging a giant crystal rock behind me as lasers bounced off the crystal. There was Frank Becker, who introduced us to music, both classical and electronic, and created a book group in which we read J.D. Salinger and discussed his books on the grass at Minato no Mieru Oka Koen, which was a lot more relaxed in those days. I will never forget drama with Paul Lux who brought out the best of us as he patched together the musical “The Fantastiks.” Finally, there was Mrs. Merkel who changed my life by encouraging me to write without judging me too much.
Your are one of the nine students in the first graduating class of YIS in 1973. What are some memorable moments you have from your time at YIS?
We were such a tiny school then that whatever we did required effort from all of us. I remember when Mr. Olsen decided to create a track team even though we had just a few weeks to train for the first track meet. He signed me up for the 400 meter sprint. At the finish line, I was moving at the speed of a turtle as I competed for last place. A few of us created a “rusticating club” and jumped on trains without tickets to head out into the countryside with no destination in mind and little money. We always found generous strangers who put us up. I remember Mr. De Haan, the principal back in the days when we had ink bottles and dip pens. We were happy to see him leave!
You gave the commencement speech at the 2013 graduation ceremony at YIS. How did you feel giving that speech?
I felt very proud of how far the school had come. When I was in 8th grade, there wasn’t even a high school at YIS. My brother had to go to Yokohama High School on Yokosuka naval base. A group of parents, including my mother, urged the school to create the high school one year at a time. In my junior year there were just four or five of us in the class! It was a pretty chaotic time. There was a lot of experimentation and discussion about how much U.S. curriculum to include and how much to follow the British model. There were a lot of questions about whether YIS would even survive. My graduation in 1973 was a tiny affair with no more than thirty people in the audience. In 2013, the auditorium was packed with hundreds. There were so many talented students doing so many interesting things. It was wonderful to see the school experiencing such healthy growth.
What type of sports or non-academic activities were you involved with at YIS?
I was on the soccer team, the track team, the photography club, editor of the school newspaper and president of the student council. Most of all I loved drama! We were such a small group, we needed everyone to be involved in every activity!
Which grade-level or class at YIS would you want to relive, and why? Would you do anything differently?
My senior year was the most memorable. I was a terrible student until about 10th grade. I think if I had been in school in today’s environment I would have been identified as having every kind of learning disability: a touch of dyslexia, some ADHD and who knows what other problems. It wasn’t until my junior year that I emerged from the fog in my mind and it wasn’t until my senior year that I had some confidence and really started to enjoy myself. If I could do it again, I would have tried to be more sensitive to what others were going through. I was pretty self absorbed.
Given your experience, what sort of advice would you give to current YIS students?
If you have a passion, by all means follow that passion. But for most of us, it’s not so easy to find that one passion. When you are unsure, it makes sense to acquire skills that will give you options. For me, as a journalist, that meant learning about business and economics. Most reporters were attracted to politics and social issues, but because I studied business and economics, I was able to get great, well-paying jobs at leading publications such as the Los Angeles Times and Business Week. Business reporting was rapidly expanding at the time. These days, I guess, I would want to have a good handle on managing and analyzing digital data. That’s a critical skill whether you’re a journalist, an artist, a scientist or a salesman.
How do you feel about the school building a new campus and moving from the Yamate campus?
In many ways I feel very sad. The location on the Bluff is such a wonderful one. But I understand that YIS needed to move to continue to grow and I think this move creates the opportunity for YIS to fulfill its potential to become THE school for training the kind of global citizens Japan needs to adapt to a very challenging future.
Can you tell us a bit about your book,Yokohama Yankee?
The subheading is “My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan.” When my wife and I adopted two Japanese children, I was forced to come to terms with my identity as a gaijin who is part Japanese. I was born and raised in Japan as were both my parents as well as one of my grandfathers. Japan is my home country and I feel emotionally tied to Japan, yet it bothers me that I will always be treated as a gaijin. I do think Japan is slowly changing, and I hope one day Japan will be more welcoming of outsiders. In the meantime, YIS plays a critical role in helping so many people like me with mixed racial and cultural identities to prepare themselves for a role in a more global future.
My great grandfather Julius Helm with his wife Hiro Komiya and their three eldest children. Circa 1883.
My great grandfather with his wife, Hiro Komiya, and their seven children. My grandfather, also named Julius, is in a school uniform at great grandfather’s left shoulder. Circa 1895.
With my daughter Mariko, my son Eric and my two, newly discovered Japanese cousins, Katsuaki Komiya, a priest, and his wife Yoko Komiya, in front of one of the family’s shrines.