L.A. Times Probes Prominent Japanese Restaurant For ‘Cultural Appropriation’
The Los Angeles Times has slapped the historic Hollywood restaurant Yamashiro with the crime of cultural appropriation, a model Japanese castle in the Hollywood hills that overlooks the Dolby Theater.
Celebrities have been frequenting Yamashiro since the Hollywood golden age, and the building is simply a masterpiece in artistic craftsmanship that gives homage to Japan’s rich architectural tradition. But since it was built by a straight, white male over a century ago, the L.A. Times regards Yamashiro as a paragon of ” inauthentic fantasy of Japanese culture that has generated profits exclusively for non-Japanese people, protected by a listing on the National Register of Historic Places while longtime businesses in Little Tokyo face displacement.”
Being from a historic city like Pasadena, the unfair application of what buildings and business should constitute as a protected site is an argument I sympathize with. Rather than argue that, the article instead attacks the restaurant itself by probing it for cultural appropriation.
The writer, Frank Shyong, then describes a field trip to Yamashiro with two experts from Little Tokyo so they could pick apart every piece of the restaurant that was “inauthentic”:
A few weeks later, I returned to Yamashiro, accompanied this time by Michael Okamura, a Little Tokyo historian, and Bill Watanabe, a former president of the Little Tokyo Service Center and community leader. I thought they might be able to help me determine whether Yamashiro’s claims to authenticity had any merit.
We quickly found that at Yamashiro, authenticity was a slippery concept. The hostess stand seemed to be an authentic Japanese tansu, or cabinet, with good construction, noted Okamura. The bathroom signs featured the Japanese words for male and female, observed Watanabe. But next to it were the English words written in chop suey font, a style that in recent years has been derided as overly exoticizing.
And the pink and reddish mood lighting, however, defied analysis. As did the plaster and wood beam interiors, which to Okamura suggested borderline Swiss Chalet-style architecture. And in the Japanese garden that was built as Chinese garden and later converted, a fish sculpture with a dragon’s head hides among some rocks and paper lanterns.
The article does provide some interesting history as to how Yamashiro came about, beginning in 1911 when the Bernheimer brothers, German-born cotton barons of Jewish descent, built it as means to house their Asian art collection. “They used Chinese laborers and imported Japanese materials to build their mansion, which was designed by an American architect,” says the article.
The structure soon became a Hollywood insiders hot-spot and now overlooks the city that made it into a popular restaurant. Ironically, the structure became so associated with Japanese culture that people vandalized it during WWII, even though the Japanese had little to do with it. All of this just means that Yamashiro is a “dizzying combination of cultural appropriation and authenticity.”
To Shyong’s credit, he does not argue that Yamashiro should be demolished or that it even should not be historically protected. In fact, he admits the restaurant, a “fantasy of Japanese culture,” is “worth preserving” as it pertains to Early Los Angeles being the land of make-believe.
“People came here because they were allowed to do things they could not do anywhere else in the world. This expresses that part of our history,” said an architectural expert who agreed that Yamashiro represented neither authentic Japanese culture or even great architecture.
Had Shyong’s article focused entirely on the next section, the arbitrariness of how Los Angeles selects historically protected sites, he would have had a point about the importance of cultural and historical preservation. By lumping Yamashiro into the argument, it becomes an unfair attack on a structure that never presented itself as authentically Japanese in the same way that the local sushi bar never presented itself as authentically Japanese.