The Reclining Buddha Roll arrived on a spare white plate, a chilled log of rice and shrimp sliced and stacked to approximate the lumpy outline of a Buddha on his back, each piece dotted with what appeared to be Sriracha sauce.
I looked at the waiter, feeling as though there were some joke I didn’t understand. Was this sushi? Was I in a Japanese restaurant, as I had assumed when I booked a reservation here for my girlfriend’s birthday dinner? Should I apologize to my girlfriend?
Yamashiro is a century-old Los Angeles landmark that once served as a social club for Hollywood’s early elites. It is an utterly unique piece of architecture that incorporates American materials with pieces lifted from ancient Japan and pan-Asian architectural flourishes.
It is also an 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.
Outcries over cultural appropriation are a regular presence in our news feeds. Every industry seems to be debating how we should portray and profit from other cultures — a natural outcome in a world where social media allows people to give feedback in real time. Most recently, critics including the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang pointed out how Japanese culture and people seemed to be a silent, decorative backdrop in Wes Anderson’s new film “Isle of Dogs.”
Amid all this, I wondered: How should I feel about Yamashiro?
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.
“That should be on a roof,” Okamura said of the sculpture. “Actually, I’m not sure what that’s supposed to be.”
The chaotic jumble of cultural references at Yamashiro are a product of its long and convoluted history. The building, named for a historic town in Japan’s Kyoto prefecture, was built in 1911 as a private residence by the Bernheimer brothers, German-born cotton barons of Jewish descent who needed a place to house their extension collection of Asian art. They used Chinese laborers and imported Japanese materials to build their mansion, which was designed by an American architect.
It later became the home of the 400 Club, an exclusive early social club for the film industry in Hollywood that historians say helped raised the profile of the then-nascent industry.
The building became so strongly identified with actual Japanese culture that it was vandalized during World War II, when anti-Japanese sentiment was high. In response, the owners painted the structure black and converted it to student housing, until it changed hands again. In 1948, Thomas O. Glover restored Yamashiro’s Asian architectural flourishes and marketed it successfully as a sushi restaurant and tourist destination.
It became well known enough that both Okamura and Watanabe had been there at least once before. After they finished a meal of orange soy-glazed sea bass topped with a grilled zucchini ribbon, I asked them whether they were offended by the way the restaurant portrayed Japanese culture or food.
The answer from both men was no. The restaurant, they agreed, was a dizzying combination of cultural appropriation and authenticity. But after a lifetime in the U.S., they have grown accustomed to consuming imprecise American renderings of Asian culture. And cultural appropriation is a relatively small sin in a history that includes Japanese internment camps.