Monday, April 9, 2018

When Is It Cultural Appropriation?

http://www.latimes.com; April 7, 2018


Hello Everyone:

Welcome to a fresh week on the blog.  It is a hot spring day in sunny Los Angeles and Blogger is feeling energetic.  

Did you hear the news?  The Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the office of Mr. Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen.  The agents seized a number of documents including those related to the ongoing soap opera of "The Porn Star and the President."  Get your popcorn, this is getting good. Juicy news item aside, on to cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is a very thorny issue.  What does cultural appropriation mean?  Yours Truly thinks it might be helpful to pin down a definition before applying it to the newly renovated Yamashiro Restaurant in Hollywood, California.

The venerable Oxford Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as, "the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another" (en.oxforddictionaries.com; date accessed Apr. 9, 2018).  This differs from cultural appreciation, defined as "taking the time out to learn about different cultures and their traditions (theodysseyonline.com; Mar. 2, 2016, date accessed Apr. 9, 2018)."  The difference between the two is a very fine line.  In other words, wearing a Native American headdress, for the sake of fashion, at a festival, can be considered cultural appropriation.  However, taking the time to learn about Native American culture and the importance of that headdress can be considered cultural appreciation.  That said, Frank Shyong of the Los Angeles Times shared a recent experience in his article "Yamashiro, a century-old Japanese-style castle in Hollywood, tests limits of cultural appropriation debate,"

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?  Should I apologize to my girlfriend?"

First, a little history about the hodgepodge of cultural references that make up Yamashiro. The name Yamashiro comes from the Japanese words for "Mountain Palace."  In 1911, the Bernheimer Brothers (articles.latimes.com; Oct. 22, 2000; date accessed Apr. 9, 2018) began construction on a hilltop mansion, designed by an American architect, to house their collection of Asian artifacts.  Hundreds of Chinese laborers and imported Japanese materials were used to replicate the palace in the "Yamashiro" province near Kyoto, Japan.  The restaurant and bar, completed in 1914, sits 250 feet above Hollywood Boulevard, very close to the Hollywood and Highland complex (yamashirohollywood.com; date accessed Apr. 9, 2018).

The Bernheimer home later became the site of the 400 Club, an exclusive early social club for the film industry in Hollywood, that historians say helped raise the profile of the new industry.

The building was so closely identified with real Japanese culture that it was vandalized during World  War II, in a fit of anti-Japanese sentiment.  In response, the owner painted it black and converted it to student housing, until it changed owners.  The new owner, Thomas O. Glover, restored the original Asian architecture in 1948 and successfully marketed it as a sushi restaurant and tourist stop.

Mr. Shyong writes, "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."

Protests over cultural appropriation are a regular news features.  Currently, every industry has found itself in a quandary over "how we should portray and profit from other cultures--a natural outcome in a world where social media allows people to feedback in real time."  Most recent, Times critic Justin Chang pointed out how the new Wes Anderson movie, Isle of Dog, appears renders Japanese culture and people mute (latimes.com; Mar. 21, 2018; date accessed Apr. 9, 2018).  Amid this criticism, Frank Shyong ponders "How should I feel about Yamashiro?"

Not long after his birthday dinner, Mr. Shyong returned to the restaurant with Michael Okamura, a Little Tokyo historian, and Bill Watanabe, the former president of the Little Tokyo Service Center and community leader.  Mr. Shyong hoped that Messr. Okamura and Watanabe would help him determine if Yamashiro's claims of authenticity had some merit.

The trio quickly discovered that Yamashiro's claims of authenticity was a slippery concept.  Mr. Okamura noted, "The hostess stand seem to be an authentic Japanese tansu, or cabinet, with good construction."  Mr. Watanabe observed that the signs indicating the toilets featured the Japanese word for male and female.  However, next to it were the English words, in chop suey font, a style that in recent years has been dismissed as overly exoticized (wsj.com; June 20, 2012; date accessed Apr. 9, 2018).

The pink and reddish ambient lighting defied analysis.  So did the plaster and wood beam interiors, which suggested to Mr. Okamura, "borderline Swiss-Chalet-style architecture."  The Japanese garden, originally a Chinese garden and later converted, "a fish sculpture with a dragon's head hides among some rocks and paper lanterns."  Michael Okamura observed,

That should be on a roof,.... Actually, I'm not sure what that's supposed to be.

Yamashiro was well known enough that Messr. Okamura and Watanabe visited at least once before.  After the trio finished their meal, Mr. Shyong asked them "whether they were offended by the way the restaurant portrayed Japanese culture or food."

The short answer was "no."  Both gentlemen agreed that it was a tangle of cultural appropriation and authenticity.  However, after a lifetime in the United States, they were used to ingesting "imprecise renderings of Asian culture.  And cultural appropriation is a relatively small sin in a history that includes Japanese internment camps."

Bill Watanbe considered the effect Yamashiro has had on the travails of the Japanese people in the United States.  If anything, it has been a positive effect--"introducing non-Japanese people to Japanese culture and perhaps sparking their interest in it."

Blogger has a confession to make, it was James Clavell's book Shogun, that sparked her interest in Japanese culture.

Frank Shyong writes, "Even those that have argued to preserve Yamashiro as a historical property did not seem to hav the question of its cultural value resolved.  In the 2012 application to the National Park Service arguing for Yamashiro's inclusion, an account of its history veers between emphasizing authenticity and claiming modern interpretation."

The application describes the buildings features as original and traditional as well as Japanese-inspired in the same sentence.  The application highlights the authentic Kaerumata (frog leg) brackets and the origins of the 17th-century pagoda, referring to Yamashiro as "an example of revival architecture, which is supposed to bring new meanings to bygone eras of architecture."

This confused Mr. Shyong and left him wondering "What was the difference between revival architecture and cultural appropriation, if any?"  For the an answer, he turned to Alice Tseng, professor of Japanese architecture at Boston University.

Prof. Tseng was flummoxed,

I'm kind of speechless looking at it,... There are bits and pieces that look Japanese but they don't add up to anything.  To call it a revival would be generous.

The application also argues that Yamashiro is modeled after a famous temple, a claim that Prof. Tseng is skeptical of.  Rightly so because architects building in the Japanese manner in the early 20th-century often relied on picture books, sold to tourists, as their visual guide--"depictions that Tseng says were sometimes inaccurate."

Therefore, if Yamashiro was not authentically Japanese, then it could it be authtentic to Los Angeles?  For that answer, Mr. Shyong turned to eminent architect and critic Alan Hess, best known for his love of Googie architecture and other local cultural curiosities.

Mr. Hess admitted that Yamashiro was not an example of great architecture.  "But it illustrates something that has been a part of Los Angeles's story since the film industry took root,...."  Early L.A. was a city on the western edge of a continent where you could imagine anything, build it, set free from the boundaries of convention and good taste.  Mr. Hess said, "A huge demand for novelty, thanks to Hollywood's proximity, produced a wild variety of vernacular architecture that is today one of the city's most defining visual quality,...."

According to Alan Hess, "In a city famous for the mass production of make-believe, Yamashiro's fantasy of Japanese culture is worth preserving,...."  He said,

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.

Could not agree more, just check out the wildly expressive Clifton's Cafeteria, or the giant doughnut that sits atop Randy's Doughnuts.  Giant doughnuts and buildings shaped like tamales aside, what about a community like Little Tokyo?

Los Angeles without Little Tokyo is unimaginable but the rising rents are threatening to price the longtime Japanese American businesses that do not have the same protections that historic properties like Yamashiro do.  Mr. Shyong reports, "Some of the buildings in Little Tokyo are protected by a historic district, the businesses and the people are not."  Legacy business programs could bring some tax relief and other protection for longtime small businesses struggling to make escalating rents and property values but, strangely, no such program exists in L.A.

Little Tokyo community organizer Justin Saka told Mr. Shyong, We're worried that Little Tokyo is going to become Little Tokyp in name only.

"Cultural neighborhoods like Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Leimert Park and Boyle Heights often struggle to attract the same kind of architecture interest that places like Yamashiro commands," says Prof. Tseng

She continues, "Academics tend to focus on expensive buildings owned by rich, often white people, because those are properties for which documentation exists,.... Without that scholarship, it's to make historical arguments for ethnic neighborhoods to be preserved."  Specifically,

There are places that are not well studied because they started out as cheap property and they tend to get forgotten.

Therefore, "How should we feel about the fact that a beloved facsimile of Japanese cultures sits protected on a mountain top overlooking Hollywood while Japanese American people elsewhere in the city struggle to preserve their culture, identity and neighborhoods?"  It depends on who you are and the experiences that shaped your life.  That is Los Angeles, a city with checkered histories and cultural curiosities everywhere you go.  Go figure.

Minh-Ha Pham, media studies profess at the Pratt Institute wrote, "Calling something cultural appropriation, and the repetitive, polarizing debate that label always sparks, often obscures important history,...."

Prof. Pham told Frank Shyong, "When we argue about cultural appropriation, we don't learn anything about history,.... And the history of how we have reproduced, adapted and integrated other cultures in this country is far more complex and interesting than that debate allows for."  More like an complicated and interesting history.

Thus, being offended by whether or not long grain rice or Sriracha is appropriate for sushi misses the point.  The real argument is "which stories to tell about our cultures, and whose perspective should be included."  The question we need to ask ourselves is "whether we know the full story."  In Yamashiro's case it is absolutely important to spend the time learning the details.