Los Angeles is a fertile ground for culinary innovation, a cultural funnel sifting through centuries of tradition and history to find a few dishes that stick with the American palate. It can be credited with the popularization (and thus, Americanization) of several iconic cuisines, but one of its most important is Japanese. Like tacos from Mexico and pho from Vietnam, a singular dish dominates the Japanese American cuisine: sushi.
But as is so common in our history, this food we love comes from a community that the United States has historically exploited and abused.
It’s no surprise that since L.A. had the honor of commodifying sushi — plucked from the ocean, fresh and exciting, a beacon of health — its very identity mirrors that of this city. Its high price and relative exoticism made it immediately attractive to the rich and wealthy, and its protein-rich fish became popular among diet-conscious celebrities. While the California roll originated in Canada, its namesake was earned because of its popularity in L.A.
In the 1880s, Japanese people immigrated to the United States with the hope of finding prosperous jobs. The Chinese Exclusion Act left American businesses without immigrant workers, who the Japanese quickly replaced. L.A., less volatile and more booming than San Francisco, soon became home to tens of thousands of Japanese immigrants, clustered mostly in the area of downtown Los Angeles now known as Little Tokyo. This community brought Japanese business and culture to the city, expanding into Boyle Heights and continuing to grow until World War II.
Since the mid-70s, sushi restaurants have swept through the city and flooded the rest of the country, swiftly adapting to American palates by adding ingredients like cream cheese and tempura and flipping the seaweed inside of the sushi roll. Today, there are well over 300 Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles alone, ranging from 13-course $225 dinners at N/Naka to all-you-can-eat sushi for $20. For under $50, an omakase meal at Sugarfish presents several courses of tender fish draped over warm, soft rice. At Sushi Gen, operating since 1980, the sashimi lunch special arrives with nine different types of fish all for $20. Not only has sushi become a mainstay in L.A.’s culinary landscape, but it has also infiltrated every price point.
Beyond sushi, other types of Japanese cuisine have found massive success in Los Angeles, including the ever-popular ramen, yakitori and udon restaurants, as well as more specialized restaurants like Konbi, which makes Japanese-style sandwiches, or Chinchikurin, churning out okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) in Little Tokyo. Grocery stores like Mitsuwa and Marukai Market have become increasingly popular for their cheap Japanese offerings.
However, in the heat of World War II, Executive Order 9066 called for all Japanese and Japanese American citizens to be placed in concentration camps. Little Tokyo became a ghost town as over 100,000 Japanese people, including orphans and those with little Japanese heritage, were ripped from their homes and forced into internment camps for over 3 years with their constitutional rights stripped. In 1988, nearly 45 years after the war, Ronald Reagan apologized to victims, most of whom had passed away.
All too often, we appreciate a nation’s culture without examining our impact on it. Japanese food may have a strong presence in Los Angeles, but its popularity is isolated from the history of Japanese citizens. Japanese culture is constantly fetishized, devoured and compartmentalized — a final act of imperialist dominance.
In the dim lighting of Sugarfish, or in the salty air on the deck of Nobu, it is easy to forget the struggle of Japanese citizens in L.A. — most people don’t even know that beyond the delicious ramen and incredible sushi, our propagation of Japanese food hides a darkly familiar story of xenophobia and racism.
But slowly, a well-rounded understanding of Japan and its influences are beginning to seep into the city. Japanese museums and societies have worked to preserve the memory of those held at internment camps. Clusters of authentic and high-quality Japanese restaurants have emerged by the dozens in the last 10 years, with Sawtelle Japantown growing like a vine through Mid-City, Little Tokyo swarming with tourists and countless other Japanese-inspired restaurants opening from Malibu to Torrance.
Like most other facets of this city, sushi is a glamorous icon with a dark past. And, while it’s easy to appreciate the delicate flavor profile and unique presentation of Japanese food, it is time to start remembering (and appreciating) the Japanese people who fought to make L.A. their home.
Christina Tiber is a junior writing about food. Her column, “Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself,” runs every other Thursday.