If American pop culture is to be believed, Japan’s most significant exports have been anime, video games, bubbly techno and outlandish style.
Gwen Stefani’s solo debut last decade practically rode on the back of Harajuku fashion. The aesthetic influence anime had on The Matrix was confirmed in the followup prequel/sequel, The Animatrix. And after the success of the Kingdom Hearts video game franchise, Disney has probably at least thought about purchasing Square Enix and its Final Fantasy catalog as its next nostalgic cash crop IP — once it’s done with Marvel Studios and Star Wars.
It’s in this context, and amidst the pedestrian hustle and bustle of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the star bus tours and copyright-skirting street performers, that Japan House L.A. stands as a sort of serene oasis and cultural fortress, just across from the Dolby Theater in the Hollywood & Highland Center. Backed by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (and one of three such institutions located around the world), Japan House L.A. serves as a showcase of the country’s rich art, design, cuisine, innovation and technology — with much more yet to come. It’s a tribute to the philosophies and the thousands of years of cultural heritage that spawned all that strangely addictive, cutting-edge kawaii media — and that continues to drive innovation in every scientific and creative field imaginable.
“Japanese culture has evolved in a different context than European modernism. Its minimalism stems from a different lineage,” says Kenya Hara, Japan House L.A.’s chief creative director. “It has a historical amassment of more than 1,000 years and the aesthetic makes up the background for today’s Japanese art, architecture, design, cuisine and hospitality.”
Located on the second floor of the Hollywood & Highland Center, Japan House L.A. is divided into two ultra-sleek showrooms. The curated gift shop portion features an assortment of home and personal goods, from authentic Japanese teas to incense holders, dishware, even paper slippers — all designs, aesthetics and innovations that could only come from Japan. It’s somewhat of an upscale Muji (where Hara recently worked as an art director), but with more of a focus on culture and craftsmanship — along with higher price points. In a central display devoted to stationery, there’s a pair of scissors priced at $500 (but honestly, they look worth it). There’s also a tiny cafe stand with a fairly extensive matcha tea menu.
Beyond the glass wall in the back of the gift shop is the gallery space, which is updated every few months with new programming. Over the summer it played host to an exhibit called “Satoyama: Evolving With the Forest,” highlighting culinary creations of Japanese chef Yoshihiro Narisawa and his traditional, in-harmony-with-nature preparation techniques. In June, Atsushi Kenjo, executive chef at M-Café, held a workshop on how to prepare Japanese bento boxes.
August has proven to be a major month for the institution (serendipitously synced to the release of Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians), with the launch of a new design-focused exhibit in the gallery, as well as the official grand opening of its second space on the fifth floor of the Hollywood & Highland Center (actually forcing the mall to open that floor to the public for the first time ever). The fifth-floor space continues its nourishment of the five senses, with the Inn Ann Restaurant, a library, a multipurpose event space and what might be one of the most stunning terraces in Los Angeles.
On Thursday, Aug. 23, Japan House put the new space to use for the first time, with an hourlong talk by artistic collaborators Daito Manabe and Mikiko. A DJ, designer, producer and, above all, technologist, Manabe programs everything from lasers to virtual-reality experiences to accompany Mikiko’s world-class choreography, all performed by her ELEVENPLAY dance troupe. One of their most famous collaborations saw three of Mikiko’s dancers sharing the stage with 24 drones in a first-ever dance between humans and machines.
Mikiko said, “What I find really interesting is how far the technology is going — it isn’t just a dancer dancing anymore. That plays a role in how I choreograph.”
Having this duo kick off Japan House L.A.’s salon talks was perfect; the work Manabe and Mikiko are doing together does embody the spirit of modern Japan, a society that reveres its centuries of tradition while joyfully driving technological progress in a paradoxical harmony between past and future.
“My objective has always been to give Mikiko as much creative control as I can,” Manabe said. “I take care of the physical programming and software.”
The official grand opening gala for Japan House L.A. was held the following night at the Dolby Theater with famed Japanese-American George Takei serving as master of ceremonies. Mayor Eric Garcetti, singer Josh Groban with his girlfriend, actor Schuyler Helford, and Japanese singer-actor Miyavi were among those who came out in support. The evening was capped off with a piano performance by Yoshiki, as well as a stunning, laser-filled performance collaboration by Manabe and Mikiko.
Early August also saw the premiere of the next gallery exhibit: “Prototyping in Tokyo,” a fascinating testament to how design-lead exploration can drive innovation. Each table in the exhibition was filled with objects highlighting elements such as the mechanics of movement and how to modify texture. Many of the prototypes in the “Ready to Crawl” section actually look like cute (if alien) little creatures, mimicking biological leg structures to propel themselves forward as long as a motor is engaged.
As I played with the different prototypes (the majority of the exhibit is interactive), I couldn’t help but ask, “What are these for? Where are these prototypes leading?”
The question can’t really be answered, because most of these objects are being developed with no real big-picture end goal in mind. They are lovingly and painstakingly crafted for the sole purpose of building understanding — reflecting a growing body of knowledge that one day might inspire a new idea, or be synthesized into something more pragmatic.
Around the time I asked this question, I found my answer. I started looking at the flow of tables and the objects they showcased, trying to get a sense of the narrative this arrangement was creating. I finally noticed what was at the very end of the exhibit. Whereas every other table featured mostly 3-D–printed prototypes, the final table was full of metal, a lot of the items used and well-worn.
It was a series of prosthetic legs developed for Paralympic athlete Takakuwa Saki, who represented Japan during the London 2012 and Brazil 2016 Paralympics. The display included the prosthetic she wore when she crossed the finish line.
Japan House L.A., Hollywood & Highland, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (800) 516-0565, japanhouse.jp; Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; free.
“Prototyping in Tokyo” is on view through Oct. 10.