BARCELONA, SPAIN – Yuko Yamashita pauses when asked to tell me her job title in the family business of three restaurants and a catering service that she runs with her husband, Yoshizumi. Her hands-on role involves everything from choosing and arranging the flowers to getting up at the crack of dawn to negotiate with fishmongers at Barcelona’s wholesale fish market.
“We have plenty of staff in the restaurants, of course, but there are some details that I prefer to take care of,” she says, smiling.
Perfectly groomed with long black hair, Yamashita looks much younger than her 67 years. She puts her good health down to playing golf in a local competition set up by Casa Nippon, the Japanese association that she helped to set up in Barcelona, Spain.
We meet in the city’s Eixample Esquerra district, in an apartment that once served as the office for the Yamashitas’ business and is now a library, created by Yuko in 1991. The white walls are covered floor to ceiling in Japanese books on every imaginable topic, and posters inform members of upcoming book sales and Japanese cultural events.
Yamashita was born in Hiroshima in 1952, the eldest of two sisters. Her father, Taketoshi Nagata, had a small business selling boat motors to the oyster fishermen of Hiroshima’s harbour. Growing up in 1950s Hiroshima during the years of reconstruction after the war can’t have been easy, but she says she had a normal, happy childhood, and her parents’ generation preferred not to speak of the past.
Her father loved art and often brought artists to the family home. He maintained a small gallery space where he held exhibitions of the work of local artists, who were mostly his friends. He would take Yuko to the Ohara Museum in Hiroshima to see collections by western artists such as Monet. The young Yuko was hooked and, after high school, she decided to spend two years in Tokyo learning to run art galleries and hold exhibitions.
Although she is passionate about art, she is adamant that she never harboured any artistic ambition herself.
“The two things are completely distinct,” she says. “I was always more interested in bringing art to people than in making art myself.”
In 1976, she returned to Hiroshima and transformed her father’s amateur gallery into a professional art space she named Nagata Gallery. For eight years she bought and sold local and international artworks and held many exhibitions.
One day in June 1982, a man she had never seen before walked into her gallery. It must have been love at first sight, because by August she and Yoshizumi Yamashita were married. There was just one complication — he lived 10,000 kilometers away in a city she had barely heard of — Barcelona.
“My family said I was a fool to go halfway around the world,” Yuko says, laughing. “To be honest, I didn’t understand it myself. I don’t remember it being a difficult decision, though. I didn’t think too much about it. I just said, ‘yes.'”
Yoshizumi, a judo teacher, had gone to Barcelona in 1973 and had felt immediately at home. He opened one of Barcelona’s first Japanese restaurants, Yamadori, in 1976 and it was on one of his trips back to Japan to buy supplies that he met Yuko.
After they married, it took Yuko two years to sell her remaining artworks and close the gallery before she was able to join her husband in Spain, finally arriving in August 1984. She remembers a Barcelona quite unlike the cosmopolitan city it is today.
“Barcelona was completely different before the Olympics,” she says. “There were hardly any tourists and almost no international community. It was very quiet.”
Yamashita got to work helping her husband in the restaurant. It was a steep learning curve.
“I didn’t speak a word of Spanish,” she explains with a rueful smile. “The clients in the restaurant would speak to me but I didn’t have a clue what they were saying. But bit by bit I started to learn.”
Asked if it was a big change moving from the world of art to restaurants, she says she doesn’t think so.
“In the end, whether you’re selling art or serving food, you’re dealing with people, so the two things are more similar than you might think,” she says.
Her first decade in Barcelona passed in a whirlwind. The Yamashita family quickly began to grow, with their first son, Rona, born in 1985 and his brother, Daisuke, in 1988. Both now work in the family business.
In the run up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the Yamashitas opened two more restaurants, Yashima in 1989 and Yu in 1991. They were delighted to be asked to supply meals for the athletes and officials of the Japanese Olympic team, as well as to the press and media companies who were in Barcelona for the duration of the games.
“The Olympics only lasted two weeks, but we spent a whole year preparing,” she says. “Luckily some of our family came from Japan to help us with the children, otherwise it would have been impossible.”
Their sons attended the Japanese school of Barcelona, which opened in 1986, and making sure they got a good education very important to Yuko. “I love books,” she says, “but back then it was much more difficult to get books in Japanese. I had a collection of around 2,000 in a spare room in the office, which I used to lend to friends. I thought that with just a few more, we could open a library for the community.”
In 1992, with the help of an uncle in Kyoto, she received a shipment of 3,000 more books from Japan and the Japanese Library of Barcelona opened to members. As the Japanese community continued to grow, so did the library — they now have more than 15,000 books. But Yuko says the number of members has started to dwindle in recent years.
“The Japanese community in Barcelona is not as large as it once was, and people read much more online these days,” she explains. “We’ve had to think about the future of the library, and how we can keep it going.”
The solution, she has found, is to use the space to hold cultural events, some of which are organized by Casa Nippon. As some of the most longstanding and well-connected Japanese residents of Barcelona, the Yamashitas were founding members of the association in 2016 and now sit on its board of directors.
Although Yuko’s life in Barcelona is in many ways completely different from the life she had been expecting when she opened her gallery in Hiroshima, she does see some parallels.
“What I really love is bringing culture to people, whether it’s art, or food, or books,” she says.
Although she visits Japan regularly, she doesn’t think she will ever live there again.
“Perhaps I would in different circumstances,” she says, “but home is where your family is, and my family is here.”
Name: Yuko Yamashita
Profession: Restaurateur and unofficial cultural ambassador
Key moments in career:
1976 — Yuko Nagata returns to Hiroshima from two years of schooling in Tokyo and turns her father’s amateur gallery into a professional art space. In the same year, her future husband, Yoshizumi Yamashita, opens the restaurant Yamadori in Spain
1984 — After meeting and marrying Yoshizumi two years earlier, Yuko Yamashita arrives in Spain
1989 — The Yamashitas open a second restaurant, Yashima, in anticipation of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics
1991 — The Yamashitas open a third restaurant
1992 — Yuko gets a boost for her growing Japanese library with the arrival of 3,000 books
2016 — The Yamashitas are founding members of Casa Nippon, a Japanese cultural association in Barcelona
Words to live by: “Home is where your family is.”
What do you miss about Japan?: “I will always love Japan, but I’m happy to be here. I feel free here.”