‘I’m Japanese’: Gwen Stefani defends ‘Harajuku Girls’ era after cultural appropriation accusations

Singer has been accused of appropriating Japanese culture in the mid-Noughties

Isobel Lewis
Wednesday 11 January 2023 08:35 GMT
Gwen Stefani performs 'Harajuku Girls'

Gwen Stefani declared that she is Japanese in a bizarre interview discussing past cultural appropriation accusations.

The “Hollaback Girl” singer was known in the early stages of her career for taking inspiration from Japanese aesthetics.

This included her 2004 album Love. Angel. Music. Baby., which features the song “Harajuku Girls” where she sings words in Japanese and professes her love of Japanese street style.

In 2008, Stefani released her hugely popular Harajuku Lovers perfume collection, with bottles that looked like dolls and were modelled on the singer and the four Japanese-American backing dancers who supported her.

In recent years, many have suggested that Stefani was appropriating Japanese culture with her branding choices.

In a new interview with Filipina-American journalist Jesa Marie Calaor for beauty publication Allure, Stefani was asked what she learnt from the response, positive and negative, to the Harajuku Lovers launch.

Stefani explained that when she was growing up, her dad would travel between California and Japan and return home with stories of the country, inspiring her to travel to Harajuku as an adult and experience it first-hand.

“That was my Japanese influence and that was a culture that was so rich with tradition, yet so futuristic [with] so much attention to art and detail and discipline and it was fascinating to me,” she said. “I said, ‘My God, I’m Japanese and I didn’t know it.’”

Stefani and her dancers, known as the ‘Harajuku Girls’, on stage in 2004 (Getty Images)

Calaor describes how the words “seemed to hang in the air between us”, with Stefani apparently insisting: “I am, you know.”

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The 53-year-old singer said that there was an “innocence” to her relationship with Japanese culture, adding: “If [people are] going to criticise me for being a fan of something beautiful and sharing that, then I just think that doesn’t feel right.

“I think it was a beautiful time of creativity… a time of the ping-pong match between Harajuku culture and American culture. [It] should be okay to be inspired by other cultures because if we’re not allowed then that’s dividing people, right?”

During the interview, Stefani reportedly said twice that she was Japanese, while also saying she was “a little bit of an Orange County girl, a little bit of a Japanese girl, a little bit of an English girl”.

Calaor says that while she does not believe Stefani was trying to be “malicious”, “words don’t have to be hostile in their intent in order to potentially cause harm”.

Allure contacted Stefani’s representatives for comment, or clarification off the record, and were declined.

The Independent has reached out for further comment.

The interview was widely circulated online, with journalist Aja Barber tweeting: “I’m really glad Gwen Stefani is being held accountable in this interview. She’s been getting away with this nonsense for far too long.”

“Gwen Stefani telling an Asian-American interviewer that she identifies as Japanese is the kind of oblivion I’m trying to channel in this dark cruel world,” one Twitter user joked.

Journalist Daniel D’Addario commented: “It’s incredible that, almost 20 years ago, Gwen Stefani did an extended race-play act that basically no one would accept today, completely got away with it as everyone forgot, and then proactively brought it up again just now.”

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