Gwen Stefani Reflects On Harajuku Era: “My God, I’m Japanese”

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Gwen Stefani Reflects On Harajuku Era: “My God, I’m Japanese”

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

One of the many pop stars who has been retroactively criticized for cultural appropriation is Gwen Stefani, who heavily incorporated Japanese culture into both her music and merch in the 2000s. During the promotional campaign for Stefani’s 2004 solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby., she was often accompanied by Japanese backup dancers called the Harajuku Girls, and the tour supporting the album was called the Harajuku Lovers Tour. In 2008, she launched her Harajuku Lovers perfume line. In hindsight, the whole thing didn’t sit well with some observers, including a journalist with Allure who asked Stefani about it during a recent interview.

In a story about Stefani’s new GXVE Beauty line, Allure’s Jesa Marie Calaor explained that she’d felt seen by the Harajuku perfume as a Filipina American teen, citing it as a rare appearance of Asian culture in the American mainstream, but that as an adult she’d reexamined the product and been disturbed by a white woman leveraging Asian culture for profit.

Calaor concluded her interview by asking Stefani what she’d learned from the Harajuku Lovers backlash. Stefani responded by repeating a story she’s previously shared about how her father’s job at Yamaha exposed her to Japanese culture as a child. The story led up to Stefani, a self-described Italian American “mutt,” declaring, upon visiting Japan herself years later, “My God, I’m Japanese and I didn’t know it” — a phrasing that, regardless of your stance on how culture should be wielded, comes off quite clumsy in context.

Here’s the relevant excerpt from the story:

“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, explaining how her father (who is Italian American) would return with stories of street performers cosplaying as Elvis and stylish women with colorful hair. Then, as an adult, she was able to travel to Harajuku to see them herself. “I said, ‘My God, I’m Japanese and I didn’t know it.'” As those words seemed to hang in the air between us, she continued, “I am, you know.” She then explained that there is “innocence” to her relationship with Japanese culture, referring to herself as a “super fan.”

“If [people are] going to criticize me for being a fan of something beautiful and sharing that, then I just think that doesn’t feel right,” she told me. “I think it was a beautiful time of creativity… a time of the ping-pong match between Harajuku culture and American culture.” She elaborated further: “[It] should be okay to be inspired by other cultures because if we’re not allowed then that’s dividing people, right?”

The full story, which includes Calaor’s own reflections on the interview, can be found here.

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