In a recent interview, Allure’s Jesa Marie Calaor asked Gwen Stefani about her use of Harajuku imagery. At the peak of her solo career, the singer was flanked by her Harajuku Girls backup dancers: four Japanese and Japanese American women dressed in a style reminiscent of the subcultural street fashion of Tokyo’s Harajuku district. Stefani “renamed” her dancers Love, Angel, Music, and Baby and demanded they only speak Japanese in public. In the process, she took the image of “Tokyo hipsters, sucked them dry of all their street cred, and turned them into China dolls,” as Mihi Ahn wrote in 2005 (Salon).
Though the “Don’t Speak” singer likely took the 2023 interview to promote her new beauty line, her response ensured that the focus would be Stefani’s racism. Stefani repeatedly told the interviewer that she was Japanese.
“My God, I’m Japanese and I didn’t know it… I am, you know.”Gwen Stefani via Allure
Stefani wasn’t revealing a recently discovered Japanese ancestor. She claims she is Japanese because she’s a “super fan” of Japanese culture. She also believes she “became” Latina growing up in Southern California. “The music, the way the girls wore their makeup, the clothes they wore, that was my identity,” she said. “Even though I’m an Italian American — Irish or whatever mutt that I am— that’s who I became because those were my people, right?”
• Read the Allure interview with Gwen Stefani and this analysis of her problematic use of Japanese imagery.
• Remember that racial and ethnic identity isn’t something to colonize and claim. Instead of seeking validation in an identity that is not yours, spend more time honoring your own ancestry and promoting cultural workers from oppressed communities.
• Support organizations dedicated to preserving and celebrating Japanese culture, like the Japanese Art Foundation and Little Tokyo Service Center.
“[It] should be okay to be inspired by other cultures,” Stefani explained to her Filipina American interviewer, “because if we’re not allowed then that’s dividing people, right?” (Allure). This adds another level to Stefani’s racism. It’s a common retort from those accused of cultural appropriation: that the people (often of color) calling out appropriation are the real racists. Should white girls growing up in Latinx communities not appreciate the music and fashion around them? Should white U.S. celebrities not introduce their audiences to other cultures from around the world? Or as Stefani put it in 2021: “We learn from each other, we share from each other, we grow from each other. And all these rules are just dividing us more and more.”
Here’s the thing: nobody is saying cultural appropriation is bad because they think we shouldn’t be allowed to appreciate other cultures.
In the article, author Jesa Marie Calaor highlights how Stefani’s built billion-dollar brands by commodifying these cultural markers. Her power as a white artist enabled her to take up space in a cultural conversation that was not her own. Even if Gwen Stefani never intended to cause harm, she still practiced cultural appropriation for her own benefit.
The author also unpacks the dissonance of a white woman appropriating Asian culture during a time of increased anti-AAPI hate. “Stefani has often spoken about her deep love and appreciation for Japanese culture, but to Allure’s knowledge, she has not publicly expressed outrage or made any statements of support during this cycle of anti-AAPI hate.”
If Gwen Stefani wanted to uplift cultures she appreciated, she could have:
promoted Japanese artists, musicians, and streetwear designers to her audience;
supported Japanese and Asian American alternative cultures;
checked in with Asian activists and cultural workers and activists to make sure she wasn’t furthering stereotypes;
used her platform to give space to Japanese and Japanese American artists and organizations;
and fought against the dehumanization and murder of Asian people in the United States.
She could have used her platform to support actual Asian people: people who don’t get to claim a fake Japanese identity only when it’s convenient for them.
Stefani’s racism doesn’t end at her mind-boggling claims of Japanese identity. It’s about distorting a culture to fit with tired stereotypes while erasing the actual people involved in creating it. An earnest appreciation of other cultures is a wonderful thing. But it’s indefensible to profit off of a marginalized community you claim to love while downplaying the harm you cause by doing so.
• Gwen Stefani claims that she loves Japanese culture so much that she is Japanese herself.
• People accused of appropriation often retort that the alternative is to ban intercultural exchange.
• A true appreciation of another culture should require respecting its members and culture makers.