It’s been 20 years since Gwen Stefani released her solo album Love.Angel.Music.Baby. And it’s been 14 years since the debut of her Harajuku Lovers fragrance collection. Times have changed since then, as is what is acceptable. Stefani, however, thought it would be OK to claim to be Japanese in 2023 due to her love of the culture. The singer’s fragrance line and album took inspiration from Japan’s Harajuku subculture for its visuals and marketing. Stefani’s collection included five scents. Each bottle was shaped like a doll caricatured to look like Stefani and her four “Harajuku Girls. ” The “Harajuku Girls” were the Japanese and Japanese American backup dancers she employed. They were named Love, Angel, Music and Baby for the promotion of her album.
While promoting GXVE Beauty, Stefani, 53, was asked by Allure Tuesday (January 10) about what she felt she may have learned from Harajuku Lovers. She spoke about her father’s job at Yamaha, which required him to travel between California and Japan for 18 years.
“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,” Stefani recalled. Once she was 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.'” She added, “I am, you know.” Stefani then explained that there is “innocence” to her relationship with Japanese culture. The singer referred 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 Allure‘s writer, who happened to be Asian. “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 said she was Japanese twice. She further claimed to identify with the Hispanic and Latinx communities of Anaheim, California, where she grew up. “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, that’s who I became because those were my people, right?” A representative for Stefani reached out the next day, saying that her comments were “misunderstood.” However, her team never clarified what she meant.
Stefani’s projects have been the subject of cultural appropriation, with her latest stunt taking place in 2021 with her “Light My Fire” collaboration with Sean Paul. In the music video, Stefani wears dreadlocks. Also in 2021, Stefani said of the Harajuku Girls: “If we didn’t buy and sell and trade our cultures in, we wouldn’t have so much beauty, you know? 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.”
Dr. Fariha I. Khan, co-director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania clarified the line between inspiration or appreciation and appropriation in the Allure interview. She said, “When a group has been historically marginalized and/or racialized by another group, the issue of power is central to cultural appropriation. The dominant group has the power to take (or appropriate) the marginalized group’s customs and practices and give these traditions meaning — without the original context or significance.”
Between March 2020 and March 2022, there were 11,467 reported hate incidents against Asians across the United States, 917 of them toward Japanese people. Stefani has often spoken about her deep love and appreciation for Japanese culture. However, she has not publicly expressed outrage or made any statements of support during this current cycle of anti-AAPI hate.