Gwen Stefani defends 'Harajuku Girls' era, denies cultural appropriation

Fifteen years ago this month, Gwen Stefani released her debut solo album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (2004).

The five-time Canadian platinum album spawned not only some of the former No Doubt frontwoman’s biggest hits — including What You Waiting For? and Hollaback Girl — but also marked the beginning of the singer’s highly controversial Harajuku Girls era.

Harajuku is a popular fashion district located in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward in Japan. It’s best known as one of the world’s trendiest hotspots for youth culture.

Stefani, now 50, seemingly adapted to the Harajuku culture and utilized it as her own before officially launching the Harajuku Lovers clothing line in 2005.

First, however, she released the Harajuku Girls single before enlisting four women of Japanese descent — the Harajuku Girls — as both her entourage and backup dancers on the extensive Harajuku Lovers tour in 2005.

Over the years, Stefani’s so-called “bow-down” to Asian culture has raised eyebrows across the globe, with many accusing her of cultural appropriation.

When talking about the anniversary of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. with Billboard on Tuesday, Stefani defended herself, merely calling it a “concept” and denying accusations of cultural appropriation.

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During the interview, she said: “When [Harajuku Girls] first came out, I think people understand that it was an artistic and literal bow down to a culture that I was a superfan of.”

On what initially inspired her to create her own “concept” about the culture, Stefani claimed that she “had a fascination from a young age” after learning that her father used to travel to Japan when he worked with Yamaha.

“I wanted to write a song that talked about my love for Harajuku,” she said. “When you’re from Anaheim and never travelled outside of your city until you’re 21 years old, really crazy to go to Japan … It was my fantasy.”

Gwen Stefani, centre, and her entourage of Harajuku Girls arrive at the 25th annual Brits Music Awards in London on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005.

Gwen Stefani, centre, and her entourage of Harajuku Girls arrive at the 25th annual Brits Music Awards in London on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005.

AP Photo/Adam Butler

Stefani continued: “When I got there and saw how fashion-obsessed they were, I thought they were my people because my style was so unique. I get a little defensive when people because if we didn’t allow each other to share our cultures, what would we be?

“You take pride in your culture and have traditions and then you share them for new things to be created.

“When the Harajuku Girls came out,” she said, “it was like, ‘You’re not even real, you’re a dream.’ It wasn’t like, ‘You’re not real because you’re Asian.’ Are you kidding me? That would be horrifying.”

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Mihi Ahn of Salon.com, thought otherwise, however. In 2005, she penned an article criticizing the Rich Girl singer, saying she had “swallowed a subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women.”

Ahn described actual Harajaku girls as “funky dressers who hang out in the Japanese shopping district of Harajuku.”

Gwen Stefani poses with children at a party hosted by Chasing Fireflies to introduce her Harajuku Lovers children's collection at Duff's Cakemix on Sept. 24, 2015 in West Hollywood, Calif.

Gwen Stefani poses with children at a party hosted by Chasing Fireflies to introduce her Harajuku Lovers children's collection at Duff's Cakemix on Sept. 24, 2015 in West Hollywood, Calif.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Chasing Fireflies

She later claimed Stefani’s backup dancers were “contractually obligated to speak Japanese in public,” saying it was rumoured the women were actually Asian-American and spoke English.

“Stefani has taken the idea of Japanese street fashion and turned these women into modern-day geisha … fawns over harajuku style in her lyrics, but her appropriation of this subculture makes about as much sense as the Gap selling Anarchy T-shirts,” Ahn wrote.

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Though she’s been criticized massively over the years for several different accusations of cultural appropriation, Stefani’s in-depth interview with Billboard seemingly prompted a new wave of anger, as many individuals took to social media to share their thoughts.

Here’s what some Twitter users had to say:

Back in 2005, Blender Magazine writer and Asian-American comedian Margaret Cho labelled Stefani’s take on Harajuku girls as a “minstrel show” that promoted the stereotyping of Asian women.

Though she admitted to being a fan of the musician, she wrote: “I want to like , and I want to think they are great, but I am not sure if I can .”

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Global News has reached out to a representative of Stefani seeking further comment.

A 15th-anniversary reissue of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. will be released this Friday, Nov. 22.

adam.wallis@globalnews.ca

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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