Gwen Stefani is now claiming she is Japanese. The claim is just the latest installment in a career-long series of cultural appropriation. She tried to explain that she meant she was just a “fan” of Japanese culture. But the singer doesn’t seem to understand why her comments are hurtful, especially considering the times.
Gwen Stefani Told Two Women with Asian Origins That She Is Japanese
This isn’t the first time Gwen Stefani has been accused of cultural appropriation. Her entire career has consisted of taking fashion elements from other cultures in order to promote herself and make a ton of money. Her most recent claim about being Japanese was made during an interview with two Asian Allure associates. Both were left feeling uneasy.
Cultural appropriation, according to legal scholar Susan Scafidi (via the National Conference for Community and Justice), is:
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
In simpler terms, there are two primary parts to cultural appropriation, according to codirector of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, Fariha I. Khan, Ph.D. (via Allure): “commodification and an unequal power relationship.”
A 20-Year Overview of Gwen Stefani’s History of Cultural Appropriation
In Gwen Stefani’s case, she has repeatedly commodified other people’s cultures through her dress and style while building a $1 billion + empire. In her early No Doubt days, it was the Hindu bindi. At the same time, she also was accused of appropriating South African Zulu culture with Bantu knots (mini hair buns).
In 2004, Stefani took a break from No Doubt with her solo debut and began appropriating Japanese culture with the Harajuku Girls. The Harajuku Girls were a Japanese female dance troupe who followed Stefani around and later inspired her Harajuku Lovers fragrance line. The fragrances came in cute little Hello-Kitty-inspired bottles shaped like little Japanese girls and cost upwards of $40.
While the entire Harajuku phase offended a lot of people (comedian Margaret Cho likened the dance troupe to a “minstrel show”), Stefani never seemed to understand the issue. Like, she really didn’t get it.
“If we didn’t buy and sell and trade our cultures in, we wouldn’t have so much beauty, you know?” once told Paper Magazine. “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.”
So not only did Gwen Stefani know she was using another culture to sell something, but she thought that was an integral part of the beauty industry.
Next was Chola culture. In Stefani’s 2005 music video, “Luxurious,” she was accused of dressing herself in clothes of Mexican American esthetic, and even deliberately referenced Frida Kahlo.
In 2012, No Doubt released a music video for “Looking Hot” that blatantly appropriated indigenous American culture. The video featured Stefani as an indigenous American damsel in distress amid a stereotypical cowboys and Indians confrontation. They received so much backlash that the band apologized and took the video down.
A 2022 music video collaboration with Sean Paul and featuring Gwen Stefani showed her in long dreadlocks and Jamaica’s national colors. “Light My Fire” is still relatively fresh, and Paul is a Jamaican rapper. So, Stefani didn’t get as much heat for that video as the previous examples above. But she was still called out.
Despite the Same Public Reaction, Gwen Stefani Doesn’t Seem to Realize Why Appropriation Is Wrong
With every single example above, Gwen Stefani has been directly called out for cultural appropriation. In almost every example, except for the “Looking Hot” video, Stefani has sloughed off the social commentary and continued on.
While Stefani often claims to be an ally of the cultures she rips off, the problem is that what she is doing is hurtful. She is taking other people’s cultural identifications in order to look more beautiful or trendy. In doing so, she’s furthering a power imbalance and diluting those cultures. White allies can claim to be fans or supporters of people of color. But if their motivations are based on maintaining their own social status, rather than promoting the social status of those they claim to support, they are inevitably involved in a power play. It doesn’t have to be conscious, but it’s still happening.
Gwen Stefani Seems to Think She Is Japanese Because She Likes Japanese Aesthetics
And now we circle back to Gwen Stefani claiming to be Japanese.
Stefani is blindingly white. That much is obvious. She was raised Catholic in Anaheim, California, and her father was Italian American while her mother was Irish American. Her father worked for Yamaha and often traveled to Japan for work. As such, her family learned about some aspects of Japanese culture and Gwen grew an appreciation for it. She first went to Japan as an adult.
“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 told Allure. She elaborated on her thoughts when she finally went to Japan herself. “I said, ‘My God, I’m Japanese and I didn’t know it.'”
The Allure associates, who I previously mentioned identifying with Asian culture (one is a Filipina American and the other is of Asian and Latin descent), tried to help Gwen correct what she had just said. Firstly, Stefani’s comment about being Japanese comes after decades of being asked to stop blatantly culturally appropriating others. Secondly, Asian American and Pacific Islander hate crimes have skyrocketed since the start of the COVID pandemic. This is largely due to misinformation, fear, and prejudices about China.
Deeply Offending Your Interviewers Is Probably a Bad PR Tactic, Gwen
“I spent 32 minutes in conversation with Stefani, many of them devoted to her lengthy answer to my question about Harajuku Lovers. In that time, she said more than once that she is Japanese,” wrote Allure’s Jesa Marie Calaor.
After voicing her revelation about being Japanese, Gwen Stefani told Allure, “I am, you know.” And then she clarified that she meant what she said as a “super fan.” She also said that her Harajuku phase was a “ping-pong” of cultures, based on cultural appreciation.
Maybe Gwen Stefani’s PR people need to be doing more research on her behalf and giving her a little more input. Because what Stefani said was almost exactly what she’d said previously, about “sharing” other people’s cultures.
“I get a little defensive when people [call it culture appropriation], because if we didn’t allow each other to share our cultures, what would we be?” Stefani told Billboard. “You take pride in your culture and have traditions, and then you share them for new things to be created.”
I propose that Gwen Stefani put aside a little time every day — which she certainly must have. She could use that time to learn about white allyship. Because she’s coming across as someone who is having an identity crisis, creating a personal PR nightmare, and offending millions of people — all at the same time.
No, Gwen, you are not Japanese. Full stop.