During an interview with the fashion magazine Allure, Gwen Stefani, a 53-year-old American singer, actress, and fashion designer, was quoted as saying “My God, I’m Japanese and didn’t know it.” Of course, Stefani didn’t mean that she was ethnically Japanese. She’s Italian American and obviously “white”.
This was likely her way of expressing that she is a “super fan” of Japanese culture. Anyone who has followed her career already knows that Stefani is known for performing flanked by four Japanese and Japanese American women dressed in a style reminiscent of the street fashion of Tokyo’s Harajuku district. And that Stefani called them, “Love, Angel, Music, and Baby” (as she did her popular fragrance line) and demanded they only speak Japanese in public.
Clearly, she has made “Japanese-ness” a part of her image.
Nonetheless, Stefani claiming repeatedly that she is Japanese (she said it several times during the short interview) upset the writer from Allure. The writer, Jesa Marie Calaor, is a Filipina and, unlike Stefani, is an actual Asian woman living in America, a visible minority, and has had a very different experience than the visibly white and privileged Stefani. To Calaor, the singer was engaged in a bit of cultural appropriation.
“I am a woman who has been called racial slurs because of her appearance, feared for her father’s safety as he traveled with her on New York City subways, and boiled with anger as grandparents were being attacked and killed because they were Asian,” says Calaor in her article published on January 10th. “I envy anyone who can claim to be part of this vibrant, creative community but avoid the part of the narrative that can be painful or scary.”
Calaor’s comments went viral and were discussed worldwide on TV and social media.
Historically, Asian Americans and their image have been treated with disrespect by Americans, in person, and in the media. Asians have been the targets of racial slurs and insults about their appearance, culture, accent, etc. And, since Trump assigned the blame for the Coronavirus to Asians by labeling it the “Chinese Virus” (most Americans cannot distinguish between Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, etc.), that disrespect too often escalates to violence and deaths.
The FBI documented a 77 percent increase from 2019 to 2020 in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Asian people living in the US. And during the period from March 2020 to June 2021, more than 9,000 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported. This is what prompted the #StopAsianHate campaign to raise awareness of this violence.
So, it’s understandable that Calaor would be unsettled by Stefani claiming to be Japanese during the interview. The truth is, Stefani will never have to face the very real danger of living in America as an actual Japanese American, and her insensitivity as to how her words might affect people who live life with a target on their chest indicates her adoration for Asian people is fairly limited.
What does this have to do with Japan? Well, in an Al-Jazeera article last week, David McElhinney, wrote, “Media outlets including CNN, The Guardian, CBS, ABC, NBC and Buzzfeed picked up the Calaor interview and resulting social media firestorm, while notably omitting any reference to the views of Japanese people themselves.”
McElhinney’s article attempted to rectify this omission by interviewing “Japanese people themselves” meaning Japanese people in Japan. He concluded that while complaint-prone Americans like Calaor were troubled by Stefani’s remarks, Japanese people themselves were bemused and shrugged at this controversy. That In Japan, cultural appropriation is considered much ado about nothing.
Cultural appropriation is a complex topic and changes according to context. Unfortunately, in many media outlets' efforts to simplify or explain it, its dangers become obscured or lost altogether. Dr. Megan Rose is a sociologist and Arts-based researcher at the University of New South Wales. Her research explores how art, design, and media interact with social justice, politics, and well-being. She has focused a great deal of research on the problematic nature of not just Stefani’s dealings but on how Japanese subcultures like Kawaii Fashion in Harajuku are presented to the west and its overall impact.
Dr. Rose asserts that some of Stefani’s statements are emblematic of the problem at the heart of cultural appropriation.
For example, Stefani says in the interview, "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?"
Dr. Rose would not characterize the relationship between the cultures as having ever been a PingPong match.
“The assumption behind this metaphor is that there is a level playing field, between Stefani and the Harajuku kids,” says Dr. Rose “A ping pong match is equal, with two players. In truth, this isn’t a fair game.
Firstly, if she wanted to play on equal terms, we must consider the dynamics of her performance with her backup dancers. In many performances such as at AOL Sessions, she dresses them in school uniforms and has them bow down in worship of her, lift their skirts up at her, and so on.
She doesn’t have them dancing with her as equals. If anything, this reproduces a long-held Orientalist stereotype in America that Japanese women are submissive, docile, interchangeable with each other, or “little dolls” to charm the white populace.
“According to the API, up to 55% of Asian women in America experience sexual violence. They live under incredible conditions, and this also impacts Japanese women traveling to America for work, study, or travel.”
She explained that racism doesn’t only appear as anger or hatred, that it can also appear as “innocent” or harmless fun, but framed as “love” for another culture. She thinks Gwen’s performances have promoted very negative stereotypes of Harajuku kids as vapid, quirky, and infantile, and that Harajuku has been turned into a weapon to harass Asian Americans.”
Haruka Kurebayashi is an artist, a Harajuku Fashion model, and a social media influencer involved in KAWAII overseas research just to name a few of her hats. She shared her thoughts on Japanese people’s response to Gwen Stefani’s remarks (as published in the Al Jazeera article) and the resulting anger from Asian Americans aimed at Stefani.
"Unfortunately, besides the fact that there are many Japanese who do not know Gwen, I think they are also used to misunderstandings of Japanese culture by foreigners. Models who wear kimonos in the wrong way, have mysterious kanji tattoos, etc., are all misunderstandings from a Japanese point of view. But I am happy if this is done because they like Japan, and as
long as they are not vulgar, ” says Kurebayashi.
“Many Japanese people living in Japan have never been racially discriminated against and rarely have their culture or rights taken advantage of, so there is no need to be alarmed. I personally don't think it's OK to poke fun at other cultures, but I do find that many Japanese are indifferent to racism and cultural appropriation."
Rei Saionji is a writer, author, and specialist on Kawaii culture. She had some thoughts on whether the reverse is true, that the Japanese would be guilty of Cultural Appropriation for aping American culture.
In terms of 'Japanese imitation of American culture,' I am reminded of the rockabilly boom of the 1950s and 1960s. I imagine that Japan was recovering from the postwar period and that there was a great deal of admiration for the sparkling American culture of the time. Today, many people who are devoted to American culture, such as hip-hop and rap, also pronounce Japanese words in an English-like manner to be more like Americans and wear dowdy clothes as "brotherly" style.
Now, is this considered 'cultural appropriation' or not? The answer, I believe, is a matter of whether or not there is 'love' in it. Considering the possibility that your activities may hurt the people in that community and having the environment to talk and work with them directly on this point is what separates 'cultural appropriation' from 'cultural exchange'. I think it is out of the question to pretend to know something or to play games with superficial and conventional knowledge," said Saionji.
Saionji is currently working with Dr. Rose and Kurebayashi on a book about kawaii culture, with the goal of eradicating racism and bullying based on racism from the world by properly promoting kawaii culture through these projects and the establishment of an association.
Cultural appropriation is about power, and how culture can be weaponized to oppress. It isn't the same as sharing culture or exchanging culture. It is more akin to exploitation. And it’s through the remarkable efforts of people like Dr. Rose, Kurebayashi, and Saionji that the world is beginning to understand it better.