Gwen Stefani shoots down Harajuku Girls cultural appropriation claims, says people can ‘share’

Gwen Stefani is again defending her Harajuku Girls era in her career from longstanding claims of cultural appropriation. 

“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,” the 51-year-old said during a Paper Magazine interview released Wednesday. 

Stefani has faced decades of cultural appropriation accusations, from wearing a bindi (a South Asian religious symbol) in the 90s to her 2005 “Luxurious” music video, where she imitated Hispanic culture and seductively danced in an Our Lady of Guadalupe shirt.

In 2012, Stefani donned Native American attire in No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” music video, which depicted a Cowboys vs. Indian fight with teepees and feathered headdresses. The group pulled the video and apologized for “being hurtful” and “offensive.”

But the most serious claim of cultural appropriation came from the Japanese-inspired imagery Stefani used heavily on her 2004 album “Love. Angel. Music. Baby,” which birthed her No. 1 single “Hollaback Girl” and her Harajuku Girls entourage.

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Comedian Margaret Cho has compared Stefani’s girl group of dancers of Japanese descent, which frequently accompanied the pop star in music videos and red carpet events, to a “minstrel show.”

“Racial stereotypes are really cute sometimes, and I don’t want to bum everyone out by pointing out the minstrel show,” she wrote in an essay in 2005. “A Japanese schoolgirl uniform is kind of like blackface.”

Stefani disagrees with the longstanding criticism to this day. During her Paper Magazine interview, Stefani said people from different cultures can “share.”

“If we didn’t buy and sell and trade our cultures in, we wouldn’t have so much beauty, you know?” Stefani said. “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.”

Stefani continued: “I think that we grew up in a time where we didn’t have so many rules. We didn’t have to follow a narrative that was being edited for us through social media, we just had so much more freedom.”

Gwen Stefani poses with the Harajuku Girls on the red carpet during The 2004 Billboard Music Awards Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2004 in Las Vegas. (Photo: ERIC JAMISON, AP)

The singer said her “deep fascination” with Japanese culture started at a young age when her father worked in Japan. He frequently brought home Sanrio toys and shared stories of epic street fashion in Tokyo’s Harajuku district. 

Stefani said her first trip to Japan with No Doubt in 1996 was “a pretty big deal for me.”

She wanted to bring Japanese culture to the U.S, Stefani said, and one way was through her Harajuku girls, composed of dancers Maya Chino, Jennifer Kita, Rino Nakasone and Mayuko Kitayama.

“I never got to have dancers with No Doubt. I never got to change costumes. I never got to do all of those fun girl things that I always love to do. So I had this idea that I would have a posse of girls — because I never got to hang with girls — and they would be Japanese, Harajuku girls, because those are the girls that I love. Those are my homies. That’s where I would be if I had my dream come true, I could go live there and I could go hang out in Harajuku.”

Gwen Stefani poses with the Harajuku Girls as they arrive to the 32nd Annual "American Music Awards" on November 14, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Carlo Allegri, Getty Images)

Stefani went on to launch a Harajuku Lovers clothing line in 2005 and produce an animated children’s show called “Kuu Kuu Harajuku” in 2015. Despite all the criticism she’s received over the years, Stefani said she doesn’t regret her Harajuku era at all. 

“Everything that I did with the Harajuku Girls was just a pure compliment and being a fan. You can’t be a fan of somebody else? Or another culture? Of course you can. Of course you can celebrate other cultures,” she told TIME in 2014. 

She continued: “That’s what Japanese culture and American culture have done. It’s like I say in the song (‘Harajuku Girls’): it’s a ping-pong match. We do something American, they take it and they flip it and make it so Japanese and so cool. And we take it back and go, ‘Whoa, that’s so cool!’ That’s so beautiful. It’s a beautiful thing in the world, how our cultures come together. I don’t feel like I did anything but share that love.”

Appreciation vs. appropriation

Stefani is one of many celebrities who has walked the fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation.

Dr. Neal Lester, founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, defined cultural appropriation to USA TODAY earlier this month as “stealing something from a culture that is not one’s own and reaping the benefits or profits from it.”

Lester added that appropriation “reduces something to a kind of performance.”

In comparison, cultural appreciation “is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally,” according to Greenheart.org, an organization that facilitates cultural exchange programs.

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