2023 really is the year of delusion
Well, that wasn’t on my 2023 bingo card. Gwen Stefani has come out as Japanese.
In a recent interview with Allure to promote the launch of her new vegan beauty brand, GXVE Beauty, Stefani was asked about her Harajuku era. Explaining her close connection to Japanese culture, Stefani recalled visiting 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,” she said. “I said, ‘My God, I’m Japanese and I didn’t know it.”
When I read this, I scrolled back up to the picture of Stefani heading the article. She looked… white. I stared harder. Unless… is she… white passing??? Alarmed, I Googled her: she was born to an Italian-American father and Irish-American mother. So, no. Definitely not Japanese.
Weirdly, when Jesa Marie Calaor – the Asian-American journalist who conducted the interview – initially didn’t respond to Stefani’s assertion that she was Japanese, Stefani doubled down: “I am, you know.” Later on in the interview, she described herself as “a little bit of an Orange County girl, a little bit of a Japanese girl, a little bit of an English girl.”
Calaor recalled her disbelief: “we were left questioning what we had heard. Maybe she misspoke? Again and again? [...] Surely, she didn’t mean it literally or she didn’t know what she was saying?”
Stefani has always had a close and complicated relationship with Japan. To recap: back in 2004, Stefani released her debut studio album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby., followed by a perfume line named Harajuku Lovers in 2008. Four of the five perfume bottles were designed to look like Stefani’s Japanese backing dancers – the fifth resembled Stefani herself. I remember staring longingly at the perfumes in Boots, aged ten, wishing my mum would buy me one and swearing to get them all for myself once I was a grown-up and had my own money (obviously, I didn’t do this because those bottles are tacky and the fragrances themselves are apparently mid).
gwen stefani telling an asian american interviewer that she identifies as japanese is the kind of oblivion i'm trying to channel in this dark cruel world— Telon Chusk (@tanyachen) January 10, 2023
Back in 2008, there was a small amount of backlash to the album and perfume line. ‘Cultural appropriation’ was yet to enter common parlance and social media was yet to take off, but there was still a distinct sense that something perhaps wasn’t quite right with this white artist picking her favourite bits from Japanese culture and profiting off it immensely. Over time, Stefani faced more scrutiny and has been more widely accused of appropriating Japan’s Harajuku subculture in her brand’s image.
She has normally responded by explaining that she first became introduced to Japanese culture during her childhood, as her father’s job at Yamaha had him travelling between their home in California and Japan for 18 years. She fell in love with the culture, she says, and became a “super fan”. This is what she began to explain to Allure before coming out with the bizarre claim that she is Japanese.
Calaor writes that “A representative for Stefani reached out the next day, indicating that I had misunderstood what Stefani was trying to convey,” and that when Allure later asked Stefani’s team for an on-the-record comment or clarification of these remarks “they declined to provide a statement or participate in a follow-up interview.”