Gwen Stefani Sparks Controversy with “I’m Japanese” Comment – Is Cultural Appropriation at Play?


Gwen Stefani, a singer and TV host of Irish and Italian descent, stirred up controversy in a recent interview when she claimed: “I’m Japanese.” The 53-year-old was promoting her GXVE beauty brand and spoke of the influence of Japanese culture on her childhood, as her father worked for Yamaha and frequently traveled between California and Japan. She remarked to Allure magazine’s Filipino-American editor Jesa Marie Calaor: “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 recalled her father’s stories of Japanese street performers impersonating Elvis Presley, and women with vibrant hair, which inspired her to travel to the Harajuku district of Tokyo, a hub for eclectic clothing stores and cosplay shops. She realized that she possessed a deep appreciation for the culture of Japan and considered herself a “super fan.” On her 2004 album Love. Angel. Music. Baby., Stefani employed four Japanese backup dancers – Maya Chino, Jennifer Kita, Rino Nakasone, and Mayuko Kitayama – thus prompting claims of cultural appropriation. She expressed her sentiments of being “Japanese and not knowing it” and stated that her words “seemed to hang in the air” between them.

Calaor wrote: “Like Stefani, I am not Japanese. But I am an Asian woman living in America, which comes with sobering realities during a time of heightened Asian American and Pacific Islander hate.

“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 report of Stefani’s self-identification as Japanese, as well as her acknowledgement of her affinity for Hispanic and Latino cultures, as well as her self-described “Orange County girl” status, received severe criticism from individuals online. One commentator stated that this sort of “white culture of thinking” is not appreciation, but rather “the theft and erasure that live at the origin of genocide, enslavement, and colonialism”. Another individual mentioned the particular difficulty of being an Asian American editor and hearing Stefani repeatedly say “I’m Japanese”.

Gwen Stefani has the privilege of being able to draw on aspects of Asian cultures without fear of being victimised due to her race, as was unfortunately the case with an Asian woman last year who was pushed off a New York City subway platform. Roxane Gay responded to this with a tweet that suggested that Gwen Stefani’s publicist was likely occupied that day. Allure reported that Stefani’s team declined to give an official statement when asked for clarification or an on-the-record comment.

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