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Kuu Kuu Harajuku: On Growing Up With Gwen Stefani, Japan Street Fashion + Cultural Appropriation

MTV TRL With Gwen Stefani
Frank Micelotta, Getty Images

It’s been over 12 years since Gwen Stefani premiered her multi-platinum debut album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and first introduced listeners to her controversial “Harajuku Girls.” But on October 3, the pop star’s obsession with the famed, culturally-significant neighborhood in Tokyo hits the small screen in cartoon form: Her animated series Kuu Kuu Harajuku premieres on Nickelodeon, introducing a new young generation to her whitewashed misrepresentation of Japanese street fashion and youth culture.

Here, one weary longtime fan — and fellow lover of Japan and its pop culture — reflects on her own shifting Gwen fandom, and Stefani’s continued career of cultural appropriation.

I was just a girl (15 years old, to be precise) when the music video for Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” debuted on MTV in October 2004. A diehard No Doubt fan since childhood, I rushed home from school that afternoon to watch the clip—back when young people actually rushed home to watch TRL, of course. Just in time, I curled up on the big leather couch in the middle of my living room as the Wonderland-themed mini-film began.

The track had already become one of my favorite songs after debuting a few weeks prior. But watching the video, I was struck by how familiar so many of the visuals seemed, and suddenly recalled the stacks of FRUiTS magazines piled in my bedroom.

The gears in my brain rotated. Was Gwen Stefani, a mainstream music artist and pop star, referencing Japanese street fashion—which was, at the time, something wholly underground in the U.S.—on American national TV?

She was—and in that moment, my heart swelled.

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I was in elementary school when I first became hooked on Japanese pop culture. Like many children of the ’90s, Sailor Moon’s evil-vanquishing catchphrase was my nightly prayer; the binder in which I stored my Pokemon cards, my bible. And Hayao Miyazaki, well… he was basically God. By high school, my interests had broadened to include Japanese history, culture, language and, most importantly to my then-burgeoning teenage girl self, fashion—specifically, street style.

I dressed weird as a teenager. Soul-crushingly shy and insecure, I was often ostracized by classmates for being more interested in Disney movies, J-pop and drawing than The O.C., partying and Friday night football games everyone else seemed to prefer. Fashion was how I felt most comfortable expressing myself, whether it was wearing a Minnie Mouse polka dot bow in the lunchroom (which I was mocked for, of course) or coming to school in a head-to-toe Rainbow Brite-esque outfit on the first day of sophomore year (prompting classmates to suddenly assume I was making a statement about my sexuality).

A white girl living far away in America, I was inspired and fascinated by the girls and boys splattered across the pages of my prized Japanese fashion magazines. The most treasured was Shoichi Aoki’s youth culture-defining FRUiTS, a legendary zine that printed photos of stylish young people on the streets of Harajuku—a Tokyo neighborhood globally renowned for being a melting pot of high-meets-low fashion—long before style bloggers and Instagram “it” kids were a thing. These teenagers in their cartoon-y Super Lovers t-shirts and frothy Angelic Pretty dresses and neon Cyberdog legwarmers were simply being themselves, unafraid to make a statement with how they dressed or how they’d be perceived by society at large.

They sent a message to me, loud and clear: It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be yourself.

Then, with Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and the videos and photos and products and tour it subsequently produced, Stefani had suddenly “introduced” J-fashion to the American Top 40. My classmates suddenly knew what Harajuku was (or rather, where it was) and my Baby, the Stars Shine Bright skirts and faux Vivienne Westwood necklaces weren’t so weird anymore.

FRUiTS by Shoichi Aoki, 2001
FRUiTS by Shoichi Aoki, 2001

In my youthful infatuation, I was ecstatic. During that time, Gwen was, as they say, my fave. But sometimes, your faves are problematic—even if you don’t realize it at the time.

At 15, I hadn’t yet heard the term “cultural appropriation,” but I could recognize how strange and troublesome it felt for a white American pop star to tote around four silent Asian women—four dancers named Maya Chino, Jennifer Kita, Rino Nakasone Razalan and Mayuko Kitayama—as her submissive, giggling entourage. She renamed them Love, Angel, Music and Baby, a gesture that effectively stripped them of their individual identities. Now, they were simply the “Harajuku Girls.” And they were used as props.

Reportedly contractually obligated to only speak Japanese in public, the four girls in their exaggerated circular blush, tiny painted lips and matching outfits shadowed Stefani quietly wherever she went—while promoting the album, anyway—accompanying her on red carpets, in music videos and onstage. She called them “figments of her imagination” and referenced them in her songs as well, from “What You Waiting For?” to the aptly named “Harajuku Girls,” on which she sang that she’d contracted “a fatal attraction to cuteness.

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Even on “Rich Girl,” a cover song which itself was arguably appropriated by Gwen and track producer Dr. Dre from British reggae duo Louchie Lou & Michie One’s 1993 single of the same name, Stefani promised that if she were wealthy, she’d “get…four Harajuku girls.” As if Gwen could purchase an entourage of stylish Tokyo teens at her wealthy, famous-white-lady whim.

I’d get me four Harajuku girls to / Inspire me and they’d come to my rescue / I’d dress them wicked, I’d give them names / Love, angel, music, baby / Hurry up and come and save me,” she sang on the track—and she did. She really did.

In 2004 and 2005 interviews, Stefani divulged that her album was heavily inspired by her experience traveling to Japan while touring with No Doubt in 1995. Her dancers, Love, Angel, Music and Baby, were meant to represent her muses as living manifestations of the real people she had encountered in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the act did nothing save for expose the artist’s unchecked internal racism, and her representations further perpetuated destructive narratives about Asian women in Western media.

People were upset. Margaret Cho called the gimmick a “minstrel show.Madtv skewered her Eastern obsession in a skit. And in a society which often erases Asian people from their own stories or simply reduces them to stereotypes, Gwen’s shtick was a dismal, ill-conceived attempt at cultural convergence. And that s— was bananas (“b-a-n-a-n-a-s…“).

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This is what my truth feels like: Even back then, as a naive 15 year old and obsessively devoted fan, it bummed me out. Initially I tried to reason her behavior in my mind, tried to excuse it as her being someone who meant well but simply didn’t understand what the problem was. I defended her: After all, she meant so much to me, and I, a fellow white girl, loved Japanese fashion and culture too. So what was the problem? It’s not like she meant anything wrong by it, I thought. Didn’t her intentions matter? Did everyone have to be so hard on her?

But then I educated myself, because that’s what you do when you come across something you don’t quite get—you listen. You stop making excuses and take responsibility for your worldview, and you grow up and you learn. Despite the fact that I must have encountered or witnessed hundreds of instances of cultural appropriation in entertainment before that moment, Gwen Stefani’s problematic Japanese posturing was the first time I became aware of it, what it meant, and why it mattered so much.

Unfortunately, in those 12 years since Stefani first introduced us to her walking talking human accessories, she doesn’t seem to have learned anything about the difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating it. In 2014, TIME asked the pop star if she regretted the whole “Harajuku Girls” thing. The answer, disappointingly, was no.

“For me, everything that I did with the Harajuku Girls was just a pure compliment and being a fan,” Stefani responded. “You can’t be a fan of somebody else? Or another culture? Of course you can. Of course you can celebrate other cultures!”

MTV Europe Music Awards 2004
Gareth Davies, Getty Images

“…It’s a beautiful thing in the world, how our cultures come together,” she continued, Time‘s point soaring over her head. “I don’t feel like I did anything but share that love. You can look at it from a negative point of view if you want to, but get off my cloud. Because, seriously, that was all meant out of love.”

For love, and for significant profit: Her Harajuku Lovers fragrance line, products which come in bottles designed to look like the four cute “Harajuku Girls” (as well as a character representing herself, named G) and often feature advertising that pulls from Japanese motifs and aesthetics, continues to sell online and in stores today. She also had a matching clothing and accessories line under the brand through the 2000s and, at one point, teamed up with HP to release a Harajuku Lovers camera.

Instead of promoting the authentic Japanese brands she claimed to love so much, Gwen was making hella good bank off of her own Japanese fantasy—her brand a diluted, cheap, lazy Western interpretation of what the kids were wearing in Tokyo—and using it to contribute to a net worth that is an estimated $80 million in 2016.

Harajuku Lovers
Harajuku Lovers

Like an echo pedal, she repeats herself: Stefani’s executive-producing a new animated show, Kuu Kuu Harajuku, for Nickelodeon. Much like her fashion line and fragrances, it selectively borrows from authentic Harajuku fashion and Tokyo street culture. Unsurprisingly, the show also doesn’t seem to have any official Japanese showrunners at its helm either, and all but one player — Filipino-Australian actress Charlotte Nicdao — on its primary voice cast is white.

Similar to the plot and stylings of Cartoon Network’s also American-made Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi Show (which was, at least, based off the actual J-pop band and included them in some form), the series follows a band called HJ5—led by G, a blonde stand-in for Gwen Stefani of course, who positions herself as a leader of all things deemed “Harajuku.”

“Stefani [has always had a] love of pop art and lifelong admiration for the street fashion and creative youth culture found in the renowned Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo, Japan,” a press release for the show states, according to Us Weekly. “It was while writing her first solo album that Stefani created the original Harajuku Girl characters as a celebration of the creativity and individualism she saw and loved in the Harajuku District.”

Speaking to Women’s Wear Daily ahead of the series release, Gwen gushed over her decades-long crush on the real trendsetters and trailblazers of Harajuku. She lauded their “self-expression and their need to be different and unique and stick out and be outrageous” that has continued to inspire her—something which, as I discovered flipping through Aoki’s street style magazine so many years ago, continues to inspire me as well.

“The Harajuku district…was, of course, happening for years and years before I discovered it,” Stefani added.

But with Kuu Kuu Harajuku, how exactly is the real Harajuku appreciated? From the Bratz doll-like character designs to the giant stomping pandas and colorfully-chaotic backgrounds, this is not Japan, but a culturally-empty, messily regurgitated Westernization of it.

It’s a whitewashed “kawaii” fairy tale: Substance or cultural respect aren’t present, similar to the way Katy Perry mashed Asian cultures together during her 2013 American Music Awards performance of “Unconditionally,” or the way Avril Lavigne played up Japanese stereotypes in her ridiculous “Hello Kitty” music video… which also, by the way, features four silent, identically-dressed Japanese dancers.

Despite my continued status as a fan of Gwen’s music, I remain continually disappointed in my one-time idol’s lack of reflection, and refusal to take responsibility for, her appropriation problem. After all these years, Gwen Stefani’s attraction to all things Japanese may be “fatal” to her, but it’s definitely not cute to me.

Meet the Queens of J-Pop:

NEXT: 'GHOST IN THE SHELL' & HOLLYWOOD'S ASIAN DIVERSITY PROBLEM

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