Gwen Stefani draws backlash for saying 'I am Japanese' in interview

Gwen Stefani raised eyebrows this week and drew fierce backlash for claiming during a magazine interview that she is Japanese.

The singer has been accused of cultural appropriation throughout her career

A blond woman in a pink dress smiles.
Gwen Stefani attends the 2022 Matrix Awards at The Ziegfeld Ballroom on Oct. 26, 2022, in New York City. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

Gwen Stefani raised eyebrows this week and drew fierce backlash for claiming during a magazine interview that she is Japanese.

The pop singer made the comments during a conversation with Allure magazine while promoting her beauty brand Gxve. But the conversation turned to her past beauty venture, a 2008 fragrance line called Harajuku Lovers.

The perfume brand was named after the Harajuku district in Tokyo, Japan. During the interview, Stefani denied that she was appropriating Japanese culture, saying instead that she was inspired by it because of her father's frequent business travels to the country during her childhood, which she later visited as an adult.

"I said, 'My god, I'm Japanese and didn't know it,'" Stefani said of visiting Harajuku for the first time. "I am, you know."

Later in the interview, she claimed that she is "a little bit of an Orange County girl, a little bit of a Japanese girl, a little bit of an English girl."

Allure reported that Stefani's team reached out the next day to say that the journalist had misunderstood what the singer was trying to convey with her remarks, but declined to send an additional statement or give a follow-up interview.

CBC News has reached out to Stefani's representative for comment.

It's cultural appropriation, critics say

The comments reignited a longstanding criticism that Stefani, who was born and raised in California and is not ethnically Japanese, is appropriating a culture that is not her own.

Stefani often played up her affinity for the Harajuku aesthetic during the height of her 2000s stardom. After releasing her album Love.Angel.Music.Baby in 2004, she hired four Japanese and Japanese-American backup dancers (named Love, Angel, Music and Baby) to appear in her music videos and accompany her to public events.

Five women stand on a red carpet.
Stefani and the Harajuku Girls arrive at the 2004 Billboard Music Awards on Dec. 8, 2004, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Harajuku Lovers, the fragrance line, was a collection of five perfume bottles designed to look like caricatures of Stefani and her backup dancers. Stefani went on to launch a Harajuku Mini children's clothing line for Target in 2011.

"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 said in the Allure interview. "I think it was a beautiful time of creativity…a time of the ping-pong match between Harajuku culture and American culture."

"[It] should be OK to be inspired by other cultures, because if we're not allowed, then that's dividing people, right?"

The singer was similarly criticized this summer for wearing dreadlocks and the colours of the Jamaican flag in a music video for Sean Paul's song Light My Fire

Stefani, who is also the lead singer of pop-rock band No Doubt, has been accused of culture appropriation in the past for using reggae and ska influences in her music.


Jenna Benchetrit is a web and radio journalist for CBC News. She works primarily with the entertainment and education teams and occasionally covers business and general assignment stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.