Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Harajuku Girls

Gwen and Harajuku GirlsWhat are we to make of Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku girls?

To recap, in case you have been living in a pop-culture proof shelter, Gwen Stefani is an American pop star with platinum locks and a growly, girl-power type of appeal. She released a clothing line called L.A.M.B which stands for "Love Angel Music Baby." The clothing line was inspired by the street fashions of Harajuku, which readers of Japundit know is a hip part of Tokyo near Shibuya station, where youths dress up and parade their eclectic sense of fashion. Gwen has written a song titled "Harajuku Girls" which is an ode to the Harajuku ethos. She is touring with 4 "Harajuku Girls" whom she has named "Love," "Angel," "Music" and "Baby."

Yep. That's right. She's named them.

Here are some sample lyrics from her song.

Your look is so distinctive, like DNA
Like nothing I've ever seen in the USA
Your underground culture, visual grammar
The language of your clothing, is something to encounter
A ping-pong match between eastern and western
Did you see your inspiration in my latest collection
Just wait till you get your little hands on L.A.M.B.
Cause it's (super kawaii), that means (super cute in Japanese)
The streets of Harajuku are your catwalk
Bishoujo, you're so vogue
That's what you drop
Cho saikou, Harajuku girls

Okay. Now we've got that out of the way. Let's look at what the reaction has been so far.
When I first saw Gwen Stefani and her girls, I thought, "No way. She's crazy. Middle America will never understand this whole kawaii thing." Then I thought, "Well, maybe it will work." Then I thought, "What will happen if people like this?"

Margaret Cho, probably the only well known comedienne of Asian descent here in the US, masks her criticism of the Harajuku girls with some ironic observations.

I mean, racial stereotypes are really cute sometimes, and I don't want to bum everyone out by pointing out the minstrel show. I think it is totally acceptable to enjoy the Harajuku girls, because there are not that many other Asian people out there in the media really, so we have to take whatever we can get. Amos 'n Andy had lots of fans, didn't they? At least it is a measure of visibility, which is much better than invisibility. I am so sick of not existing, that I would settle for following any white person around with an umbrella just so I could say I was there.

(But, I interject, people do carry umbrellas in Japan).

I've found a couple of other interesting pieces of commentary. There is one particularly damning article in Salon, written by an Asian American. It's worth noting that the article opens with the author recalling times past when she was stereotyped for her looks.

Stefani has taken the idea of Japanese street fashion and turned these women into modern-day geisha, contractually obligated to speak only Japanese in public, even though it's rumored they're just plain old Americans and their English is just fine. . . The renaming of four adults led one poster on a message board to muse, "I didn't think it was legal to own human pets. But I guess so if you have the money for it." Stefani fawns over harajuku style in her lyrics, but her appropriation of this subculture makes about as much sense as the Gap selling Anarchy T-shirts; she's swallowed a subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women.

(Kinda wierd use of the term geisha. Makes me think that perhaps the writer hasn't been to Harajuku and perhaps hasn't read up on what makes a girl a geisha).

So, we're pretty sensitive these days over here in the West. Especially those of us of Asian descent, and I am definitely sympathetic to all these points of view. But lost in all the discussion are a couple of key things.

First: Japan is the world's second largest economy, and one of the reasons the real Harajuki kids are able to invest so much creativity into their weekend outfits is because they have money. Social problems Japan has a plenty. But this is not the land where playing dress up reduces a girl to becoming a "contractually obligated geisha" with absolutely no power. Some commentators have insisted that the girls in Gwen Stefani's show aren't "authentic" Harajuku girls, but I kind of think that's a given. This is show business after all.

Second: what do the Japanese themselves think of this curious cultural mixing? I mean, unless you haven't been paying attention, Japan is full of T-shirts with curious phrases and charming uses of English. Is that cultural appropriation? Or is it only cultural appropriation if we Americans dress up like . . . someone else? Where do we draw the line?

I found this blog (in Japanese) in which a Japanese went to see Gwen Stefani perform in New York. She talks about how Gwen Stefani is a sort of "ambassador" for Shibuya-ku. She makes the point that the Harajuku Girls (that would be Love, Angel, Music and Baby) dance really well, and that it's exciting to see Asian girls front and center. However, she wonders, it does seem that the point of the choreography is that, to Americans, Asian taste seems to prefer girls who are "young and childish" and "not sexy." She also wonders how long Stefani will stick to the Harajuku routine.

This, to me, is the really interesting part of this whole debate.

Can you name any female Asian pop stars who have crossed over to become stars in the US? Many have tried, but so far, no one has truly succeeded. How about movie stars? There's Michelle Yeoh, and there's Ziyi Zhang. There is the lively Margaret Cho, and our homegrown beauty Lucy Liu. More recently, we have Sandra Oh. One thing all these women share in common is that their characters are martial arts experts, or really tough.

There is something to be said for the perception that Westerners have of Asians as being "giggling." This is where I think a lot of Asian women living in the West get nervous. We are perfectly aware of the way in which Asians are perceived, and we aren't comfortable with it. I remember full well the number of times I've been told in corporate interviews, "Well, you just don't seem very tough." On the other hand, the minute I land in Japan, if I laugh at a joke, my hand flies up in front of my mouth. What am I going to do? Show off a mouthful of teeth and unleash my guffawing self to my grandparents? I don't think so.

The interesting thing for me, then, is to see if these Harajuku Girls of Gwen Stefani's are going to be able to translate long term. I wonder if the larger Western audience will gain a greater appreciation for all that is kawai, and stop asking Asian actresses to have to prove that they can "kick ass" if they even want to make a film in the first place. Or, is this really just a passing trend that will only affirm another kind of stereotype.

(First posted at Japundit.)

I don't put asian-americans and japanese in the same basket. The cultures raise people totally different.

it's so funny to read margaret cho and the salon commenting on things they have no idea about; putting american moral values on Japanese girls. I say kudos to gwen stafani for making something in Japan besides its failing economy cultural cache. This country is loaded with good things (I'm not a fan of harajuku, frankly; i only live two subway stops away from it though) that aren't sushi.

I found your website through your review of a japanese resturant. The gobo salad is called kimpira gobo. And is tempura a part of kaiseki? I guess I don't see why not. It all looks good though, and it's encouraging to know that I won't miss all that much when I eventually move back to the states.
sorry to log all my comments here, but a few more things.

Matsutake in Japan are often from North Korea, so perhaps your conversation was based on that.

I also want to say that the Japanese diet is not necessarily healthy. There is a bevy of fried foods and, much to the complaint of most foreigners, particularly americans, they put mayonaise on everything. Smoking as well, is far more pervasive and accepted than in the US, which does have effects on metabolism. That said, I suppose there are many things that I take for granted as universal and normal that probably aren't to the average american reader, and that there is some value in writing a book like her's.
Travis -- Thanks for these really intelligent comments! I quite agree that being "Asian American" and "Japanese" are not the same thing. It is a distinction that we will probably all grapple with increasingly as more people travel (in both countries).

I'm glad you like the look of the food I've reviewed. There are definitely good places to eat (and to shop for food), so you won't have to completely do without when you return. Once upon a time it was impossible to find real wasabi in New York. Or myoga. Or yuzu. But now the larger Japanese grocery stores carry these things.

Thanks again for your smart comments!
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