Harajuku is dead – and Gwen Stefani should avoid the funeral
Bethany Donkin discusses the recent demise of Harajuku publication FRUiTS, and how cultural appropriation has contributed to its fall…
This week marks the end of an era for Harajuku magazine FRUiTS. The magazine’s creator and photographer Schoichi Akoi claims that the print edition will be coming to an end as “there are no more fashionable kids to photograph,” (DAZED interview).
The Harajuku sub-culture was born out of the Harajuku neighbourhood in Tokyo in the late 90s, and it encompasses an array of punk, Lolita, goth and kawaii styles. It’s a sub-culture unique and special to Tokyo, which allows young people to express themselves in an increasingly industrialised and Westernised Japan at the turn of the 21st century.
It’s doubtful the reason the trend is subsiding is due to a lack of “fashionable kids to photograph”, and Akoi is dangerously close to sounding like a ‘back in my day” type with this excuse. It was a ‘trend’ and trends do inevitably become ‘untrendy’. Akoi is now committing himself to digitizing the FRUiTS archive, putting all of his photos online as a sort of time capsule for the era, an era which he claims rose and fell in the 90s.
Akoi’s stance seems to be that anything claiming to be Harajuku after this time was not authentic. So with a dwindling following, the movement takes its place in history books as an iconic sub-culture. However, in the West, it lives on through Gwen Stefani’s distasteful ‘Harajuku’ fetish. “Harajuku Girls, you got the wicked style I like the way that you are, I am your biggest fan (Cho kawaii) Harajuku Girls, Harajuku Girls” sang Gwen in 2004 on her Love Angel Music Baby album. The simple nouns which make up the album title also happen to be the pet names for the four girls who followed Gwen around during the noughties. Whilst featuring a song called “Harajuku girls”, the album has an overarching Harajuku/Japanese theme with the ‘girls’ featuring in most of Gwen’s music videos from the album. In the ‘What You Waiting For?’ music video, the Harajuku girls play hyper sexualised Alice in Wonderland type characters, then in ‘Wind It Up’ the foursome play pseudo Von Trapp children, spinning around in short skirts and showing their underwear. Are they Austrian children from the 1940s or grown women? I don’t know, but I’m disturbed.
I wince at the opening of ‘Hollaback Girl’ when Gwen Stefani takes a picture of the four girls and exclaims that the picture is “Super Kawaii!” Even in her pirate themed ‘Rich Girl’ video, Stefani manages to plop on a traditional Japanese head dress and sing: “…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…” How Gwen manages to make five references to herself in four lines which were meant to be about other people is a mystery to me. Clearly, there’s a definite case of cultural appropriation here; the debate has been raging since the album’s release. But I also feel a deep sense of cultural cringe on behalf of the Japanese trend as Stefani painfully simplifies and slaughters it.
There’s a danger that Gwen’s dumb downed interpretation of a whole sub-culture becomes the dominant understanding of what Harajuku is (in the West anyway). This is not what Harajuku is or ever was; take a look at FRUiTS magazine for a true representation. I am no expert, but surely the Harajuku from the streets of Tokyo during the late 90s and early 00s has been poorly reflected in the synchronized dance routines and identical outfits of Gwen’s groupies. The sub-culture was a unique “slice of time and space”- to quote Shoichi Aoki. With the sub-culture’s popularity depleting and coming under extensive criticism from the likes of American comedian Margaret Cho, you’d think that Gwen would take the hint, and let it go. However, Stefani continues to push her ‘Harajuku’ inspired clothing brand, L.A.M.B. (wonder what that stands for…) and her personalised Harajuku girl perfume bottles. In October of last year she even released a Nickelodeon kids show called Kuu Kuu Harajuku. Oh dear….Gwen, Harajuku has passed away. Pay your respects by not attending the funeral – you already put the last nail in the coffin.