Who are the Harajuku Girls?

// 4 June 2008

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NB: I changed one of the words in the final paragraph of this article. The details can be found in the comments.

Harajuku is an area in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo, Japan. The term Harajuku Girls is commonly used in English Language media to refer to teenagers dressed in any fashion style there (Knight, 2007). The area’s young people have a reputation for being fashionable and, in particular, are directly influential on the publication Fruits (a fashion magazine that promotes the styles seen in the area). According to Wikipedia:

“Harajuku Girls may be members of various sub-cultures including Gothic Lolita, Ganguro, Gyaru, and Kogal and may also be dressed as characters from an anime, movie, or manga (known as cosplay).”

You might also be aware of the term “The Harajuku Girls” in relation to the back-up dancers that have appeared with Gwen Stefani during her solo projects. I admit I don’t know a lot about them and get the impression that this mystery is kind of the point. I also tend to find myself uncomfortable with this set-up when I see Stefani appearing with them in interviews and I never actually see them speak. Not even once. Again, I realise this is all part of the performance but can’t help wondering what Asian women make of all this. After all, Stefani is the one who gets to bask in their reflected glory, while also fronting the show as The Star (i.e the one who leads the gang and puts out albums with her name on the cover). The Harajuku Girls, meanwhile, look pretty cool but definitely seem to be appearing as ornamental aspects of the performance who, essentially, flank Stefani.

I have to say I wasn’t particularly inspired to alter my view when I got to the end of the interview with Gwen Stefani’s husband Gavin Rossdale in today’s Metro:

Metro: Does Gwen leave her Harajuku Girls lying around the house?

Gavin: Yes. They move out of the way if you ask them but who gets upset about having some Harajuku Girls in the house? They’re great.

Okay, okay… I’m sure it could be suggested that both Metro and Gavin were being firmly Tongue-in-Cheek when they uttered those words. After all, one could easily retort that the Harajuku Girls are professional performers who choose their projects and inspire fans with their style and presence. The performance is based on the concept that they are beautiful art objects and that’s all it is: a performance. This means killjoys like me should stop wringing our hands over all the privilege and try to appreciate it for what it is: again, a performance.

These reflections do not change the fact that my mouth literally dropped open when I read that final question in the interview. Is it really misguided of me to ask what exactly is going on here?

Are the Harajuku Girls stylish and formidable performers who have effectively sculpted themselves to become an impressive human art form or are they just playing out some awful stereotype that portrays Japanese women as silent, supportive and decorative?

Photo by Extra Medium, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Comments From You

Jess // Posted 5 June 2008 at 12:18 am

Margaret Cho talked about this a while back on her blog:

“I want to like them, and I want to think they are great, but I am not sure if I can. 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?”

Leigh // Posted 5 June 2008 at 12:20 am

Yes. He does make them sound like housepets. Of course we can’t trust the Metro to accurately represent what he says in a such a condensed, shallow interview. That they thought to ask is more of an annoyance to me than his response.

Davina // Posted 5 June 2008 at 12:33 am

No, it’s not misguided of you. Although the performers do have names – as in, Stefani gave them names – Love, Angel, Music, Baby. Which leads to the acronym LAMB, the title of Stefani’s debut and her fashion line. So not only are they dancing dolls but also a brand.

Oh no, wait, they are actually dolls – and Stefani too:


Hopefully with No Doubt rebanding she’ll stop this nonsense…

I think I’ve become too used to reading US blogs ‘cos I blanched at your use of oriental – but it seems ok to use it in the UK, because UK Asian is US South Asian, while UK Oriental is US Asian.

Redheadinred // Posted 5 June 2008 at 1:07 am

I personally hate Gwen Stefani’s interpretation of what ‘harajuku girls’ are. I think it is racist and patronising, and it has nothing to do with what Gothic Lolita or Cosplay are about, which is expressing yourself. Others will disagree, and I find their clothes attractive and cute, but it makes me sick that they’re supposed to just sit there and apparently they have contracts that they won’t sound fluent in English in public. They’re asian americans, not Japanese, but they have to pretend. Puke…

Holly Combe // Posted 5 June 2008 at 9:04 am

Davina: Thanks for mentioning the use of the word “oriental.” I must admit I used it without thinking and was not aware of UK and US use. I will do some research into this so that I am better informed for the future…

And, Jess, thanks for the Margaret Cho link. I should have remembered her!

Rhona // Posted 5 June 2008 at 9:18 am

I have to say I find the portrayal of Stefani’s ‘Harajuku Girls’ slightly uncomfortable, but then I sometimes struggle with ‘art’ in general and I have to think about this a bit more. I find the geisha comparison interesting.

Incidentally, Redheadinred, according to biog details on Wikipedia (which I realise isn’t infallible!), only one of the troupe was born in America – the rest of the women are Japanese by birth, therefore they are Japanese, not Asian Americans. I lived in France for a while – that doesn’t make me Scottish French!

I don’t think that living in another country – on a permanent or temporary basis – should subsume your cultural heritage. Not a criticism, just a point. :)

Anne Onne // Posted 5 June 2008 at 11:36 am

I do feel uncomfortable with the protrayal of the Harajuku girls, because they don’t seem to get a voice. But unlike mere backing dancers, where they ‘come from’ whether their real birth roots or part of their culture, or merely something made up to make them interesting, is a part of how they are presented and ‘sold’ as a brand.

If they were their own band and spokespeople, we could still have a discussion about how they were interpreted by the media, etc, but they don’t get that chance, because they’re literally presented as dolls or pets.

And I say this as an affocionado of Japanese subculture. I do think it’s possible to be interested in different cultures, and not exoticise them, and try to minimise the appropriation, by remembering that there are people involved, and that their culture is not a game.

And I don’t think that Stefani adopting them as nameless backing singers does that. The way she uses them makes no allowance for their background, and does come off as using more than their mere dance abilities. It uses their culture and their fashion as a selling point without presenting them as ‘real’ people. And that to me is unsavoury.

sian // Posted 5 June 2008 at 2:24 pm

i think i just tend to feel uncomfortable whenever a cultural statement is wiped of its meaning to make a merketable point, be it stefani taking the harajuku aesthetic without any real investment in the community’s culture, or people wearing keffiyehs and che guevera t shirts as fashio items

Redheadinred // Posted 5 June 2008 at 3:28 pm

Ah, Rhonda, I read their profiles years ago and I guess I just remembered as if they were all americans! Though I always

think it strange that Americans use the phrases ‘African American’ and ‘Latina American’ etc., when we don’t say ‘Latina British’ or ‘African British’. I’m glad we don’t, I prefer not classifying people that way.

I don’t think it’s ever a bad thing when people experiment with different cultures, as long as they do it respectfully, not, as Margaret Cho points out, like a minstrel show. I like the clothes they wear in japan, and if Stefani were just inspired by them and wore them herself, I’d find it pretty cool and creative. Only, she uses the actual PEOPLE as the thing to show off, not the clothes, thereby turning them into objects and accessories.

Seph // Posted 5 June 2008 at 3:30 pm

The first time I saw Gwen Stefani’s solo stuff and this whole “Harajuku girls” thing I didn’t know wether to be amused or offended.

For a start, saying you’re “harajuku” is kinda stupid, it’s a place, no-one walks around saying”im so Sheffield!”

Lolita and most of the other fashions found in Harajuku are worn by both girls and boys, and they’re about expressing individuality (since most of the time Japanese boys and girls are stuck in identical school uniform) Stefani’s ‘Harajuku girls’ are insulting to the whole idea of Harajuku fashion, if she tried to get a real Loli to follow her around in silence she’d probably get a 6 inch heel somewhere painful.

Lara The Second // Posted 5 June 2008 at 4:06 pm


That blog has a whole load of links to critical writing about Stefani and “The Gwenihana Four”.

Anne Onne // Posted 5 June 2008 at 4:28 pm

RedheadinRed, many people of Indian descent here do refer to themselves as being British Indian, though. For some people, it gets accross the fact that they’ve been bought up (and often born) in one country, but have been heavily influenced by the culture of another. I guess it’s up to people as to what they would refer to themselves as.

To be honest, I can see the appeal of something that tries to encapsulate the different aspects of your cultural heritage, because ‘British’ or *insert name of country of birth or descent* just doesn’t cover it for me.

Jha // Posted 8 June 2008 at 5:38 pm

I despise the idea of Stefani’s Harajuku girls… have from the very beginning. Early on, when they first started appearing with Stefani, they were present during an interview. The interviewer asked one of the girls (who was sitting on the floor next to Stefani, go figure), “How does it feel like to be working with Gwen Stefani?” or something like that.

Stefani responded by saying, “Please don’t talk to them… they’re just figments of my imagination.” And she said this WHILE SMILING.

I completely lost respect for her at that moment. She made some good music, but I can’t stomach her as a person now. That comment was made a few years ago now, but I still can’t forget it.

Holly Combe // Posted 18 June 2008 at 2:23 pm

Just found this on Google Answers:

The political correctness of the term “Oriental” depends on where you are from and to whom you are speaking. Here in North America it is considered to be offensive. In Europe and in parts of Asia it is acceptable and in common usage. One reason for its perceived offensiveness has to do with the meaning of the root word, Orient. This term is derived from the Latin word oriens, referring to where the sun rises in the east. Since oriental is used to describe places (and people) that are to the East only in relation to Europe, the term is considered by some to be Eurocentric. But more likely, the real issue is its connotations stemming from the times when Europeans viewed the Orient as “exotic lands full of romance and intrigue, the home of despotic empires and inscrutable customs. At the least these associations can give Oriental a dated feel, and as a noun in contemporary contexts … it is now widely taken to be offensive.

This backs up what Davina said about the possible difference in usage here from in the US but, on the strength of what is said above, I think there is also a good case for people in the UK to reconsider the word too. We are, after all, west from Asia and therefore an exotic-sounding reference to the east does seem rather like an act of othering.

On reflection, I think my instinct with regard to the connotations of the word “oriental,” as part and parcel of the very stereotype I described in the post, may have partially led to my use of it. However, as I said, this wasn’t a conscious decision and I didn’t explore it at all anyway so I’ve decided to change “stereotype that portrays oriental women as silent, supportive and decorative” to “stereotype that portrays Japanese women as silent, supportive and decorative.”

Jess // Posted 18 June 2008 at 4:30 pm

I’ve always thought it was offensive here too.

Aimee // Posted 18 June 2008 at 5:36 pm

It’s interesting that they’re referred to as ‘girls’ when the wikipedia article cites the oldest one as 29! They’re not really ‘girls’ are they? I find it all pretty patronising and grotesque.

aimee // Posted 18 June 2008 at 5:39 pm

It’s also interesting that Gwen Stefani has completely sold out to the commercialisation and sexualisation of women. She used to be so cool! I loved her when I was about 15… she was the reason I was interested in feminism in the first place. A lot of No Doubt’s earlier stuff was pretty feminist. Then she started appearing in rap videos wearing not very much, having token dancing girls to back her up and generally demeaning herself and other women along the way. Boo Gwen Stefani.

Störm // Posted 11 August 2008 at 7:11 pm

I think they’re great. Making an issue of it is racism in itself – for example, if they were white and British nobody would care. I think it’s awesome that somebody as big as Gwen Stefani can bring other races and fashions into her music and western culture. Good on her I say.

Holly Combe // Posted 12 August 2008 at 5:27 pm

If it’s racist to even wonder if something might be racist then how on earth are we supposed to tackle racism? If daring to even tentatively talk about racism is liable to be considered racist in itself, what should we do? Stop racism by pretending it doesn’t exist?

I guess fighting for racial equality must be out then. That would involve “being racist” by “making an issue” out of stuff.

I have to say I really can’t fathom why it is “awesome” that someone “as big as Stefani” can “bring other races and fashions into her music.” She’s not the first “big” star to do such a thing and she won’t be the last. What’s your point?

bzzzzgrrrl // Posted 12 August 2008 at 6:26 pm

Also, Störm, though the racist implications would not be present and therefore not mentioned if these were white British women, certainly people would care about a pack of mysterious women who seem like pets or dolls under those circumstances.

Robert Palmer “girls,” anyone? That was creepy, and that creepiness was certainly noticed by feminists back in the late ’80s.

I hope and expect we’d have the same reaction to the same objectification today, if tempered by a healthy dose of “[they] are professional performers who choose their projects and inspire fans with their style and presence. The performance is based on the concept that they are beautiful art objects and that’s all it is: a performance. This means killjoys like me should stop wringing our hands over all the privilege and try to appreciate it for what it is: again, a performance.”

HB // Posted 12 August 2008 at 10:46 pm


I think Gwen Stefani is pretty much all about irony. She sends herself up so of course she is being tongue in cheek about her ‘imaginary’ Harajuku girls. I mean her stuff is surely deliberately vapid. Like a drag show. I think if you find it offensive you are really missing the point.

You don’t have to dig it, but dont take it seriously.

Holly Combe // Posted 13 August 2008 at 10:51 am

I do think there are potentially different readings of the performance (as indicated in the post) but there also seem to be a lot of question marks hanging over exactly what Stefani is being ironic or tongue in cheek about. I’d certainly be surprised if the representation of ethnicity or power relations between people of different nationalities is one of those things. If it is, I’d say it must be a private joke between the performers because no-one really knows anything about the Harajuku Girls in a public sense and, of course, that’s where some of the discomfort stems from.

I agree there is a sense of the deliberately vapid in Stefani’s performances (i.e “like a drag show”) where style trumps over substance but, if that’s the case, it also seems reasonable to conclude there isn’t really a point to be “missed” in the first place so we can’t really be blamed for squirming when we observe what seems to be a blatant and unquestioning reinforcement of racial stereotypes.

I don’t buy the “you don’t have to dig it, but don’t take it seriously” argument. Going down that route seems to me a bit like a case of “I don’t like it but I’m sure it’s not serious so I’d better not say anything because then I’ll look like I am easily offended and “don’t get it” and that would not be cool.” Irony can be a lot of things. I reckon the world would be dull without it but I don’t think we can expect it to be universal because, of course, what can seem safely ironic to one person will seem dangerously close to being a celebration of oppression that still goes on to another.

frau sally benz // Posted 13 August 2008 at 2:55 pm

When Gwen Stefani first started “using” the Harajuku Girls, I didn’t think much of it other than oh their style is kind of cool. But, the more I saw of them and Stefani’s interaction with them, the more it annoyed me. Because she is just using them, they’re props in her performance. It’s not even like the usual group of backup singers or dancers b/c these women are branded (as somebody mentioned above) and paraded around with her, then denied a voice.

queen emily // Posted 13 August 2008 at 8:38 pm

I’m fairly sure I read somewhere that the “Harajuku Girls” have contracts that forbid them from speaking in public–or perhaps it was “just” speaking in English. In either case, they’re exoticised and denied speech, whilst Stefani trades off Orientalist tropes to great success.

It’s also worth considering next to the commercial failure of Utada Hikaru’s English language album “Exodus”, which was released around on a major label (Def Jam) the same time as the first Stefani album–and had really amazing production from heavyweights like Timbaland. Highly recommended btw, interesting lyrics too for pop music, about diaspora, sex, gender, etc.

I think the thing is, America in particular still often prefers local “translators” (ie appropriators) rather than the voice of the Other.

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