Harajuku is Japanese, but in a sense, it’s also American.
An American pop singer named Gwen Stefani has called down the liberal harpies on her head. In a recent interview with Allure magazine, Stefani said that she was “Japanese and didn’t know it” as she gushed about her fondness for the Tokyo neighborhood of Harajuku.
The standard “kyudan”—Maoist denunciation and shakedown perfected by a certain professional underclass in Japan—ensued. Stefani was guilty of cultural appropriation, American liberals shrieked. She has no right to call herself “Japanese,” because that’s racist and, frankly, so is she.
How sad. I wrote in these pages back in 2021 about the failure of imagination, and failure to understand human nature, that American liberals display when they try to police cultural quarantines. Those quarantines don’t exist. Culture is up for grabs. If Stefani wants to rock Harajuku fashion, then may she live long and prosper. Because that is exactly what Harajuku is there for.
To borrow some liberal platitudes, culture is “fluid,” a “spectrum.” Nobody owns it, it is always changing, and everybody borrows it from everybody else. In fact, Stefani might have been somewhat to blame in the “I’m Japanese” dust-up, after all. She put too much emphasis on Harajuku’s Japaneseness. Harajuku is definitely a product of Japan’s cultural backpages, a re-emergence of the same kind of delightfully irreverent nose-tweaking and defiance of authority that brought us kabuki, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and Baba Bunko.
But, for all that, Harajuku is not strictly speaking Japanese. It is a hodgepodge, a wild and carnivalesque bricolage of every cultural knick-knack and bit of civilizational flotsam that the fashion rebels in the Tokyo alleyways can get their hands on. Imagine if Mardi Gras, a mascara factory, and a thousand pounds of plasmatic neon were all smashed together in a cultural supercollider. No, that doesn’t even come close to the Harajuku style, which takes over the top of over-the-top as a mere starting point for street-level phantasmagoria.
I mean, seriously. I’m talking Gone with the Wind hoop dresses hacked off to miniskirt length, gumball dispensers as fashion muse, Halloween churned up in the soul of a 1980s pinball arcade, horror memes-meet-Savile Row, cute multiplied by pink and cubed with candy, performance-art demolitions of Orientalism hang-ups, spectral witch-punk, High Bronx Confucian sage, bowling-shoe Doo Wop leisurewear, Goth rosé, Band Aid-top hat-rainbow-masquerade-sweatband-hightops-puffy-bow-puzzle-tights, Mary Poppins-Holly Golightly, tartan Qing, zombie-Thoth, Nintendo Sadie Hawkins, Lapland-Amazon-Polka, Chihuahua-Jane Austen, licorice-paletted, all-out bizarro celebration of every possible color combination and historical and fashion genre in this weird and wonderful universe we happen to drift around in.
So, is Harajuku Japanese? Well, Harajuku is in Japan. But Harajuku is also a magnet for cultural cut-up, a Mecca for misfits from around the world. It is both a location and an aesthetic. And it is more the latter, an idiom of dress-up and make-believe. Very many of Harajuku’s homage-payers are not from around there anyway. Harajuku is an open-air fondue dish of cultural send-ups and outré inside jokes, a place where all are welcome to join the ongoing theater of the absurd.
In that sense, though, isn’t Harajuku American?
Harajuku is, in a sense, the best of the USA, I think. It is a melting pot that really melts, a crucible of culture that really does mix everything together into one odd and sometimes beautiful stew.
It strikes me as really a shame, then, that any American would scold Gwen Stefani for loving Harajuku. Harajuku is the American spirit cranked up to eleven. It is people from all over the planet coming together to form a new thing. It is what culture does when nobody tries to impose terms on it. Freedom, baby. Gwen Stefani loves Harajuku, and I love her for it.
In one day in New York City years ago, I rode in a cab driven by a Sri Lankan, bought a hot dog from a Kurd, shared a joke in a pawn shop with an Orthodox Jewish proprietor, ordered Chinese takeout from a Mexican, stopped in a deli to buy a sweet tea from a Pakistani, passed by Ethiopians and Kenyans running kiosks, had some Italian tourists ask me to take a photo of them standing next to an American flag mural, said a prayer at a cathedral named for a British saint from a Roman outpost who died in Ireland, and returned that evening exhausted and happy to my Chelsea digs, a Hindu co-op with a receptionist who I believe may have been Polish. New York. The most American city in America.
Now, imagine if all of the above had taken place with everyone wearing a French maid outfit, or draped in pastel-colored confetti, or slathered in purple and green eye shadow. That is Harajuku, America’s acid trip. It is New York when it really doesn't sleep.
Maybe, just maybe, Americans don’t really believe the melting pot stuff anymore, though. Maybe some Americans think culture is a prison and not a kind of eros, a form of play among the strangeness of the world. Maybe that is why liberal harpies get to squawking whenever someone outs herself as a line-jumper in the Multi-Culti Museum halls. Multiculturalism is about cultures keeping separate, about cultural ghettoes assembled somehow into a city, a nation-state. Stay in your cultural lane. Don’t go all Vanilla Ice and try to be the white boy who can dance. White boys can’t dance. (Sorry, Nureyev.) The corollary, of course, is that black boys must dance. That is pretty racist. But, as I said, we’re dealing with American liberals, so, what did you expect?
But that’s not American at all. Harajuku is a big, garish proving ground for the idea that cultures can and do blend together about as nicely as various species of dog. And don’t we Americans call ourselves “mutts”? We are proud of the fact that we all come from everywhere. Once, we could all enjoy everyone’s heritage and not have a nervous breakdown over it. Culture is a performance in the end, so who cares who plays in whose costume wardrobe?
Not losing one’s mind over the very human fact that human beings share culture the way we share germs is really the only way to go through life and stay sane. Want to stop being racist? Then break out your kimono and remember that you are a human being like everyone else. Who are you to think that you could remain immune to the cultures of the world?
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I have lived in Japan for a long time; people here simply do not care that Gwen Stefani likes Harajuku. No, that’s not true. Some people do care, and they’re delighted. But not one person is offended. Harajuku, Japan, culture in general—none of these is so fragile that it will break if some white lady in America touches it.
Japanese people go to Disneyland and wear Mickey Mouse hats, the ones with the silly ears. They go to French cafes and order French pastries prepared by a pastry chef from Osaka who trained in Paris and who has his diploma in French on the wall. They write with squiggly characters and pick up food with longish wooden sticks invented in China. Who cares? Nobody here is worried about it. We are all on the lookout for the next good cultural idea to come along.
I wish more Americans would be as American as the Japanese are. And I really wish American liberals would learn a lesson from Harajuku. It is liberating, liberals, not to let culture become a cult for the separation of human beings into groups. And if you, dear reader, are ever in Tokyo, then take a walk around Harajuku. It will be, I promise, the most American experience of your life.