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Redefining Cute with Japanese Punk Band CHAI

CHAI's message of "neo-kawaii" aims to break open Japan's culture of cute
By Nick Fulton|
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Photographed by Daniel Dorsa for Yes Plz
Pink. Punk. In Western culture the two words sit at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. One is indicative of the gender binary, while the other represents a refusal to adhere to traditional standards. But for the Japanese rock band CHAI, there is little distinction between the two words. Pink is the name of their debut album. Punk is the name of their second one.

“Particularly in Japan, pink is a color that is associated with adolescence. You can’t really wear it when you pass a certain age,” they explain with the help of a translator. “People look at you as if you are too old to wear that color, so we turn it around, in kind of a rebellious way, to show that wearing pink is not just a cute color for small kids, it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can wear it at any age. It’s not just a cute color, it’s a cool color. It shows strength. That’s how we compare it to punk.”

After successfully reissuing Pink in the US last Fall with the help of California garage rock label Burger Records and touring the US, the Tokyo quartet recently returned to America to play SXSW in Austin, Texas, and to promote Punk, their ferocious follow-up to the more dance-oriented Pink. We met the band in Bed Stuy two days before they head to the Lone Star State. Earlier that morning they had been shopping at Urban Jungle and L Train Vintage in Williamsburg. After our conversation they will be heading to Peaches HotHouse for chicken and waffles, a new favorite they discovered on their last visit to New York.

CHAI consists of identical twins Mana (keys/vocals) and Kana (guitar), their childhood friend Yuna (drums), and a college friend Yuuki (bass). Mana, Kana, and Yuna learned to play music at high school in their hometown of Nagoya, and in college they recruited Yuuki, who had no prior experience playing bass or being in a band. Within a year she had learned the instrument and is now the band’s main lyricist.

“Yuuki is the most artistic one in the group,” says Mana. “Even though we can write, she is better at making it not feel realistic. She can write metaphorically and that’s why we like Yuuki doing it. Yuuki has the power to make it art and not just sound like words.”

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College proved to be a liberating time for CHAI. It was there that they learned that the society they grew up in — one that celebrates conformity and maintains a very rigid definition of kawaii, or cute in Japanese — was not the one they wanted to continue participating in. They began to discuss a way to subvert the narrative and came up with an alternative version of kawaii — a version that celebrates the complexities that make each one of them unique. “When I met the other girls in CHAI, they told me that my jawline is the charming part about my face,” says Yuna, who for many years hid her face under a headscarf. “I had a wider face, a wider jawline, and I would purposely cover it because boys in my class would say my face was big,” she says. “Even when I would look on TV, people I idolized didn’t look like me. So I automatically assumed I was ugly because I didn’t fit into those standards.”

To combat what they saw as a regimented set of beauty standards that were making young people feel terrible about their bodies, they decided to create a new mantra called “neo-kawaii.” The idea was to reclaim the term “kawaii,” which in Japan places value on having big eyes, a thin face and long legs. Instead, “Neo-kawaii” or “new cute,” would emphasize individuality by showing other young people that their differences are what make them cute. “We all felt the same way, so we thought, Let’s change this. We don’t care about fitting into the traditional beauty standards. We are who we are and we’re fine with that,” they say.

Their promotion of the more inclusive definition has already made an impact. “One time we were on a TV show in Japan and there was a high school student who was a painter, she told us that because of CHAI she was now able to [paint] in the color pink. She said she could never use the color pink before because she felt unattractive and she didn’t fit into the [traditional definition of kawaii]. But once we started pushing the neo-kawaii message, she not only started using the color pink, but she now tells people ‘no, I’m not ugly, I’m neo-kawaii.’ She’s now using that term to express herself.”

The neo-kawaii mantra is present in much of CHAI’s material — when they play live they dress in matching pink outfits and expose their midriffs, which is uncommon among adults in Japan. On Pink, Yuuki’s lyrics address the various flaws in Japanese beauty standards (“N.E.O”), the expectation of women to perform a certain role in society (“Boyz Seco Men”) and the band’s collective love of Gyoza, or Japanese dumplings (“Horechatta”). She took a slightly different path on Punk, tackling similar topics but with more strength and bravado. “I put more love into the lyrics. This one is more centered than the previous album,” she says. Kana adds, “Compared to Pink, we had a stronger feeling of what we wanted.”

You can hear that feeling on Punk. It is more about being themselves and less about sounding like the bands they grew up listening to; a list that includes Devo, Basement Jaxx, and Tom Tom Club. There’s more keyboard and more reverb, giving the record a more saturated sound. Yuuki’s bass lines are meaty and Yuna’s drums have just the right amount of resonance. CHAI’s members set out to overhaul the band’s sound and embrace their individuality, and in the process they discovered a whole new identity.

Yuuki points to a track titled “Curly Adventure” as one example of CHAI’s newfound chemistry. More than any other song on Punk, it shows the extra love that went into her lyrics. “For English speakers, they would think it’s just about curly hair, but it’s got a deeper meaning,” she explains. “During the summer time in Japan, usually around June or July, it gets really humid. The other three girls, their hair starts to curl because of the humidity. I’d never felt that feeling before because my hair doesn’t really curl that much, but the song compares how curls catch on to the humidity and grow on their own. It’s a reference to life and how life goes, and how you never really know how life is going to go. So it compares a string of curly hair, with its unexpected curls, to life and all its unexpected turns.”

“We try not to put any Japanese influences into our music; we cater to a different sound”

The band has been open about idolizing certain American bands — add N.E.R.D, Justice, and the Beastie Boys to the aforementioned list — but Japanese music has played a more alternative role in their development. It’s something they prefer not to discuss all that much, but when pressed, they explain that a lack of diversity among the pop music that’s consumed in Japan simply doesn’t interest them. “We try not to put any Japanese influences into our music; we cater to a different sound,” says Mana.

But they still like some Japanese music, simply because it’s fun. Yuna mentions Orange Range, a rock band from Okinawa. She liked the drummer and her appreciation for him was inspiration to begin playing drums herself. “There’s a band that we listened to but weren’t necessarily influenced by, they were called Cero,” says Mana. She adds, “There’s another band called Tokyo Jihen and an artist named Ringo Sheena, she’s solo now but she was originally the vocalist in that band. We listened to them a lot as well.” Still, they are yet to find another Japanese artist to join them in promoting neo-kawaii. “Only CHAI!” shouts Mana, smiling like the sun.

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