“Kawaiiii! Chai, the Japanese girl group who claims kindness | Pop and rock
When Japanese girl group Chai took to the stage at Yes in Manchester two years ago with matching bubblegum pink and hi-vis stripes, critic Gary Ryan marveled how gloriously flamboyant they were. He loved their movements (crazy), their rhythm (frantic) and their homage to Abba (Dancing Queen). Chai, he writes, is “the happiest band this year.” In the middle of the show, their exuberant indie pop decried impossible beauty standards and wanted the girls to be themselves and make stuff.
Covid has done nothing to alleviate this spirit. Even though live music has been non-existent since March 2020, Mana, Kana, Yuna, and Yuuki (for privacy reasons these are just nicknames) have kept their global fan base on lockdown with an Instagram feed from pinball style of primary colors, cooking demos and shining-eyed experimentation. They’ve been busy behind the scenes as well: the result is their third album, Wink, released this month.
We speak in Japanese and English (there’s a translator on call when I’m stuck), with each member logging in from their respective sofas in Tokyo. In the background there are mustard-colored cushions and soft throws, lots of potted plants, a Teenage Fanclub poster, a stuffed fish. Mana, the lead singer and keyboardist – the lifeblood of the band, as she likes to call herself – goes first. “When it was all canceled, we suddenly got the chance to make music in a way that we’ve never really had before. It has been a truly satisfying process.
Yuuki, the bassist, agrees, “Everyone was complaining about how difficult it was to lock down because you couldn’t do the things you normally do. For us, however, it was a good thing!
Chai caught the world’s attention in 2017 with his debut, Pink, a sort of manifesto. At first, someone called them neo-kawaii – kawaii means cute – and they ran with it. The ‘neo,’ they said, represented an exciting new onna (woman) and their 2019 follow-up, Punk (who, as one reviewer put it, really should have been called Pinker), reinforced what they saw it as their mission: to amplify body positivity and self-care and embrace your insecurities.
Critics and fans alike applauded Chai’s feminist stance. But is it feminism? “No, it’s not,” Mana replies with a broad smile. “It’s not that. It’s not that I reject feminism, but neither do I claim it. Our point is that neo-kawaii is for everyone.”
They don’t want labels. And while feminism can be seen as a battle overall, Chai is a giant, chaotic embrace.
Their joy, I say, has always come across as some kind of superpower. No smile for the cameras, joy of the fingers in a sign (although, as a group on a mission to reinvent kawaii, there are plenty of them too), but something closer to their hearts, a real strength. motor. My Zoom begins to appear from face to face, everyone nods, beams and talks at the same time. “Exactly, exactly” and “I’m so glad you got it.” Where does it come from, I wonder? “The source of our power,” says Kana (the band’s guitarist and identical twin to Mana), “is definitely the four of us together.” He’s right there in the cover of Wink’s close-up album, four smiling heads tenderly stacked like an anthropomorphic grip Love sculpture by Robert Indiana.
Chai trained at a restaurant in Nagoya in 2012. Mana, Kana, and Yuna were former high school bandmates who needed a bass player. Yuuki was taking the same psychology and robotics class as Mana and was happy to play any instrument. Musical chemistry, a keen commercial sense and unwavering ambition set them on their way. But what helped them keep going, they all agree, is the acceptance they give each other. “Being part of Chai makes me feel like I’m getting brighter and brighter,” Yuna says. “I found immense trust, love and family, a different type of family.”
Kana agrees, “We have been able to share and empathize with each other. We worked hard, moved to Tokyo and lived together. We’ve had tough times and fun times, always together, and that’s something I treasure. I never leave Chai. “Kawaiiii!” his sister shouts. Everybody laughs.
I read somewhere that they dreamed of having their own amusement park. “Oh yeah,” Mana said. “This is the type of artist we want to be. I really love Disneyland… you know how there is an order in which you do the rides to have the best time? We designed Wink that way, an amusement park visit, but for insecurities or body complexes. Roller coasters spouting from a giant nose. An ankle-shaped train.
“Tooth cuts!” Yuna intervenes. Everyone laughs again. It’s a quintessentially awkward response and an example of how they write their songs: the playfulness with which they incorporate English into their Japanese lyrics; the way food is a constant benchmark. Wink offers donuts, milk, kiwi, JO, karaage (fried chicken), chocolate chips as moles on the face – “because that’s exactly what moles look like!” Yuuki said, pointing to a tiny one on his left cheek.
For the first time, they also invited outside beatmakers (Mndsgn, YMCK); Chicago hip-hop artist Ric Wilson is a guest in the dreamy Maybe Chocolate Chips. They took inspiration from disparate influences – Mac Miller, the Internet, TLC, Brockhampton – and layered Jacob Collier-style synths and sound beats from arcade games.
Chai may not be overtly political, but their take on self-definition is punk nonetheless. Neo-kawaii – as a quality that everyone possesses innately – rings with what kawaii was when it emerged from the student protests of the 1960s. As noted by the Japanese culture scholar from Hui-Ying Kerr consumption, kindness was “a symbol of resistance and limitless possibilities.” Sounds like a Chai slogan.
Wink releases May 21 on Sub Pop