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CHAI – summer 2019 1
All clothes and accessories Jenny Fax SS19Photography Motoyuki Daifu, Styling Ai Kamoshita

Meet CHAI, the band putting punk into kawaii

CHAI – summer 2019 1

The four-piece band set out to defy the norms and toxicity that pervade J-pop – now, their signature sound is taking them all over the world

Taken from the summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

I’m waiting to meet CHAI at Los Angeles’ Japanese Village Plaza – a surreal, Little Tokyo mini-mall where pastel-laden signage and Sanrio-branded plush toys reign supreme – when it occurs to me that my suggestion for a meeting spot might seem strange to a rock band hailing from Nagoya. But when the band – drummer Yuna, vocalist Mana and guitarist Kana (bassist Yuki was feeling unwell) – turn up, pastel windbreakers zipped up and cross-body bags askew, I can see that they are fascinated by the midwestern tourists and lunching ladies occupying this Americanised interpretation of their home. One woman, who sees them looking, waves back. “They love America,” the band’s translator explains as we walk towards a barbecue restaurant in the rear of the plaza. “Everyone loves them here.”

‘Cute’ is not normally a word associated with transgression, but CHAI wield it as their weapon of choice. With their synchronised on- stage head bops and chant-filled songs that shout with self-affirmation, the band advocates for a new kind of Japanese musical outfit – something that was obvious from their hyperactive sold-out show in LA the night before. Oscillating between shoulder-shimmying dance tracks and fizzy punk-funk, CHAI’s energetic set perfectly captured the hyperkinetic spirit of their videos. The clip for their last single, “CHOOSE GO!”, nodded to the band’s popularity abroad with a twisted take on high-school movie tropes, including a chaotic American Football squad: think Friday Night Lights at ten times the speed.

“Because we grew up having these insecurities, it was the perfect way for us to bond over this (idea) that our complexes are actually a good thing. It’s what makes us us” – Mana 

CHAI’s inventive sound lends itself well to this projection. Best described as an infectiously upbeat amalgam of bubblegum pop and new wave synth-rock, CHAI’s music is topped off with an unquestionably punk attitude, as propelled forward by Mana’s love of a punchy, exclamatory lyric. It’s a dynamic reflected in person, with the singer more talkative than her twin sister, Kana. Mana is mid-bite into a dumpling when she explains why they’ve called their latest studio album PUNK: “To me, punk (means) becoming who I want to be. (Becoming) that person who you’ve always wanted to be.”

“We got together because we were friends,” Mana explains of CHAI’s beginnings in their home city of Nagoya. “My twin sister Kana, Yuna and I all went to the same high school and we were in the same music club together – I guess here it would be, like, glee club or something!” At college, the twins met bassist Yuki. “We needed a bassist and we thought, ‘Oh, why not include Yuki?’ I was the one who actually said, ‘You know what, let’s make a band, let’s do this for real.’”

Though, they've only been a band for four years, CHAI have experienced a rapid rise in the UK and US – something that all three explain makes them “feel like we won, in a weird way”. After all, as Mana explains, most record companies in Japan “don’t try something new” outside of the standard J-pop formulation, which tends to put a premium on syrupy-sweet vocal hooks and idol-level good looks. But to them, the fact they’ve been “able to break down that first door” with their unique style is proof that maybe things are slowly changing at home. Or, at least, pivoting away from the one-size-fits-all J-pop aesthetic which they themselves never felt comfortable embodying.

“(We used to) try and adjust ourselves to this standard that we could never live up to,” says Mana, explaining that kawaii – the cult of ‘cute’ that has become a multi-billion-dollar industry in Japan – focuses on a beauty embodied by thinness, fair skin, big eyes, a pointy nose and adherence to a certain style of dress. “(What we are) saying is that just because you can’t fit into these standards doesn’t mean you can’t be cute. You’re still cute; you’re just a new cute. A different cute.”

For CHAI and many other young Japanese women, the cultural obsession with kawaii affects nearly every aspect of day-to-day life. Whether reflected in their mannerisms or mode of dress, the desire to be kawaii is a deeply entrenched social norm that requires adherence to a hyper-specific type of behavior – and ends up facilitating toxic, unattainable ideals. To CHAI, reassuring women that “everybody’s special” (as they sing on “I’m Me”) is a deeply personal goal, as all four remember being called ‘ugly’ by male classmates who deemed them insufficiently kawaii. It was this negativity that ultimately led them to ask why exactly these boys got to decide who or what was attractive.

“Growing up you always saw these people on TV – everyone looked the same, had the same style, same face,” says Yuna. “You naturally adjust yourself to it, because you think it’s normal. But those comments from guys in middle school and high school fuelled me to be like, ‘What is going on here? Why am I adjusting myself?’" This thought process led in turn to the band’s ‘neo-kawaii’ concept, a core tenet of which, says Mana, is that “your complexes and your insecurities are actually your charm”. “Your art is what makes you unique; there is something special about you,” she explains. “And because we grew up having these insecurities, it was the perfect way for us to bond over this (idea) that our complexes are actually a good thing. It’s whatmakes us us.

“We want (Japanese women) to watch us and be like, ‘Look at those girls, they weren’t that confident in themselves (before), but look how confident they are on stage’” – Yuna

Unfortunately, CHAI have so far found it difficult to match their success overseas at home, hampered by a Japanese music industry that prefers musical styles and faces which don’t drastically deviate from the marketable idol norm. “If you’re not attractive, that’s a big thing as far as J-pop goes,” says Mana, before stressing that CHAI would never compare their music to J-pop. “We try to avoid that sound because it’s not what we like, and (it’s not) what we represent.”

Beyond their home music industry, CHAI are honest about the arbitrary stereotyping they’ve experienced on tour. Being east Asian women with a large white, male, Japanese culture-obsessed fanbase has its pitfalls, with some fans idolising the band for their heritage rather than their technical ability. “As long as it’s not everybody,” Mana says of their fetishisation. “Sometimes we can’t help it, because a lot of people that are obsessed with Japan just end up going to everything Japanese.”

In one recent example, the group were rubbed the wrong way by an interviewer sporting merch from a “totally different” Japanese band. Understandably, they don’t want to be put in the same box as other bands simply because they’re Japanese. “We want to increase the people who are here for our sound,” says Mana.“ CHAI fans, more than just kawaii or J-culture fans.”

Outside of their home country, the band’s empowerment-focused rhetoric has been a big factor in propelling their music to wider acclaim. But CHAI acknowledge that this sort of discourse has been slower to catch on in Japan, where the press tends to reinforce the idea that there’s only one way to look. “The media hasn’t been writing (about us, and when they do the) reviews have been mixed,” says Kana. “(Some are) kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, these girls are rejecting the standard and pushing the culture forward,’ and others are like, ‘Yeah, the ugly girls who are...’”

Mainstream media perceptions of the band matter less to CHAI than the actual feedback they’ve received from fans on their philosophy. To them, continuing the legacy of other transgressive Japanese female artists is a priority, and they namecheck plus-size model Naomi Watanabe and Superorganism’s Orono Noguchi as personal heroines of theirs.

As women who spent the majority of their adolescence feeling like outsiders, it makes sense that CHAI want to rip apart the constraints that frustrated them for so long – in the process, they might just free a new generation of Japanese women to be kinder to themselves. “We want them to watch us and be like, ‘Look at those girls, they weren’t that confident in themselves (before), but look how confident they are on stage,” says Yuna with a grin. “They see how imperfect we are, but also how hard we try and how hard we push – how confident we are now, compared to where we came from.” 

CHAI are on tour in the UK and Europe this autumn

Hair Takuya Baba at SEPT, make-up Nobuko Maekawa using Sisley, styling assistants Maki Kimura, Yuichiro Hara, hair assistant Kanae Sami, make-up assistant Irie Okamoto, production
Taka Arakawa, special thanks SHIBUHOUSE