Image courtesy of CHAI. 

japanese punk band chai are redefining kawaii

The Tokyo band have grown tired of seeing beauty defined as 'long legs and big eyes.'

by Nick Fulton
07 September 2018, 4:26pm

Image courtesy of CHAI. 

The four members of Japanese punk rock band CHAI want you to know that you are all kawaii (that means cute, in Japanese). Speaking via Skype from their home in Tokyo, Mana, Kana, Yuuki and Yuna collectively announce, “everybody’s complexities should be called kawaii, because there’s real beauty in each individual.” Having grown tired of seeing beauty defined as “long legs and big eyes”, the band decided to create their own definition of kawaii, to tell everyone, “you are beautiful, you are kawaii, because everybody has a different kawaii-ness.”

They describe themselves, their music, and their movement as “neo kawaii”, and say they are taking steps toward redefining Japanese beauty standards. The mantra on their website declares, “neo kawaii means that all girls are pretty from the moment they were born, and that there is not a single girl who is not kawaii […] You should be who you are. We all have our own worries, but that’s fine. Our insecurities make us who we are.”

Since 2012, the quartet has blazed a trail in Japan with their peppy brand of bouncy, boisterous punk rock, which mixes Devo, Deerhoof, The Mothers of Invention and Bikini Kill. In Japan they are backed by Sony Music, and have amassed a cult following, but in the US and the UK they are just getting started. Today (September 7), California’s Burger Records is reissuing the band’s debut album Pink to introduce them to stateside punk fans, and CHAI will be performing in Los Angeles (on September 10) and New York (on September 12), before heading to the UK to play 13 shows with Superorganism.

CHAI formed when identical twins Mana (vocals/keyboard) and Kana (guitar/vocals) started playing music with Yuna (drums) while in high school in Nagoya. They later met bassist Yuuki and decided on the name CHAI, which is a type of Russian tea served with jam. Members of the band evidently drank it while studying Russian literature at university in Nagoya.

In the beginning CHAI was just a hobby, but in 2016 they concluded their studies and moved to Tokyo. With the support of their families, who they say, “are all number-one fans of CHAI”, they found a house together and settled into life in Japan’s largest metropolis. The biggest challenge, they say, was coming to terms with the size of the city. “After we arrived, we realized that there are so many people, especially on the train and on the street. It’s smelly, and that’s not something we’re used to.” Convincing their families that leaving university to make art for a living was the easy part. Mana and Kana’s parents even bought them a van. “[They] said, ‘you guys need a van to go on tour’, so they got us a van and we came from Nagoya with that.”

Tokyo has been good for the band, who have expanded their audience both at home and abroad. In 2017 they played SXSW in Austin, Texas, and participated in a mini tour titled Japan Nite, which took them to New York, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their most recognisable component, their quirky, choreographed music videos, have been viewed more than six and a half million times.

If you’re a newbie, YouTube is the best place to learn about CHAI. Their music videos, which they design and direct themselves, are a spectacle not to be missed. Always dressed in bright pink (the official color of CHAI), the bandmates animate and act out their songs using various props and set designs. When they’re singing in Japanese, it’s a great way to understand the concept and engage with their brand of neo kawaii.

With Pink now being reissued in the US, you have the opportunity to enjoy the music and the visuals simultaneously. “N.E.O”, the unofficial anthem of the neo kawaii movement, opens with bold type superimposed over the band, who are dressed in matching pink outfits and announce in English, “You are so cute! Nice face! C’mon! Yeah!” With a bassline roaring in the background, and Mana and Kana shouting the lyrics in Japanese, the video rolls through a diverse cast of characters and displays various body parts, making the point that beauty exists in all of us. In the video for “Boyz Seco Men”, Yuuki, Mana, Kana and Yuna become the CHAI housekeeping service, and run across town in safety vests with road cones on their heads. It’s wacky and beautifully weird. The song takes aim at lazy men, and in a perfect metaphor for smashing the patriarchy, Kana is seen slashing a sausage into tiny pieces with a knife.

It is however, a rare display of aggression. When asked about the storied history of Japanese punk rock – including bands such as Boris, Shonen Knife and Guitar Wolf – they respond, “We are not really into punk rock music.” Their biggest influences are Basement Jaxx, The Gorillaz, Tom Tom Club and N.E.R.D., and right now they all love Superorganism. It’s perhaps why CHAI seems to transcend punk rock with their look and sound, but not with their attitude. CHAI’s neo kawaii mantra is exactly what punk represents in 2018; because punk has always been about more than patches and leather jackets. “We wanted to be the ambassadors of the neo kawaii movement in Japan,” they say. And now that they’ve done that, it’s time to bring neo kawaii to the world.

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