Having a shit one? Why not let Japanese band CHAI shout you towards better self-esteem? “You are so cute! / Nice face! / C’mon, yeah!” they screech on the rousing two-and-a-half-minute track “N.E.O.”. Continuing in their native Japanese, they howl lines like, “Small eyes, flat nose, thick legs – all right!” over a rumbling bass and chaotic guitars.
The aim is to spread their message of ‘neo-kawaii’. It’s CHAI’s all-inclusive definition of ‘cute’ – one that celebrates imperfections and pushes against a narrow Japanese beauty standard that prizes big eyes, a thin figure and pale skin. “From birth, I’ve always felt bound by Japan’s definition of kawaii,” explains Kana, the band’s guitarist. “I think it’s something all Japanese women can attest to. It can determine your social status.” CHAI’s bassist Yuki agrees: “It’s a word that can be the highest compliment, but at the same time, it can really discourage people who don’t fit into the narrow ideals. We created the word ‘neo-kawaii’ to let everyone know that they’re already kawaii the way they are.”
CHAI are hyper-enthusiastic cheerleaders with a discography that encourages listeners to tune out the BS and live their best life. A track about childish men urges, “If he’s stingy, unfair or cheap, don’t go for it!” while another asserts, “I’m hairy, oh well.” There’s even a song about dumplings which explores cooking as self-love and nourishment. “Our themes are usually based on how we’re feeling at any given moment,” drummer Yuna says. “What’s been on your mind? What insecurities have you had lately?” Their sound, which Kana describes as “all over the place”, bounces around from punk-rock to funk and fizzy pop, but is always tied together by supremely sing-along melodies – the kind that make you want to join in at the top of your voice.
The band formed back in 2012 in their home city of Nagoya. Twin sisters Mana and Kana met Yuna in their high school music club, and Yuki joined later during their university years. After spending time playing covers and mucking around for fun, the group decided to get serious in 2015, moving to Tokyo a year later to pursue music full-time. It was then that they were spotted and signed by Sony Music Japan.
Despite generating buzz on their home turf, the group has struggled to find mainstream success. “By industry standards, we’re still not really ‘selling’ in Japan,” Mana says. “In order to sell more here, we’d have to create music that is the total opposite of the sound we want to deliver.” Yuna agrees. “Compared to other countries, Japan isn’t as familiar with the many facets that exist within music. I still think it’s difficult for our music to reach the people.”
Things are, however, looking promising overseas, with a European tour lined up and slots at festivals, including Primavera Sound in Barcelona, Spain. The group makes no effort to hide their ambition. “We want to be the first Japanese band to win a Grammy!” Yuki enthuses. They hope to get there by continuing to write their own songs, illustrate their own album covers and control their own public image. For instance, they choose to go by first names only – supposedly because it’s “easier”, but in the context of Japanese idol culture, where stars are viewed as public property, CHAI’s request for privacy feels rather radical.
Yuki explains their view on creative control with typical optimism. “We look at CHAI as art. If people see us doing all of this, it would help them be more secure within themselves too, right?” Mana, on the other hand, makes no bones about it: CHAI will do things on their own terms. “Just because we’re a band, doesn’t mean we have to be what is normally expected of one.”