Pink to Punk: CHAI on NEOkawaii and their new LP

Prepare to embrace NEOkawaii, Japanese punk band CHAI's twist on the cultural ideology of kawaii

Feature by Nadia Younes | 08 Mar 2019
  • CHAI

When Japanese four-piece CHAI released their neon pink-drenched, boundary-breaking debut album PINK in 2017 they threw any kind of preconceived notions of J-pop and the Japanese culture of kawaii well and truly out the window, instead spreading their own unique message of NEOkawaii alongside their music.

'I don’t know about the world but I know about me,' sings lead vocalist Mana on I’m Me, a track taken from the band’s second album, PUNK; its message perfectly encapsulating what the band mean by NEOkawaii – their reinterpretation of the Japanese cultural ideology of kawaii referring to a specific view of cuteness. CHAI’s notion of NEOkawaii promotes self-acceptance and self-confidence, embracing your flaws and quirks rather than being ashamed of them, and it’s a message that runs through all of their work. "[The] majority of our music is based on our experiences of not fitting into what society defines as kawaii or cute," says Mana.

"In [sic] our first album PINK, we had songs such as N.E.O., Sayonara Complex and Gyaranboo, which all touch on different insecurities that we grew up having that we now embrace and speak positively about," she continues. "Our transition from PINK to PUNK still upholds our message that NEOkawaii represents everyone who doesn’t necessarily fit society’s definition of kawaii. It is the new cute." Yuuki, the band’s lead lyricist, adds: "I’m Me, the title, is a message in itself right? Your individuality is something only you have. You know yourself the best. You are you and if you can express your individuality the way you want to, that I feel is the best thing you can ever do for yourself and the world."

There’s a sense of reverting back to traditional riot grrrl ideals and aesthetics with CHAI – a band playing by their own rules and constantly defying expectation. The opening track on PUNK, in particular, CHOOSE GO! feels like a modern day riot grrrl anthem, setting out to empower women everywhere with its focus on self-love and liberation. With the band singing mostly in Japanese, their lyrics may not always translate directly into English, but the track’s message still resonates: 'Change bad feelings / Don’t stay and choose go! / Hello freedom!' Yuuki explains, "PUNK, overall, was created with the mindset of becoming the person you want to be.

"I think out of all the songs on the album, CHOOSE GO! particularly emphasises this mindset the most. The idea behind CHOOSE GO! is to become who you really want to be, you will do whatever you want to, and try whatever you haven’t done before, to become just that," she continues. Mana adds: "It’s got the maximum amount of cuteness and powerfulness. I can envision what performing it live will be like. It’s because we are women, that I think enables us to create and deliver such a sound like what is in CHOOSE GO!"

The band – made up of sisters Mana and Kana, alongside friends Yuuki and Yuna – are firm advocates for female empowerment, a trait not widely associated with the Japanese music scene or the nation’s dominant culture. They play their own instruments, write their own songs and have a hands-on approach to their visual output, with Yuuki even designing the album artwork for PUNK. "Our music of course is the number one most important aspect of CHAI, but we want our live performances to be an experience that’s not only fun to listen to but fun to watch as well," says Yuuki.

"With our music videos, we all have ideas of what we want to do and we then bring it to the music video director, who then helps bring those ideas to life. I think the fun, silly, and yet uniqueness of our music videos truly reflects who we are outside of the music," she continues. "The lyrics present a message that we want to relay and the music video works hand in hand with those lyrics to shed a positive and unexpected light on them… I believe in having your visuals be just as interesting and thought-through as your music."

Much of the lyrical content on PUNK, like on their debut, addresses unrealistic beauty ideals and expectations on women due to societal pressures, closely linking to the NEOkawaii concept. "Growing up, I always felt like the outline of [my] face was too large compared to those that were called kawaii and so I would do things to hide it," says Yuna. "After meeting the other CHAI members, they told me immediately 'that is what’s great about you' and from there, I wore hairstyles that purposely showed my face and haven’t hid it since!"

Yuuki adds: "Japan is a very small country so I feel that everyone there is heavily affected by the boiled-down pressure, anxiety, and the values placed around society’s imposition. I think there’s a lot of people, both females and males there, that are hurt by these pressures." But CHAI refuse to let these pressures weigh on them and ultimately have their sights set high, with one of their goals as a band to win a Grammy Award one day. However, they say they won’t be risking their artistic integrity in the process.

"Winning a Grammy isn’t something that we focus on when actually creating an album. When we’re in the process of creating an album, the only thing on our mind is exactly that," says Mana. Yuuki adds: "It’s not that we’d like to change our way of expression as artists just to win a Grammy, but more like wanting the results of creating the music we want to make, and expressing ourselves through music the way we want to, to be awarded by a Grammy."

"Other than winning a Grammy, I think one of our goals would be to spread our message of self-acceptance and self-love through the word NEOkawaii. If NEOkawaii could get the same, if not more recognition than that of a Grammy, that would be great," Kana concludes. And with the band continuing to defy expectation on their latest record, it seems that as well as embracing NEOkawaii in their music, they’ll also be inhabiting the attitude of the album’s title, with Mana declaring, "This year CHAI will live as PUNK!"

PUNK is released on 15 Mar via Heavenly Recordings

CHAI play Stereo, Glasgow, 15 May