The Japanese pop group is fighting rigid beauty standards by making us dance.
This interview appears in AdHoc 27. Get the zine sent straight to your door by becoming a member.
CHAI make the kind of music that basically REQUIRES an all-caps band name. Their 2018 debut album, PINK, showcases their infectious blend of pop-punk, hip-hop, and electronic music—all wrapped in a neon, bubble-gum sheen. It’s silly, energetic, hardcore, playful, and political all at once, buoyed by the Tokyo group’s outspoken commitment to the NEOkawaii movement, which seeks to redefine traditional Japanese notions of feminine cuteness.
CHAI has been churning out dance tracks since 2015, though members Mana, Kana, Yuuki, and Yuna have been friends for much longer. Now, CHAI is getting ready to release its sophomore album, PUNK. “Fashionista,” the first single from the record, boasts a fuzzier, more atmospheric sound than much of the fare on PINK, though it shares that record’s punchiness.
Ahead of their upcoming U.S. tour, AdHoc spoke to CHAI about the story behind the name, NEOkawaii, and the inspiration behind their matching outfits. This interview was conducted by email via a translator, and has been edited for clarity.
PUNK is out March 15th via Burger Records, and you can catch CHAI at Market Hotel on March 19, with support from Haiku Hands.
AdHoc: When did CHAI start playing together as CHAI? How did you arrive at that name?
Mana: We started officially playing together as CHAI back in 2015, but we had always been friends! As friends, we performed together for fun—first in our school music club, and then as a local cover band. 2015 was the year that we decided to do this music-thing, this band-thing, for real, and so we began making original music from there.
Kana: I was actually the one who proposed the name “CHAI.” It’s kind of random, but when I was still in school, I was studying Russian culture and literature and discovered that there was Russian chai tea. It’s totally different from Japan’s black tea, or kocha—like, they put jam in their tea! Isn’t that interesting and cute? So I asked the girls, “How does ‘CHAI’ sound?” And they all said, “That’s it!” I also thought it was important that we chose a short and memorable name.
Yuna: It’s super short, so no one can call us by a nickname. In Japan, there are a lot of bands who have really long names, and there’s this habit of people making nicknames or shortened names for bands, so we wanted to stray away from that possibility.
Yuuki: Having a name like “CHAI” that’s short, to-the-point, and easy to use is awesome, isn’t it? Anybody from anywhere can say it, spell it, remember it!
Mana and Kana–you are identical twins. Is it ever challenging to work so closely with a sibling?
Kana: I wouldn’t say working together as twins is particularly challenging. Our thinking and brainstorming is usually exactly the same, or similar. “Twin Intuition” is what they call it, I think. Although we’re two different people, we have this special connection that keeps us on the same page, which I think influences our music.
Mana: As twins, you can tell each other things that you couldn’t tell your friends! I think especially since we are twin sisters—I’ve never been a twin brother, so I wouldn’t know, but we can tell each other about our likes and dislikes, our needs. It plays a huge part in our functioning as a band, and in creating music. For example, when we’re going over what direction we want to take for our live performances, we can honestly tell each other what works and what doesn’t.
Kana: We went to the same schools, did practically everything together [growing up], so being in a band is no different than anything we’ve done in our lives up until this point. Before we officially became CHAI in 2015, Mana and I played and sang together as a cover band. Even when we were kids, we would dream about becoming singers—so we’ve been, quote-unquote, “performing together from the womb!”
Yuna: I’ve never really thought about Mana and Kana as twins. They are, of course, but they have their own personalities, and let me tell you, those personalities are TOTALLY different!
Your music videos are famously vibrant and playful. What’s the process of creating these videos like?
Mana: For our music videos, we start off with a collective idea of what we want to do. Then we bring the idea to the music video director and make a final decision based on how he or she wants to bring our idea to life.
Yuuki: We always have so many things we want to do in our music videos! Like wanting a lot of pink in the video, or not wanting to hold our instruments all the way down, or wanting to dance! I guess that’s why there are so many different aspects to every video we’ve released so far.
Yuna: When it comes to the choreography, we usually have a choreographer create the moves for us, but there are times when we come up with the choreography as well. Our video for “I’m Me” was actually us taking on the challenge of learning a dance routine and doing it over and over again in different locations. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen a CHAI show yet, but all the moves on stage are us!
Mana: We can’t dance professionally, but without taking dance lessons, we are still able to come up with our own moves a lot of the time.
Yuuki: I always want to stay moving! We strive to make music that makes people want to dance. Even if the concept of the song isn’t necessarily all positive, we want everyone to have fun, to enjoy themselves.
What’s the story behind the matching outfits you wear on stage and in your videos?
Mana: The origin of our matching outfits actually comes from the band DEVO! We really love DEVO, and we learned the whole “matching but different” ideal from them.
Yuuki: DEVO really has been an influence for us. I love how cute they are performing on stage with their matching dance moves, and how they don’t come off as just a “band.” They really expanded the range for how a band could express themselves.
Kana: We don’t make our outfits ourselves, but we have the same person make our outfits every time. We give our input [around] what we’re looking to wear, and our wonderful stylist takes it from there.
Mana: These outfits really make a woman’s strength, and the coolness of a woman, stand out. Our short stature stands out too!
You’ve described your music as “NEOkawaii.” How would you describe the NEOkawaii movement to somebody who’s not familiar with it?
Yuuki: I feel like the values around the word “beautiful” are very narrow. “I’ve got to be skinny, I have to have bigger eyes, my skin has to be of a fairer tone, my nose should be pointier”—all these standards are used to describe what kawaii is, or “cute.” As a woman, I felt out of place, uncomfortable with these descriptions of beauty. It should be that from birth, everyone and anyone is beautiful and cute.
Mana: We have had many insecurities or complexes since we were little. “NEOkawaii” was created because we never felt like we could [conform] to what society defines as kawaii. NEOkawaii means “the new cute,” and it’s for everyone! There are no standards, and the range for cuteness is neverending!
Yuna: For me, I always had really big insecurities when it came to my facial structure or outline. I would always find ways to hide the outline of my face, but once I met the girls, and we became CHAI, they told me, “That’s what great about you!” From there, I became more confident in myself and was able to wear hairstyles that showed my facial outline more.
Yuuki: Accepting yourself for who you are, loving yourself the way you are, acknowledging your differences—these are all of the reasons why “NEOkawaii” is the word we use.
Where do you see other people expanding or redefining traditional notions of kawaii?
Yuuki: There’s this comedian named Naomi Watanabe. I really love her. She’s not only an artist and a Japanese celebrity, but also a big force in the “self-acceptance” movement, as she herself is a plus-sized woman. She’s definitely a good example of NEOkawaii in pop culture!
Mana: What amazes me about Naomi Watanabe is her ability to take what probably were originally insecurities of hers and be able to express herself in positive ways utilizing her body. Being aware of her own “kawaii-ness,” knowing her insecurities, and still being able to create a business like her own clothing brand is admirable.
Mana: I also love RYUCHELL. He is also a Japanese celebrity and artist.
Yuuki: RYUCHELL is a really beautiful man! He is able to express a coolness and cuteness [that few men] have [incarnated] before. His way of expressing masculinity is fresh, interesting, and cute!
When Heavenly Recordings announced PINK last year, they wrote that “CHAI practically have modems for stomachs and phone lines for veins.” Tell us more about your relationship to the internet.
Mana: We usually listen to music and find out about new music from our smartphones. Spotify and YouTube are a must! Even when we’re recording in the studio, we’re always using our phones. We were brought up in the internet era, so it’s very natural for us. We don’t buy CDs much, and even if we did, we don’t have anything to listen to them on. But vinyls are cute!
Kana: I take lots of walks through the neighborhood, and I tend to Shazam anything I hear that I like. I would say that the internet and apps have played a big part in us finding our musical influences or inputs. Even while I listen to the radio, I Shazam; [I] listen to BBC Radio a lot too.
Yuuki: I get a lot of ideas for our music videos from watching different artists on YouTube. We are heard by so many people [in so many different countries] because of the internet, and we get to see our message of “NEOkawaii” resonate with people all over the world. The internet is actually the reason why we were discovered by Burger Records. They came across our music video for “Boyz Seco Men” and reached out!
Mana: We also get a lot of DMs on Instagram from people telling us about their insecurities and complexes. They tell us how our music has helped them become more confident in themselves, which really warms our hearts.
After SXSW, you’ll be on your second US tour. How is performing live in the States different from performing in Japan?
Mana: In the United States, the land is wider, and the sky has no limit, which makes me super nervous but excited. When it comes to our live performances, CHAI is always CHAI, but the reaction of the audience is totally different [everywhere we play]. Even LA and NYC are totally different!
Yuuki: The huge variations in audience reactions is something I really look forward to when touring. American audiences are really energetic. When it comes to having fun, Americans never feel embarrassed to express that, so that power gives us energy. It’s kind of like they’re giving their energy away!
Yuna: America, first off, is huge! The streets are wider, the meal portions are “big size.” That “bigness” of America shows the BIG LOVE of Americans, and they always give BIG HUGS—even when it’s our first time meeting.
You played at Rough Trade in September. What were your perceptions of New York and Brooklyn?
Mana: New York and Brooklyn are very stylish! My impression of NYC was definitely similar to Tokyo, since they’re both big cities. Lots of people, lots of food, fashion districts, all kinds of music.
Yuna: The stylishness starts from the building structures!
Mana: You know the spot Sweet Chick? Their chicken and waffles stole my heart! It was so good that I ate it twice—once in Brooklyn and once on the Lower East Side. Before Sweet Chick, I had never eaten chicken and waffles together! I had never even thought of it, but geesh, it was good!
Yuuki: Before we performed at the Rough Trade, we were told that the NYC crowd would be similar to Tokyo in that everyone is “cool”: If they like the music, they like it, if they don’t, they don’t. After performing, I saw how warm and powerful the audience was, and it really made us happy. I want to go back to the East Coast!
All of you use stage names. Are these nicknames? Alter-egos? Do you feel like different people when you’re performing as CHAI?
Mana: Haha, it’s actually partially my real name.
Yuuki: We don’t have any alter-egos or nicknames. It’s simply Yuuki.
Kana: Yeah, with CHAI it’s pretty much what-you-see-is-what-you-get. No surprises!
Yuuki: We don’t necessarily feel like different people when we’re performing as CHAI, because everything we express in our music stems from real-life experiences we’ve had. Once we put on our matching outfits, the switch definitely turns on. But all in all, we’re just enjoying ourselves—[like we do] in everyday life.