‘Kawaiiii!’ Chai, the Japanese girl band reclaiming cuteness

When the Japanese girl band Chai took to the stage of Yes in Manchester two years ago in matching bubblegum pink and hi-vis stripes, the critic Gary Ryan marvelled at how gloriously flamboyant they were. He loved their moves (bonkers), their pace (breakneck) and their Abba tribute (Dancing Queen). Chai, he wrote, are “this year’s most joyous band to watch”. Amid the spectacle, their exuberant indie pop decried impossible beauty standards and willed girls to be themselves and make stuff.

Covid has done nothing to dampen this spirit. Even though live music has been nonexistent since March 2020, Mana, Kana, Yuna and Yuuki (for privacy reasons it is nicknames only) have kept their global fandom going through lockdown with a pinball-machine-style Instagram feed of primary colours, cooking demos and bright-eyed experimentation. They have been busy behind the scenes, pure: the result is their third album, Wink, released this month.

We speak in Japanese and English (there is a translator on the call for when I get stuck), with each member logging on from their respective sofas in Tokyo. In the backgrounds, there are mustard-hued cushions and fluffy throws, lots of potted plants, a Teenage Fanclub poster, a stuffed fish. Mana, the lead singer and keyboardist – the band’s engine, as she likes to call herself – goes first. “When everything was cancelled, suddenly we had the chance to make music in a way we never really had until now. It’s been a really satisfying process.”

Yuuki, the bassist, concurs: “Everyone kept complaining about how difficult lockdown was because you couldn’t do the things you normally do. For us, anche se, that was a good thing!"

Chai came to the world’s attention in 2017 with their debut Pink, a manifesto of sorts. Early on, someone had called them neo-kawaii – kawaii means cute – and they had run with it. The “neo”, loro hanno detto, stood for new exciting onna (donna) and their 2019 follow-up, Punk (quale, as one reviewer put it, really ought to have been called Pinker) reinforced what they saw as their mission: to amplify body positivity and self-care and embrace your insecurities.

Critics and fans applauded Chai’s feminist stance. But is it feminism? "No, it isn’t,” Mana replies, with a wide smile. “That’s not it. It’s not that I’m rejecting feminism, but I’m not claiming it, either. Our point is that neo-kawaii is for everyone.”

They don’t want any labels. And if feminism can, broadly, be seen as a battle, Chai is one giant, chaotic hug.

Their joy, dico, has always come across as a kind of superpower. Not smiling-for-the-cameras, fingers-in-a-V-sign joy (sebbene, as a band on a mission to reinvent kawaii, there is plenty of that, pure), but something closer to their core, a real driving force. My Zoom starts popping about from one face to the other, everyone nodding and beaming and talking at once. “Exactly, Esattamente,” and “I’m so happy you got that.” Where does it come from, I wonder? “The source of our power,” says Kana (the band’s guitarist and Mana’s identical twin), “is definitely the four of us together.” It is right there in the closeup album cover for Wink, four smiling heads tenderly stacked like an anthropomorphic take on Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture.

Chai formed in a Nagoya diner in 2012. Mana, Kana and Yuna were former high school bandmates who needed a bass player. Yuuki was on the same psychology and robotics course as Mana and happy to play any instrument. Musical chemistry, keen commercial nous and unshakeable ambition set them on their course. But what has kept them going, they all agree, is the acceptance they afford each other. “Being part of Chai makes me feel like I’m becoming more and more sparkly,” says Yuna. “I have found immense trust and love and family, a different kind of family.”

Kana agrees: “We’ve been able to share and empathise with each other. We’ve worked hard and moved to Tokyo and lived together. We’ve had rough times and fun times, always together, and it’s something I treasure. I am never leaving Chai.” “Kawaiiii!” cries her sister. Everyone laughs.

I read somewhere that they dream of having their own amusement park. “Oh yeah,” says Mana. “That’s the type of entertainers we want to be. I really love Disneyland … you know the way there’s an order in which you do the rides to have the best time? We conceived of Wink in that way, an amusement park visit, but for insecurities or body complexes. A rollercoaster bursting out of a giant nose. An ankle-shaped train.”

“Tooth cups!” interjects Yuna. Everyone laughs again. It is a typically left-field answer and an example of how they write their songs: the playfulness with which they weave English into their Japanese lyrics; the way food is a constant reference. Wink features doughnuts, milk, kiwi, OJ, karaage (fried chicken), chocolate chips as facial moles – “because that’s exactly what moles look like!” says Yuuki, pointing to a tiny one on her left cheek.

For the first time, they have invited outside beatmakers in, pure (Mndsgn, YMCK); Chicago hip-hop artist Ric Wilson guests on the uber-dreamy Maybe Chocolate Chips. They have drawn on disparate influences – Mac Miller, the Internet, TLC, Brockhampton – and layered up Jacob Collier-style synths and arcade-game bleeping beats.

Chai might not be overtly political, but their vision for self-definition is nonetheless punk. Neo-kawaii – as a quality everyone innately possesses – chimes with what kawaii was when it emerged out of 60s student protests. As the Japanese consumer culture specialist Hui-Ying Kerr has noted, cuteness was “a symbol of resistance and boundless possibility”. Sounds like a Chai slogan.

Wink is released on 21 May on Sub Pop

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