It Took Coming Home for CHAI to Go Global

The Japanese band find their comfort zone on WINK in a whole new sound.

Photo: Kodai Ikemitsu
Photo: Kodai Ikemitsu

When CHAI performs live again, “END” could be their reintroduction. One of the best manifestations of their buzzing, sometimes-bananas energy on all of WINK, the Japanese band’s third and latest album, it’s confident and brimming with shameless defiance, driven by a clangy beat with a purpose for dancing. Belied by the bubbly exterior, though, are the unexpected emotional chords that the song tugged on for MANA, the band’s lead singer. “END,” she says, is actually directed at the bullies who used to throw sexist insults like “stupid” and “overbearing” at her and her twin sister KANA, who plays guitar in CHAI. MANA doesn’t tend to write lyrics for the band — she’s fond of saying she finds it easier to communicate through the music itself — but stuck home indefinitely during the pandemic gave her time to think about “so many things that I wanted to say that I just normally couldn’t.” Recording the song with the rest of the band, MANA imagined herself finally giving those boys their comeuppance her way: “Shut up! Cool your head!” she shouts. “I might have shed a tear or two,” she recalls of the catharsis, through her translator. “But I think I needed that to make that song.”

“END” doubles as one of the latest expressions of the neo-kawaii spirit that has guided CHAI from their beginning in the early ’10s. Kawaii is Japanese for “cute,” but the same language has been used to restrict and reduce to one aesthetic, often referring to women who are thin with unblemished skin and big eyes. CHAI push back on this by making cotton-candy sweet music to invite anyone to find space in neo-kawaii, detached from any one look. “You are so cute, nice face, come on, yeah!” MANA declares on the singalong-primed “N.E.O.,” the second track on CHAI’s 2017 debut album, PINK. But four years later, on WINK, CHAI had to figure out what neo-kawaii means to them now that self-love is more mainstream, and so is the band’s audience. Another wrinkle: They had to do some of that work while quarantined separately in Japan.

It’s now early May 2021, and MANA is on a morning video call in Tokyo with YUUKI, CHAI’s bassist who also writes most of the band’s lyrics. At this point, Japan is in the middle of another COVID-19 restraint order, where some nonessential businesses are closed and people are encouraged to stay inside. MANA says people in Japan have become more lenient about going out and seeing others (masked and distanced, of course) as the pandemic continued. That includes MANA, KANA, YUUKI, and YUNA, CHAI’s drummer, who previously spent a painful two months apart last spring. (All four members go by nicknames or their first names for privacy, and don’t disclose their ages.)

The band broke that spell when they got together to film the music video for one-off single “Ready Cheeky Pretty,” which came out in early May and featured the band performing in front of colorful painted backgrounds. “It was weird,” YUUKI remembers of the reunion, “but also it was just refreshing.” Before, CHAI’s members would usually see each other at least twice a week for rehearsals. They’d always been a tight-knit band — identical twins MANA and KANA met YUNA in their high school’s music club in Nagoya; YUUKI rounded out the quartet when she moved to the city for college. They bonded over a love of music outside J-pop, and later western music. On PINK, first released on Japanese label Otemoyan Record, CHAI built off playful American new wave bands like Devo and the Tom Tom Club, with flicks of hip-hop, while pointing its neo-kawaii message toward Japan. But CHAI ended up developing fans across the globe, and re-released PINK in early 2018 on U.S. and U.K. labels. On PUNK, 2019’s followup, the band dug their heels into their rock influences while channeling a more rebellious spirit into neo-kawaii (cute without the e, if you will). They became known for energetic live productions, complete with matching pink outfits and choreography. (The touches may recall J-pop girl groups, but the band prefers to cite their heroes in Devo.) They eventually took that show on tour with indie-rock stalwarts like Mac DeMarco and Whitney.

Live shows became one of the best ways for CHAI to spread their message — often, the members would give short, empowering speeches between songs — so the band found themselves recording the sort of music they thought would translate best to the stage. On WINK, that wasn’t an option, especially not while recording on GarageBand and collaborating over Zoom. Those restrictions freed the band to explore. “We actually got to focus on sound — just listening,” MANA says. She found herself digging into American hip-hop music like Mac Miller and Brockhampton, and wanted a way to infuse it in CHAI’s music. “I took that time to reevaluate what music meant to me, why I fell in love with music, what music do I really want to make?” she says. “I thought to myself, Oh, this is what I want. I want people to be able to bring this music home with them.”

WINK opens with a jarring shift from anything CHAI has done before, on the low-key, groovy “Maybe Chocolate Chips.” Past its R&B sheen, it’s the first song on a CHAI album to feature an outside artist, Chicago rapper Ric Wilson. The band simply thought the song needed a rapper, and they remembered Wilson, whose performance they enjoyed at Pitchfork Festival 2019. YUUKI marvels at how well Wilson got the song’s message — wondering if people would like their moles more if they imagined them as chocolate chips — all while working remotely and in English. “When he added his piece to it, it just made way more sense,” she says. The band had worked on features for other artists before, from Gorillaz to R&B collective MICHELLE, but hearing someone’s take on one of their songs was a new, rewarding thrill.

CHAI knows they’re not the only ones spreading neo-kawaii, even if others aren’t calling it that, or don’t have (or want) the vocabulary for it yet. “We’ve been kind of saying this message for a while, even before it was kind of — I wouldn’t say in trend, but before people actually cared,” YUUKI says. “Now, I feel like the times are actually catching up to us.” It’s a mutable idea for the group as well. On WINK, they expanded neo-kawaii from a physical to a mental project. As important as it is to love your moles, they realized, it’s equally so to see others’ distinctions the same way. YUUKI adds, “If we can change that thought, you’ll be beautiful, and you’ll also look at other people in a beautiful way.”

Many of the songs on WINK find CHAI actively changing their own mindsets. The album may be rooted in sounds that gave the band comfort, but reaching a similar feeling of personal peace has been a journey — one that’s made the band uncomfortable at times, like on “END.” YUUKI remembers having another breakthrough while watching the 2019 Olivia Wilde–directed teen comedy Booksmart. “The two protagonists in this movie, they’re satisfied in their own world, and they actually look at everybody else as, not so much enemies, but people who don’t understand them,” YUUKI says. “But it’s just their perception, it’s a misunderstanding.” The movie inspired the single “Nobody Knows We Are Fun,” not because CHAI struggles to show their fun side to anyone, but because the band realized they may have been trying too hard to seem fun to everyone else. “You naturally being you, naturally expressing yourself in your own world — the world’s going to gravitate toward you,” YUUKI says. Put a bit differently: Just the act of making loud rock music and performing over-the-top concerts doesn’t prove anything, least of all that a band has to check those boxes to be seen as fun.

As happy as they can sound, CHAI’s music has never only been about optimism, either — take “sayonara complex,” a PINK song about how difficult and lonely it can be to aspire to the traditional definition of kawaii. Part of the mental work of WINK also involves coming to terms with negativity. “Wish Upon a Star,” a lullaby YUUKI wrote after learning KANA was having trouble sleeping, doesn’t dismiss how crippling insomnia can be or treat these feelings as anomalous. “Dark nights will come for anyone / But it’s for the beautiful tomorrow,” the lyrics, translated to English, assure. “It’s not so much that we want to bash the negative, it’s more so we want to find new ways to appreciate it,” YUUKI says. “Because the sun is here, we also have the moon.”

After all, she notes, the band’s positive outlook only comes from once being “girls that have insecurities.” And as difficult as that time and those feelings may be to relive, they’re markers of how far CHAI have actually traveled, as people and as a band. Wait and see, stupid, MANA used to think, facing her antagonists years ago. We’re going to be popping one day, we’re going to be famous one day. Watch.

It Took Coming Home for CHAI to Go Global