“We are CHAI! Everything is different about us compared with other Japanese girl groups!"
I try to focus on the sentence in front of me. “Gyoza is so warm right? We want to be able to wrap around people like a Gyoza!” The further I read down the page the more confused and delighted I get. A flurry of correspondence with four women from Nagoya, Japan, unravels into love stories about dumplings, the meaning of ‘Kawaii’ and dancing on the furniture. Not quite what I expected when I first emailed CHAI in their studio on the other side of the world but this is a band that defy explanation.
“We are CHAI! Everything is different about us compared with other Japanese girl groups! We want to do everything that no one else has ever done!” Listening to their music its evident CHAI have made a decent head start on this mission. Their debut UK release, ‘PINK’, a mini-album with maxi-impact on Heavenly Recordings, should come accompanied with as many exclamation marks as their emails. That’s because ‘PINK’ is a musical yelp, an explosion of expression where colour is a language and iridescent barriers of sound are purpose-built for cliché to bounce off. CHAI’s record shreds Krautrock, punk and bizarre pop elements to make you sit up, stand up and jump up onto what you were sitting on in the first place. It’s a nerve-jangling ride that I happily admitted to them, left me exhausted. “That’s such a NICEEE reaction! We’re happy to hear that ‘PINK’ made you want to dance on the furniture and then take a long lie down! While listening to ‘PINK’ we recommend you have fun and enjoy yourself to the max! Even to the point where you get exhausted!”
Identical twins Mana and Kana combine with childhood classmates Yuuki and Yuna on rhythm section to create something quite unique. Sure, they’re a Japanese girl group, so nothing out of the ordinary, right? Although the ideology they preach is a real punch to the patriarchy in their home country. “You’ve got to be included in what is defined as ‘Kawaii’; everything outside of that is considered unattractive or ugly. Particularly in Japan.”
I discover Kawaii is a construct centuries in the making – Japanese aesthetics used to be refined and elegant, now they’re cute and neat. The cult of Kawaii’s origin lies as far back as the 17th century; well-proportioned miniature sculptures called Netsuke were built to serve practical functions. Cast forward 300 years to the 1970s and the cute is now permeating society. Teenage girls begin accessorising their handwriting with lyrical touches, so just as utilitarian objects were built to be pleasing to the eye, sentences are decorated and language built upon.
In the 1980s, pop culture became cute with idols such as Seiko Matsuda, whose mannerisms emphasised the helplessness and innocence of young girls, and of course everyone is familiar with Hello Kitty, an 80s invention from Japanese company Sanrio that’s become a global Kawaii brand. CHAI want to flip this rhetoric upside down. “That’s right,” they tell me, “the word ‘cute’, or ‘Kawaii’, has a set standard… it’s decided based on the good and bad of your appearance. In reality, it shouldn’t be that… the differences in everyone’s characteristics are OK! That’s the kind of message we want to put out.”
This desire to subvert expectations – to reinvent the concept of Kawaii – is the root of CHAI’s artistry, and judging by their emails, they’re pretty passionate about it: “The Kawaii we have and consider now has a very narrow definition. Everything other than what’s within that narrow range of Kawaii is considered ugly. For example, ‘you can’t have small eyes’, ‘your legs have to be skinny’, ‘your skin should be of a fairer or a whiter tone’… this image or standard of Kawaii is pretty clear. None of us CHAI members are in these categories to begin with but we really want to get out the message that everyone has their own characteristics and that is what makes you attractive! ‘That’s what makes you Kawaii,’ is what we want to say!”