8 Questions With CHAI, Japan’s ‘Neo Kawaii’ Rock Heroes

CHAI is changing the J-Rock game.
CHAI is changing the J-Rock game. Kodai Ikemitsu
Accompanying Mitski’s scheduled Dallas appearance at The Factory on Friday, Feb. 25, are Japanese ‘Neo Kawaii’ indie pop-rockers CHAI (pronounced like the tea). A hyper-energetic, hyper-sincere and hyper-positive genre-fluid musical quartet complete with matching outfits, synchronized dance motions and a gloriously independent punk rock attitude which they call "Neo Kawaii" ("new cute"), CHAI is redefining American perceptions of J-Pop and J-Rock. They are possibly the only band that has a song called “CHAI’s Commercial Song” that serves as both a parody/cover of Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” and also has a song called “Donuts Mind if I Do.” We caught up with Mana, Kana, Yukki and Yuna ahead of their North Texas show. The band wrote back the answers to our questions — as a unit, via email — about body positivity,  cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan, and why they love '80s music.

Lately, it seems like people have a tendency to overthink things or dwell on negativity. What is the best way to combat that negativity with the 'Neo Kawaii' attitude?

Create a new name or word for that negative feeling or attitude you have. Even if that word is something negative like “hurt” or “painful,” let’s find one that’ll make you chuckle, bring a sense of relief and let you be your utmost self! We created “NEOkawaii” because what is considered “kawaii” or cute is so narrow and there are too many people who don’t fit into such standards. A new “cute” and a word to compliment us was the meaning behind “NEOkawaii.” This is how you can make the best out of any form of negativity! The “negative” you is all about you entering a new chapter, which in turn introduces a new version of yourself.
While facing yourself, imagine what makes you laugh the hardest, and search for that biggest compliment!

A lot of American music seems to reinforce that depressed view of the world, like Phoebe Bridgers, while a large portion of Japanese/Asian music I listen to tends to be very happy and optimistic, like yourselves. Why do you think there is such a sharp difference in the cultures between "happy" Japan/Asia and "sad" U.S.A.? Or is there even that much of a difference? Is it just a media issue/perception?

In Japan, expressing your stresses to society or the media opposing someone, sensitive topics such as these are expected to be resolved on one’s own and not to be disclosed to the public. That’s why even if you’re watching the news, no one opposes anyone else, or says that they are struggling or sad outwardly. These types of societies are rooted in the education. There are many of us who become adults not discussing anything to a third party. It’s because we are Japanese that the thought of other Japanese people expressing themselves outwardly keeps us forward-thinking. It makes us feel good, and we know the positivity it brings firsthand. At times to us, American society and media seem to not conceal anything and say what they feel. Even with music, it looks like nothing is being hidden and everyone is expressing themselves wholeheartedly. There is no right answer, there is “good” and “bad” in both cultures, I feel.

You have said before that you like Devo, and that they are the inspirations for your matching outfits. You collaborated with Duran Duran and covered both Wham and Culture Club in unique ways. What else can you say about the influence of Western music of the '80s on yourselves?
Pretty much all of our lives, we feel. Musicians are who motivated and inspired us to dream of becoming one ourselves! The way they present themselves, and even if we don’t understand the words, we can sense what feeling they’re to convey or message they’re trying to relay … that’s what we really love about music. Something like a hairstyle could tell a person’s culture or experiences … even with stage outfits, depending on the color you wear, your image changes ... it even differs by country. There’s a reason for us wearing the color pink, being from Japan. As you age in Japan, you stop wearing brighter colors, feeling embarrassed or that it doesn’t suit you. Especially with the color pink, which is strongly thought to be suited for “kawaii” women — a thought we wanted to change by wearing a color that is considered “difficult” to wear. “You can wear all colors, you can wear the color you want!” is what we want to express.

The music from the '80s inspires us a lot as well! It feels new to us every time for some reason. It’s probably because there are a lot of things that don’t exist now or [we] get to see today. The way they danced, sang, their expressions, the music videos, everything is interesting!

Who designs your outfits? Do you all have any input on them when they are being conceived?

Since we started CHAI, we’ve always thought of our outfits as being an extension to our music, so it’s very important to us. In the beginnings, we’d go to the thrift stores and find things we’d like to wear and even ask someone we knew who made clothing to make something for us. Now, we wear things that we find on Instagram or have a designer we know create the outfits together.

If your first album is called Pink, second is called Punk, the third is called Wink, will the next be called Wunk? In all seriousness, the title of your first album was a declaration of present, and the second was a declaration of future. So where do you see the band going from here, thematically, or sonically?
As for our album titles … stay tuned! We’re going to shock you all. For us, we never get caught up in any one thing, we cherish the “moment,” what we feel at that given moment, the atmosphere, our instincts, challenges, the unfamiliar, the humor and all the things, people and animals we encounter. Even if that means being fixated on the future, that’s how we’re feeling at that given moment, and it’s something that can only be felt at that time, so we want to cherish that. By constantly listening to new sounds and cherishing our humor and individuality, we want to create what the “present” means to us through music.

Will we ever get to experience a CHAI/Hinds co-headlining tour or another collaboration?

Yes! We’ll definitely do a show together at some point! Would love to make another song with them with a different message. When eight people come together, the feelings are new at every moment, so I think something powerful will come out of it again! Everyone, stay tuned!

You all have spoken and sung extensively about accepting your own bodies and the idea of "self love," which seems to be an issue with many young people in America. In your opinion, what is the best "complex" to have, and how should people embrace it/anything about themselves that bother them?

Complexes or insecurities are characteristics that we need in order to live and for us, it’s art! While constantly worrying, we continue to believe this. Those complexes or insecurities you can’t tell anyone or show, continue to hide, and compare with others because you are born different, are all amazing characteristics! No matter what anyone else says, that is an art that only you possess! There is no “right” or “standard” to “beauty” and “cool”, but of course there are those “rules” to what dictates “cool” in every generation, but how you will blow past this is with your complexes, your insecurities. These “rules” that dictate each generation only adhere to a very few, and are made to make everyone else yearn to follow. Our complexes or insecurities are going to be different, but we hope to live life how we feel is right while at times battling and biting the bullet, yet still getting the last laugh! That’s the best part about them! We, too, have been saved plenty of times by our complexes. We want you to continue to hold on to them, those complexes.

If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only take five records, which records would you take?
Ranma 1/2 Kakutou Uta Karuta (Fighting Songs)
Monster’s Inc. Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
From Up on Poppy Hill Soundtrack, Satoshi Takebe
High School Musical Original Soundtrack (Special Edition)
Gold: Greatest Hits, Carpenters
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Vincent Arrieta
Contact: Vincent Arrieta