Ever heard about a new band, but had no idea where to start listening? Breaker Japan’s resident music expert, Luke, emerges from a dark corner of the office to help you out. Every month, he’ll be handing out his thoughts on the most original musical acts in Japan. In a musical landscape usually associated with girl groups and anime robot singers, these are the artists that make the Japanese music scene come to life.
When you think of Japanese girl bands, you probably think kawaii or cute, and Chai most certainly fit the bill with their matching pink outfits and the overly pink aesthetic to their music videos. Did we mention their first full-length album is titled PINK. But for Chai it’s all about re-defining the definition of kawaii. They believe that there’s a uniformity to the word and anything that isn’t kawaii is by default ugly.
Identical twins Kana and Mana teamed up with high school friend and drummer Yuna on a mission to form a band. Later, they met Yuki at University, who at the time hadn’t touched any musical instruments, but she ended up filling the missing bassist role.
Influenced less by J-POP and more by western music such as Tom Tom Club, CSS, Justice and Tune-Yards, they immediately started going against the local scene of trend copy cats and took to the stage as new kind of Japanese band. Years later, they’re spreading their tongue and cheek twist on cuteness out on the much bigger stages of major festivals such as Fuji Rock and SXSW.
Within the mix of deliberately bad English and silly Japanese, Chai’s lyrics focus on a positive message about feeling good about yourself and empowering women. Mostly seen in matching pink outfits, Chai clearly enjoy being playful with their own image.
In the song “I’m Me,” Mana sings, “You know about the world but you don’t know me. My pink bum is my charm.” In another song, “centre of the face,” she sings about how she loves her nose. This playful attitude suggests that the popular idea of beauty is boring. “Too pretty. Where is your individuality?” sings Mana.
This could be seen as a movement against the pressure of what idol groups and J-POP stand for. Just look at AKB48. Each year the members go through an arduous selection process based on people voting how kawaii each girl is. It’s a shallow superficial world that ultimately causes each group and each member to lack any defining characteristics.
The pressure to preserve this image can cause the girls to snap. Minami Minegishi had a breakdown and shaved her head after shaming herself because… she went on a date. In the J-POP world, it’s not really about the music.
Fear not. Chai are here to save the day. If you would like to dance away to wacky 80s influenced synth pop-rock sung by inspiring Japanese twins, Chai is for you. They will brighten your day with their blazingly pink outfits and lovely messages. Remember, be confident. Be cute.
ボーイズ・セコ・メン (Boyz Seco Men)
Featured on their album PINK and originally from their second EP Homegoro Series, this song blends the purr of Kana’s grungy guitar with Mana’s pitchy synth lines to create a super catchy chorus. Yuki’s bass lines hold the rest of the song in a cool and moody vibe juxtaposed by those piecing kawaii vocals. Watch the accompanying music video, too. Be careful with that sausage, Mana!
The band has adopted a buzzword, “NEO,” which stands for “New Excited Onna”, the onna meaning girl in Japanese. As Chai represent an energetic new type of Japanese girl band, you could say they’re a “NEO kawaii band”. This song encapsulates what Chai stands for with it’s dancey chorus of “You are so cute nice face, come on yeah!” Preaching the message that individuality is better than getting hung up on body image. Check the music video and its humorous ways of describing undesirable body traits. A personal favorite is hairy chest = sexy jungle.
One of Chai’s songs that feels like it should be taken a bit more seriously as it talks about finding love and being lonely. It draws similarities to 80s pop band Cocteau Twins but with much tighter production and way less reverb. The girls squeaky vocals shine through on this track, making it an unexpectedly heartwarming listen. Plus, the final message is to stop hiding behind your make-up and enjoy the freedom that your own charm brings. Awww.
ほれちゃった (Fallin Love)
With a verse that is reminiscent of Talking Heads, this sounds like another one of Chai’s calmer sweeter songs about falling in love. However, this is not the typical sense of boy-girl love and more about the love of gyoza dumplings. Whatever it’s about, it’s a nice blend of that 80s sounding pop funk with a sprinkle of Chai’s cuteness on top.
This track brings another positive message about being excited for the future, winking and kissing away past problems, and could be a little too much for people with a loathing of J-POP music (God, it’s terrible. Please help us). The vocals are at their squeakiest here, and some sections could be perceived as a bit cheesy. However, Chai manage to balance on a knife’s edge, bringing that uniquely Japanese sound and making it awesome. Denying that synth riff is cool as f**k is just like admitting you like J-POP.
The power of Chai has already started being noticed outside of Japan. US indie label Burger Records discovered their music and included them on a Japan compilation cassette, and later distributed their album as a US release. They’ve already performed a series of shows in America, so watch out for them next time they head your way.