Collage-style photo illustration of the all-girl Japanese punk band, CHAI.

Let’s Appreciate the Bright Pink Universe of CHAI One Last Time

The all-girl Japanese band disbanded this month, but their impact will last forever

From left, Yuna, Yuuki, Kana, and Mana of CHAI.

Illustration by Ryan Quan

Words and art by Ryan Quan

Musical Artist of the Month: This monthly column is JoySauce social media editor Ryan Quan’s attempt at getting you to love these underrated and under appreciated AA+PI artists as much as he does. The series will combine fun facts, conceptual graphic work Ryan’s created as an ode to his favorite lyrics, and a few of each musician’s songs, to give you a crash course on these talented rising stars. 

If your playlists sound a bit dull, let me introduce you to CHAI, an all-girl Japanese band with an infectiously upbeat energy. Their world is sweet, vibrant, and joyous. They’ve incorporated bright pink into their branding, with all four of their album covers featuring the color, and they’re often seen both on and off stage in matching pink head-to-toe outfits. But despite their playful, almost innocent exterior, the band expresses a rebelliousness both in their sound and lyrics. Since CHAI unfortunately disbanded this month, let’s take one last look at the undoubtable impact this quartet has had on the Japanese music scene.

Illustration of the lyrics "You are so cute!" from the song "N.E.O." by CHAI

CHAI was first formed over a decade ago in Nagayo, Japan, by mononymous twin sisters Mana and Kana and their friends Yuna and Yuuki. Mana, Kana, and Yuna first met in their high school’s music club, and they later met Yuuki at university. They first started releasing music independently in 2013, playing at small venues, parks, and college band competitions. In 2016, they moved to Tokyo to pursue music full time. Since then, they’ve released four full albums: PINK, PUNK, WINK, and CHAI.

It’s impossible to put CHAI’s music into one box. Their initial releases offered a charming garage rock band sound, but every following project introduced another genre or source of inspiration. Some songs are funk-inspired, while others are reminiscent of 1980s Japanese city pop. No two CHAI songs sound the same, but you can still tell that they all come from the same band.

Their constantly evolving sound culminated in their latest (and last ever) album, CHAI. In an interview with The Washington Post, lead singer and keyboardist Mana explained, “This album ‘Chai’ is very non-genre. It’s Chai pop.” They aren’t trying to be anyone else; they have no need to. Instead, they’ve created an entirely new genre that others will certainly have trouble replicating.

Illustration of the lyrics "Make art, make love" from the song "ACTION" by CHAI.

The quartet’s uniqueness and versatility can be credited to their many sources of inspiration. Their Spotify biography mentions influences like Basement Jaxx, Gorillaz, CSS, and Tom Tom Club. They’ve also discussed the songs “Sweet Memories” by Seiko Matsuda, “How Deep Is Your Love” by Bee Gees, “Whip It” by Devo, and others as some of their favorites in an article for The Line of Best Fit.

What do all of these bands and songs have in common? Absolutely nothing. But that’s what CHAI does best: they can take almost anything under the sun and turn it into something new. When you listen to their music, the influences are clear, but it never sounds like a rip-off. They use these musical inspirations as jumping-off points to offer their unique perspectives both as a band and as individuals.

Over the years, CHAI has done a broad range of collaborations, proving that they aren’t just loved by fans, they’re also respected by fellow bands and musicians. They’ve made music with other Japanese groups—like Helsinki Lambda Club and Mondo Grosso—as well as bands and artists from around the world, including Superorganism, Duran Duran, and Mndsgn. No matter who they’re working with, CHAI’s bright, upbeat energy always blends in seamlessly.

Illustration of the lyrics "Power to the eyes, power to the heart" from the song "PARA PARA" by CHAI.

CHAI’s dedication to their aesthetic first manifested when they decided to redefine the term “kawaii.” “The ultimate compliment for a Japanese girl is to be called ‘kawaii,’” Mana said in an interview with writer and fellow JoySauce contributor Aki Camargo for HuffPost. “It’s used to describe girls with big, round eyes, pronounced noses, long silky hair and a smaller frame.”

But instead of equating cuteness or prettiness with certain beauty standards, CHAI wants to emphasize that everyone is kawaii. They call this new ethos “neo-kawaii.” According to the band’s official website, neo-kawaii “means that all girls are pretty from the moment they were born, and that there is not a single girl who is not kawaii.” They want women to unlearn the idea that they can’t be beautiful just because they possess qualities that aren’t deemed worthy by society’s arbitrary standards. They also adopted pink, which is commonly associated with little girls, to alter people’s expectations about the color. “We want to change the image of pink, to show that pink can be very cool and fashionable, not just cute,” Mana explained in an interview for Crack Magazine.

And the band isn’t all talk either. Their lyrics often call for individualism and the empowerment of women, and their music videos showcase wacky (yet fashionable) outfits, uninhibited joy, and an abundance of natural beauty. CHAI doesn’t just defy music genres, they also reject the restrictions that modern society unfairly puts on anyone who doesn’t fit into its idea of perfection.

Illustration of the lyrics "I'll turn this anger into something beautiful" from the song "'WHOLE'" by CHAI

Even though CHAI sadly split this month to pursue their individual goals, they’ve softened the blow of this news by promising to continue spreading their message of self-love. We have no doubt that Mana, Kana, Yuna, and Yuuki will keep neo-kawaii alive and well. In the meantime, we can do our own part in honoring their legacy by embracing our natural features and loving the skin we’re in.

Published on March 20, 2024

Words and art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.