Japanese Group CHAI Talks About Their New Album “WINK” And Overturns Cultural Norms Soompi


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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Rock, pop, punk and fun – these are some of the flavors Japanese band CHAI captures in their smooth music.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF SONG, “PING PONG!”)

CHAI: (Singing) You and me, racket and ball.

CHANG: This quartet has been making waves here in the United States since releasing their debut album four years ago. CHAI’s songs are playful, but they are also sometimes political. At their core, their music is about challenging traditional notions of female beauty. Last week, CHAI released their latest studio album, titled “WINK,” and I spoke to two band members – vocalist and keyboardist Mana and bassist Yuuki. We started our conversation by talking about this Japanese concept of cuteness called kawaii. It’s an idea that fuels a multi-billion dollar industry in Japan. Here is Mana.

MANA: (through an interpreter) Kawaii usually means having features such as big round eyes, a pointed nose, a thin face, good hair, fair skin, and being thin – western characteristics, in a sense. You see a lot of these people on the covers of magazines and in the Japanese media, so the girls try to look like them. It’s slowly changing, but everyone aspires to be like them.

Chang: Yeah. Well, when you were growing up, did any of you feel like you fit that idea of ​​kawaii?

MANA: (through interpreter) I grew up not adapting to the idea of ​​kawaii to the point that it pissed me off. It made me angry. The guys even told me to my face that I was unattractive or that my eyes were too small. But that’s what music did for me. Music was my outlet. Those kind of experiences of not being considered kawaii – that’s what made us make music unique to us. Only we can make this music.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “KARAAGE”)

CHAI: (singing) We need five minutes of love.

CHANG: Well, I totally identify with that, not looking cute in the traditional Asian way. And you Yuuki? When you were growing up, did you feel comfortable with kawaii, the concept of kawaii?

YUUKI: (Through interpreter) Yeah, so I’m like Mana. Growing up, I didn’t fit the definition of kawaii, at least the way Japan defines it. But I actually remember wanting to be like the people I saw on TV that fit kawaii. At some point, I wondered why I admired these people, and I ended up not caring anymore. And I realized that as soon as I stopped caring, people naturally told me that I was cute. And I thought, ah, that’s interesting.

CHANG: (Laughs) Of course.

YUUKI: (Through an interpreter) Yes. For example, I was told that jet black hair was part of Asian identity. But now I don’t even think about it.

Chang: Yeah.

YUUKI: (Through an interpreter) I do what I want. Like, I dyed my hair blonde.

CHANG: I see that. I also lighten my hair here in California (laughs).

YUUKI: (Through interpreter) Yeah, we’re the same. We are same.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “WISH ON A STAR”)

CHAI: (Singing) La la la la, wish on a star. (Song in Japanese).

CHANG: Well, CHAI, I know, turned kawaii on its head by turning it into a new concept in your music, a concept called neo-kawaii. Tell me what neo-kawaii is.

MANA: (Through interpreter) Well, with neo-kawaii, we’re not necessarily trying to deny kawaii, but we’re saying that the definition or the standards that kawaii sets are too narrow. In Japan, the only way to call people other than those considered kawaii is busu, which means ugly. I wanted to give these people a positive message or a positive word. Everyone has their own kawaii, so we thought, why not call it neo-kawaii?

CHANG: Listen, listen. Well, Yuuki, I understand that you wrote the song “Maybe Chocolate Chips”.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MAYBE CHOCOLATE CHIPS”)

CHAI: (Song in Japanese).

CHANG: You said this song is about self-esteem. I want to understand what inspired you to write this. What does the song mean to you?

YUUKI: (Through an interpreter) Yeah. So “Maybe Chocolate Chips” is a song about my moles. In fact, I have a skin type that tends to develop more and more moles over the years. And I know I could get procedures to get rid of it if I wanted to. If I spent enough money, it would be like they never existed. But instead, I started thinking, why do this? That’s what I was born with. These are my chocolate chips. And you know what? The chocolate chips taste really good. What’s wrong with that? And it actually changed my mood. It made me happy for my moles. So just by changing my point of view, I was able to change my feelings too. So I thought, I have to say this to everyone, that’s why I wrote the song “Maybe Chocolate Chips” to this warm, sweet tune – so maybe people could get the message and feel what I felt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MAYBE CHOCOLATE CHIPS”)

RIC WILSON: (Rapping) See; I just wanna see you do what they said you could never undo. My chocolate chip, they can’t grasp. They can’t define you with beauty myths. The world moves, so move with it. Your moles are what make you whole.

CHANG: I love how you all reject the need to have a certain type of figure, how you won’t be afraid of food, because I know from reading about your group that you and I share a very common hobby. We all love to eat and I love how you incorporate food into your music. Tell me about the song “Donuts Mind If I Do”.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DONUTS MIND IF I DO”)

CHAI: (Singing) I don’t mind if I do. Donuts bother me if I do.

YUUKI: (Through an interpreter) Yeah, it’s Yuuki again. So I learned this phrase, Donuts Mind If I Do, when we were on tour in the United States. And in the hotel lobby, there was a sign that said, free donuts. And then we also saw the sign written like, donuts be careful if I do. And I thought it was such a funny and cool pun with a sense of humor. But at the same time, it made me feel warm inside. And on top of that, we love to eat because eating is directly related to how you live. And that’s a theme song. You know, I think it’s kind of sad to cut out what you love, like going on a diet, for example. So the song is really about, you know, no matter how old you are, you should live your life prioritizing the things you love, and that could be a donut. So that’s what I put in this song.

CHANG: (Laughs) I love it. Well, tell me why you call this new album “WINK”. What does a wink mean to you?

MANA: (Through an interpreter) I really like to wink and I also really like being winked at. Part of the reason we called our album “WINK” is because the kind of woman who winks is the kind of woman we want to become. You wink because you are confident in what you are doing. You wink because you’re fun and full of self-love.

CHANG: That makes me want to wink even more.

(TO LAUGH)

MANA: (speaking Japanese).

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “MIRACLE”)

CHAI: (Song in Japanese).

CHANG: It was Mana and Yuuki from the CHAI group. Thank you so much for being with us from Tokyo. I had such a great time talking with you two.

MANA: Thank you very much.

YUUKI: Thank you very much. Bye.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “MIRACLE”)

CHAI: (singing) Come on, boy. I will make you mine. (Song in Japanese). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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