Mana loves all things colorful and cute — to a certain extent. As she gives me a tour of her bedroom via Zoom, the Tokyo-based singer and lead vocalist of the Japanese pop band CHAI points to a figurine of a character from ’ Haikyuu,’ her favorite animated series, hanging above her electronic keyboard. She then holds up a pink Furby doll in front of her chest. “Isn’t this one so lovely?” she asks.
Mana’s giddy energy almost makes me want to describe her as ”kawaii” — best translated as “cute” — in Japanese. But to Mana and her bandmates, kawaii is a word that is in desperate need of a rebrand.
“The ultimate compliment for a Japanese girl is to be called ‘kawaii,’” Mana tells me. “It’s used to describe girls with big, round eyes, pronounced noses, long silky hair and a smaller frame.”
Through bright pop vocals, unexpected fashion choices and feminist lyrics in English and Japanese, Mana and her bandmates — Yuuki, Kana and Yuna — are attempting to create a more progressive version of “kawaii” that rejects the infantilization of women and instead seeks to celebrate what are traditionally seen as imperfections. They call it “neo-kawaii.”
Kawaii’s origins can be traced back to postwar Japan; it was popularized through describing objects that emulate innocent, purity, and hyperfeminine qualities — think anime characters or colorful, bubbly writing styles, which were popularized among Japanese youth in the 1970s. Eventually, kawaii culture permeated the country’s fashion, cosmetics and even food industries, as seen from Lolita fashion aesthetics in Harajuku to colorful, petite food and drink options, mainly targeted towards women. By the late 90s and early 2000s, kawaii would eventually become the country’s ubiquitous (and often painfully unattainable) beauty standard.
Mana tells me that she’s not conventionally perceived as kawaii — yet her wide smile and roaring giggle implies a vibrant confident in her beauty. It’s also evident throughout CHAI’s self-titled fourth album, released last month, which exudes this unmistakably neo-kawaii philosophy. With classic rock-influenced singles like “We The Female!” and “I Can’t Organizeeee,” CHAI’s latest project is an invitation to experience being an empowered, self-possessed neo-kawaii woman.
Mana didn’t get to this place of self-love without an arduous journey because, as in so many Asian cultures, there was a constant Eurocentric beauty standard looming for women. “In high school, I would put on eye-puchi every morning.” Mana says, recalling her teenage life in Nagoya, Japan. “It’s a liquid eyeliner glue that would temporarily transform monolids into double eyelids.”
Face-modifying cosmetics like eye-puchi are commonly found in Japanese convenience stores and pharmacies, and are as accessible as eyeliner or mascara. Its ubiquity is no surprise, as double eyelids are an integral characteristic of the kawaii aesthetic. Japan was the first country to develop the double eyelid surgery as a cosmetic procedure in the late 1800s. Centuries later, the practice remains the country’s most popular procedure.
For Mana and her twin sister Kana (CHAI’s guitarist), music and performance were respites from the all-consuming pressures of Japanese beauty standards because it was an arena for them to rebel against these standards.
In college, the twins continued to pursue their artistry, where they also met their future bandmates, Yuuki and Yuna. “What brought us together were our concerns about our appearance.” Mana says. “Yuna (CHAI’s drummer) confided in me that she would often wear her bangs down low because she was insecure about showing her rounder face. But we eventually realized that these imperfections were what made us special — and quite frankly, our strong suit.”
Take their song “Maybe Chocolate Chips″ from their third studio album, ”WINK.” To an unfamiliar listener, the track is a simple, dreamy melody with a rap verse featuring Ric Wilson. Mana sings in a smooth falsetto, sprinkling the words “chocolate chip” throughout the song. But the lyrics in Japanese reveal that the song is in fact an ode to their bandmate Yuuki’s moles, which they depict as nibbles of sweetness. “These songs are a fun way to reclaim our own beauty,” Mana says.
CHAI’s neo-kawaii mantra of embracing one’s most authentic self struck a chord with their Japanese fans, which they’ve amassed since their debut in 2016. Jasmine Bruinooge, a 25-year-old half-Japanese woman who grew up in Tokyo, found the band to be refreshing outliers from Japan’s societal attitudes towards women. “[CHAI] is a huge contrast from what I saw on TV when I was younger,” Bruinooge recalls.
In Japanese pop culture, women who fit traditional Japanese standards of kawaii —J-pop idols like Morning Musume and AKB48, for example — are, by and large, depicted as hyperfeminized and desirable. And women who didn’t fit into those characteristics were often treated as purely comedic, undesirable characters to the male gaze, like comedians イモト (Ayako Imoto) or ハリセンボン (Harisenbon).
While these harsh binaries for Japanese female entertainers have blurred in recent years, Bruinooge felt a rush watching CHAI perform live in Brooklyn last fall. She was particularly struck by their fun choreography — they hit silly poses and synchronized their movements in a smart and entertaining way without coming off as hypersexualized. “It was great seeing Japanese women perform however they wanted to onstage,” she says. “Seeing them be badass, fun and cute, all at the same time, was so moving.”
To Bruinooge, witnessing CHAI showcase that versatility felt inspiring, as she plans to return to Japan next year. While the move is bringing anxieties of reverting to Japan’s narrow beauty norms, CHAI offers her a sign of progress. “CHAI makes me really hopeful,” she says.
CHAI’s neo-kawaii message has resonated with fans beyond the Japanese diaspora as well largely since they’ve performed at Coachella, on NPR’s Tiny Desk, and and launched international tours across Latin America and the Asia Pacific.
Fans such as 22-year-old Polina Plucheck from Moscow found CHAI’s fashion and self-expression to be an inspiration to channel her own definition of a neo-kawaii aesthetic. Growing up, Plucheck’s fashion sense was carefully curated by her mother, a former model. Her mother would select chic dresses for her to wear in grade school. Upon entering high school, however, Plucheck wanted to take a stab at crafting her own style. But whenever she tried on new outfits at the shopping mall, she would get taunted by her friends. “I wasn’t quite confident in what I wanted to wear,” she admits.
But once Plucheck moved to Toronto for university and started living independently during the pandemic, the isolation propelled her to develop her own taste. She started to wear bigger, baggier clothes and adopted a darker aesthetic to fit her self-described tomboy persona. This sartorial exploration overlapped with her discovery of CHAI’s music and style-conscious Instagram presence.
“Even though [CHAI and I] don’t share the same aesthetic, I saw them wearing whatever they wanted, which made me feel inspired,” she says. Plucheck also stopped wearing makeup and found less pressure to conform to her peers’ standards of beauty.
For the members of CHAI, fashion is just as powerful of a tool as music when it comes to encouraging women to be themselves. For instance, CHAI’s choice to wear bright pink outfits in various music videos and live performances was an intentional one. “Japanese women tend to not wear pink as they get older, or even wear the colors that they really want to wear,” Mana says. “Wearing pink can be cool, even as an adult.”
Above all, CHAI wants listeners to know that neo-kawaii is innate. Their song “NEO KAWAII, K?” from their latest album is a mantra for their listeners to embrace that authenticity.
“I want to let my fans know that from the moment you’re born, you’re neo-kawaii.” Mana says. “You’ve had that all along, and you can conquer the world that way. No matter what.”