CHAI’s Mana & Yuuki on Turning Negativity into Strengths: Billboard Japan Women in Music Interview

CHAI’s Mana and Yuuki chatted with Billboard Japan for its Women in Music interview series. Billboard Japan launched its WIM initiative in 2022 to celebrate women in the music industry through various endeavors, including this series. Billboard has been honoring artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to the music industry and empowered women through their work since 2007, the highest accolade being Woman of the Year.

With its “neo kawaii” (new cute) slogan and outstanding musicality, the four-woman band has been steadily expanding its reach outside of Japan. When asked about what motivates them, Mana (main vocals, keyboards) and Yuuki (bass, lyricist) shared their genuine, heartfelt thoughts on wanting to further spread the music and words that saved them from the difficulties of life.


Did you have any women you looked up to growing up or envision the kind of woman you wanted to be?

Mana: The only thing I liked when I was little was Pikachu. [Laughs] Other than those around me, the only people I knew were on TV, but I never had any ideals of the kind of person I wanted to be like. Around when I grew up a bit and began aspiring to become a musician, the first woman I looked up to was Lovefoxxx of CSS. I was listening to various kinds of music and watching performances by artists while thinking about how I could best express myself, and Lovefoxxx’s stance as a vocalist and the way she performed clicked with me. The impact of their band name, which means “tired of being sexy” and the way they expressed other female dissatisfactions through rock music was huge.

So you already felt some discomfort from those days.

Mana: I’ve always felt that way. The word “kawaii” (cute) has always been a bane to me. The girls in my class who were called kawaii usually had big eyes and a straight nose, the exact opposite of my own face. CHAI’s keyword “neo kawaii” is also an expression of resistance to only having two values to choose from, kawaii or “busu” (ugly). We came up with it because I always hated that there were no words to praise myself or the girl sitting next to me even though we also definitely have good qualities. Our message is that regardless of gender, “You definitely have good qualities from the moment you’re born.”

Yuuki: When I was little, I didn’t really know what I wanted to be like or if I had anyone I looked up to, but I did like Tsuji-chan (Nozomi Tsuji) and Kago-chan (Ai Kago) of Morning Musume. As an adult, I don’t have any particular individuals that I like, but I kind of take the good parts from various people. When I notice something good about the people around me, I go, “That’s nice!” and I copy it and make it my own. [Laughs] And I find good things about people one after another at a fairly fast pace.

Your perspective of finding the good in everyone really links to the band’s concept of “neo kawaii.” Nowadays, diversity is considered important and values are gradually changing in Japan, but as Mana just said, even a short while ago the definition of “kawaii” was very limited and people were bound by that stereotypical view. How were the members of CHAI able to connect through those “neo kawaii” values back in your early days as students?

Mana: We started CHAI after graduating from high school, and all the members except Yuuki met in band at school. We already knew that we wanted music to be our livelihood at that point, but it wasn’t until we met Yuuki that the idea of “neo kawaii” became clearer to us.

The four of us hung out a lot on a regular basis, so naturally we talked about our respective problems, and for example I’d say something like, “I have a complex about my single-fold eyelids.” When you have conversations like that, you realize that people each carry different physical and emotional issues. As we encouraged and praised each other, we all started thinking, “We should spread this more!“ The four of us praised each other and that gave us the confidence to choose to do music, so we wanted to praise everyone else as well.

I can understand how you could discuss your inferiority complexes with people who share the same values, like band members, and praise each other like that, but when you open up about those complexes to the world, that means people with different values will know about them. It must have taken courage to take that step.

Mana: I actually thought that sharing our hang-ups was our only way to go and that we were able to find our raison d’etre, so having that gave us the confidence to go ahead with it.

Yuuki: Yeah, we’d been discussing how artists who have core values are cool, so we were happy to find ours. We weren’t worried. We can write lots of songs because we have this core, and it’s so much easier than having nothing.

But recently someone said to me, “Your songs and performances are good. Why put strong messages in them?” That person seemed to think they were complimenting us on our musicality. [Laughs] It was interesting to hear an opinion like that, but CHAI is CHAI because we value our messages as well.

Mana: That’s the part that hasn’t changed at all from the beginning. Ever since we were little, we were anxious and dissatisfied because we weren’t sure how we were supposed to live, but when we coined the term “neo kawaii,” it gave us release. We wanted to share that with people and have been doing this for almost a decade. Now that we also do shows outside of Japan, we’ve learned that the message we wanted to convey through “neo kawaii” is now a common value throughout the world. But Japan may still be a little behind the curve. That’s why I want the concept to spread more widely here.

So you feel that your message has been properly reaching your fans in Japan and elsewhere.

Mana: Everyone interprets it in a different way, but I think they find hope in CHAI’s approach because everyone has something they’re hung up on in life. This is what I see on everyone’s faces during our shows. I was born a woman, I stand on stage as a woman, and I write songs about my life as a woman, but I get reactions from all kinds of people, regardless of gender, generation, or race. I feel that if I do it right, people will understand.

I have an affinity to CHAI as a woman of the same generation, and it’s cool to hear that you get reactions from a wide range of people beyond that. What do you consider important when writing lyrics, Yuuki?

Yuuki: The message we want to get across is clear, but if we communicate it too straightforwardly, it might sound superficial or come across as explanatory. For example, if I just said, “Individuality is important,” it might not click with people because they’ve heard it so many times before. We also don’t want to be like what we say is the only right thing. So we try to be conscious of conveying our messages in a fun, interesting, and lighthearted way to the rhythm. I don’t want to limit our fans by gender or generation, so I use “we” or “I” as the subject, and my intention is to encourage people to think, “I’m free to decide, ‘This is how I am’ for myself.”

Mana: After we put those lyrics to music and I sing them live, I digest them and they give me self-confidence as well. I think the interesting thing about lyrics is that the nuances change from day to day, and the thoughts that I put into the words, like, “I’ll convey them in this way today,” change as well.

You stand on stage as women, but write lyrics and perform intending to transcend gender, which is probably why you connect with so many people. How do you think being a woman affects what you do?

Mana: I think it only has positive influence. We didn’t like being labeled a “girls band,” so we decided to call ourselves an “onna (woman) band,” but being labeled like that gave us the opportunity to reject it, so it turned out OK.

Yuuki: There were lots of times when we were the only female performers at festivals, and I’ve always thought the balance was skewed. And while the situation is similar when you look at society, that also means there’s a possibility for change. Like how we changed the way we looked at our inferiority complexes, we probably interpreted it as opportunities.

Mana: I do feel a tendency (in Japanese society) of people wanting to suppress badass women and wanting them to stay tame. So I want to keep saying, “Everyone can say what they want to say more!”

Yuuki: I express myself not only through music but also through drawing, and there are many people around me who express their identities and thoughts like that. I’m hoping that expressing your will in that way becomes something mundane.

I think if people could find methods to express their will, like how you were encouraged by your musical and artistic endeavors, they’d be able to move forward. What would you say to someone who’s feeling lost because they haven’t found a way of expressing themselves?

Mana: You don’t have to force yourself to find it. I’d like you to interpret the fact that you haven’t found it yet as a positive thing. Because if you haven’t found it, it means you can do anything.

Yuuki: I think that being interested in things is a talent in itself. People often say, “I won’t do so-and-so because I don’t have the talent,” but if you’re interested in that so-and-so, you’re already talented at it. If you take a small step toward something you’re interested in, it might change your world. Don’t make a big deal out of it when you begin, just act, even if it’s just a millimeter or so.

I’ve noticed through our conversation that the two of you seem to translate everything into positivity. Have you always thought of things like that?

Mana: No, there’s still a part of me that thinks negatively. But I think I’m able to make music that feels real because of that wavering within, so I want to hold on to that. I want to feel proud of the way I face my troubles in my journey as a musician.

Yuuki: I’m a pretty positive person now, but I wouldn’t say I’m positive 24 hours a day. But having moments when you feel negatively about something doesn’t mean you don’t have a positive mindset. When you feel negatively about something, you can grapple with it, digest it, and transform it into positivity. Maybe I’m able to think like that because I have CHAI. I just happened to find the thing that I live by, and I’m willing to work hard for it.

Mana: Yeah, if you come to see CHAI live, you’ll see that women like us exist, so I hope you’ll come to see us at least once. We give 200 percent of ourselves to our live shows.

This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan

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