Imagine being forced from your home. Imagine being sent to a prison camp with no trial, and no promise of release. Imagine all this happened simply because of the language you speak, the shade of your skin, or the roots of your family tree. For over 120,000 Japanese-Americans this was a reality during World War II. It’s a reality that Kishi Bashi seeks to reckon with on his latest release Omoiyari.
Omoiyari is Kishi Bashi’s fourth album -- following the acclaimed 151a (2012), Lighght (2014), and Sonderlust (2016), which have garnered serious acclaim from outlets including NPR Music, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian -- and his most important yet. Many of the songs were initially inspired by history and oppression, and he deftly weaves tales of love, loss, and wanting to connect listeners to the past. Channeling the hard-learned lessons of history, Omoiyari is an uncompromising musical statement on the turbulent sociopolitical atmosphere of present-day America.
“I was shocked when I saw white supremacy really starting to show its teeth again in America,“ Kishi Bashi says. “My parents are immigrants, they came to the United States from Japan post–World War II. As a minority I felt very insecure for the first time in my adult life in this country. I think that was the real trigger for this project.”
Kishi Bashi recognized parallels between the current U.S. administration’s constant talk of walls and bans, and the xenophobic anxieties that led to the forced internment of Japanese-Americans in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor. So he immersed himself in that period, visiting former prison sites and listening to the stories of survivors, while developing musical concepts along the way. The unique creative process behind Omoiyari will be documented in a film scheduled for release in early 2020.
“I didn’t want this project to be about history, but rather the importance of history, and the lessons we can learn,” Kishi Bashi reflects. “I gravitated toward themes of empathy, compassion, and understanding as a way to overcome fear and intolerance. But I had trouble finding an English title for the piece. Omoiyari is a Japanese word. It doesn't necessarily translate as empathy, but it refers to the idea of creating compassion towards other people by thinking about them. I think the idea of omoiyari is the single biggest thing that can help us overcome aggression and conflict.”
The strong conceptual elements of Omoiyari are driven by Kishi Bashi’s captivating musical score. Stepping away from his past loop-based production model, he embraced a more collaborative approach when recording, and for the first time included contributions from other musicians, such as Mike Savino (aka Tall Tall Trees) on banjo and bass, and Nick Ogawa (aka Takenobu) on cello. Kishi Bashi’s spectacular trademark violin soundscapes are still an essential component of his sound, but the focus of Omoiyari is centered squarely on its songs. The result is his most potent and poignant collection of music to date.
On “Marigolds,” Kishi Bashi contemplates the “differences between generations that are difficult to comprehend sometimes.” “I wish that I had met you when your heart was safe to hold,” he sings over a bed of shimmering violins, conveying a sense of deep melancholy over a soaring melodic line.
“Summer of ’42” weaves a breathtaking orchestral score over a tale of love and loss in a Japanese incarceration camp. “While times were humiliating and difficult in these camps, they would make time to find love and happiness amongst the adversity,” Kishi Bashi observes.
“Violin Tsunami” builds a single violin line into a cinematic wall of sound. “A Brazilian Japanese friend of mine is a violin maker, and he presented me with a wonderful violin to play. He had named it Tsunami, and had worked on it while the Fukushima Nuclear disaster was unfolding,” Kishi Bashi explains. “This song is about the chaos that nature can create, and also about the healing and rebuilding that the human spirit is capable of.”
The songs on Omoiyari overflow with rich sounds and complex emotions, and challenge listeners to confront a difficult chapter in America’s past while acknowledging the injustices of the present. But there’s a yearning for better days threaded through several songs, a perspective that mirrors Kishi Bashi’s own hopes for a better future. “Part of the project is saying that if you're a minority there's potentially still a lot to look forward to in this country. I believe there's a paradigm shift coming, especially for minorities and those who have felt oppression. America is changing.”
But a better future is not guaranteed, and Kishi Bashi wants listeners who hold some economic or social privilege to be aware of their own role in creating change. “If you're privileged you need to understand that this country is for everybody, and we have to make that space for all people.”
“Sometimes when we look at history, it feels far away and removed. But there are fundamental lessons of love, compassion and fear that we can learn from the internment and apply to issues today concerning refugees, immigration, and minorities,” he says. “There are so many tragedies and atrocities that have happened around the world at different times in history, and I think it's really important to have the compassion to understand the suffering that people endured before you, to not repeat the past, and to really be grateful for the life you have.”
While the theme of Omoiyari is rooted in 1940s America, the album’s message is timeless. In exploring the emotional lives of the innocent Japanese-Americans who were unjustly incarcerated, Kishi Bashi hopes to nurture a sense of empathy, or omoiyari, in all who hear the album.
Cover photo: carved and painted scrap-wood bird pins by artists Himeo Fukuhara and Kazuko Matsumoto reprinted from “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946,” (2004, Ten Speed Press)
with the permission of author Delphine Hirasuna, designer Kit Hinrichs, and photographer Terry Heffernan.