The Japanese word omoiyari roughly translates to “having compassion,” and it’s also the title and theme of singer/songwriter/violinist Kishi Bashi’s fourth album. Moved by the rising tide of Islamophobia following the 2016 US presidential election, he spotlights the stories of the persecuted through a unique lens: the forced incarceration of 120,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Kishi uses his perspective as a second-generation Japanese American to tell stories of pride and empathy against a background of barbed wire and paranoia. He does so with nuance, owing to his classical training and indie rock chops honed as a touring violinist for Sondre Lerche and of Montreal. A making-of Omoiyari documentary will hit the film festival circuit in 2020. Kishi Bashi tells Apple Music about the album and how not being interned allowed him the objectivity to approach an infamous moment in US history.
How do you turn a tragic moment in US history into a source of musical inspiration? The first thing I did was travel [to the Japanese American internment camps]. I went to Manzanar, Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, Jerome, and Rohwer. I wanted to understand what it was like. Physically, you go to those places, and there's no people there, so what really brought me to that experience were the pictures by Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers, and Ansel Adams. They had these beautiful photographs of the internment. They really portrayed daily life and the evacuation in a way you could really empathize with the people. The more I thought about how contemporary those people looked—they could be your buddies, your uncle—that's when I started to really connect with the injustice of it all.
How did you decide what emotions to focus on? Initially, I started writing songs—trying to be melancholic or sad—to mimic the emotions that I thought were there. But instead of focusing on the tragedy, I was focused more on the resilience of the people. I look at these photographs from Ansel Adams, and they're all smiling, radiantly, even though they're interned. Like, wow, this is a story of resilience in adversity. These are not weak people. These are people who are tremendously brave and sacrificed so much, and yet just got on with their lives. When I started to understand that, that helped me write in my style, which is more optimistic. That's why the album's got a kick to it, but it's also connected emotionally.
Did you mean “F—k FDR” on “F Delano”? Oh, yeah, that's totally my intention. FDR, he's a hero to an entire generation of Americans. He helped get America out of the Great Depression. He made all these social programs that we still depend on today, led the Allied victory, and he's considered one of the great presidents, yet he's a villain in the story of Japanese American incarceration. That duality really intrigued me: How can you be a hero and a villain? Obviously, in this song, he's a villain, but I think FDR's executive order was a lack of leadership. He succumbed to hysteria, ultimately, and was unable to protect civilians that he should have. I think that's a real lesson. Our leaders are not gods. They're not infallible, they are people, and we have to be very careful.
Your family didn’t experience the internment. Does that allow you to cover the subject with more objectivity? Yeah, it's complete objectivity. I definitely sympathize with the story, the community, and the need to continue telling the story. I think the one perspective I have is that I'm very connected to Japan and Japanese culture. I speak Japanese, and I go there a lot. My wife's Japanese. I think it gives me a bigger perspective on the JA community—their view is a nisei [second generation] view of America. They don't have a lot of the issei [first generation] stories, which is something I would relate to more—like being caught between two cultures. Instead, the narrative is "Look how American they were, like white American. They play baseball. They go to church. They're Christians." That was the narrative that was necessary to get the redress [in 1988, the Civil Liberties Act was passed and survivors of the internment received a formal apology and $20,000 redress from the government]. But I think, now, we have to be more subtle. The issei were actually really Japanese, just trying to make a better life for themselves. That's the issei that I actually relate to. I think it's a good climate now, where people are understanding that America's a diverse country, and multicultural-ness is more accepted now. I think the climate's right to tell that narrative.