With Emigrant, Kishi Bashi Continues to Share the Concept of "Omoiyari" to the Masses

Interviews
05/21/2021
Janice Headley
photo by Rachael Renee Levasseur

It won’t be long before Kishi Bashi will be back in Montana, under the big sky, mountains, and wild, open plains. Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Kaoru Ishibashi plans to spend the summer there, working with his co-director to finish up Omoiyari: a Songfilm by Kishi Bashi, the visual accompaniment to his 2019 album of the same title.

"We're really just trying to make it a watchable movie because it's full of history," he tells us from his Athens, GA recording studio. "It's full of my story. It's full of music, too. And to try and find a fun, informative, but serious blend is proving to be difficult, to be under two hours. So, right now, we're really just trying to focus on what's really important and what will keep the film interesting and engaging, as well as making sense."

Both the movie and the music explore the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, inspired by the increased display of xenophobia following the 2016 presidential election. "Omoiyari" is a Japanese word that means to show consideration and empathy towards others, and its concept is at the heart of the project. 

And, Montana helped inspire his latest release. Today, Friday, May 21st, Kishi Bashi releases the physical version of his new EP, Emigrant, released digitally last month. The album is described as a “companion piece” to Omoiyari, and was conceptualized during a cross-country road trip he took last summer with his 15-year-old daughter. 

Kishi Bashi was kind enough to turn off the air conditioner in his studio for a quick chat with KEXP about the importance of preserving history, the future for people of color, and embracing the fiddle. 


THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED FOR LENGTH AND CLARITY

KEXP: Was there a reason why you named the EP Emigrant versus "Immigrant"?

Kishi Bashi: Well, yes. There's a town in Montana that I spent a little bit of time in called Emigrant. And there's an Emigrant Peak. There's a mountain, it's on the album cover. That's Emigrant, in Paradise Valley. It's beautiful.

And I guess, a lot of it was me spending time out there, imagining the pioneer culture, of just the frontier, of how violent it was, just brutal, almost impossible to thrive. An emigrant is somebody who leaves for a better life, and an immigrant is somebody who comes in to settle down. These people were really on the frontier, interacting with native indigenous cultures, oftentimes violently, sometimes coexisting, and everything in between that.

And the thing about Montana is, you can still go out there and kind of see what it was like, because it's still very rugged and rural. The mountains are very brutal and beautiful. So, Emigrant… that’s how it came about.

The EP is described as a “companion piece” to Omoiyari, and, obviously, you’re still working on the film… do you feel like you haven’t closed the door on Omoiyari yet?

Yeah, I mean, a lot of Omoiyari, the way I went about it, it's kind of folky. I picked up a lot of acoustic guitars and I recorded it as a band, which I had never done before Omoiyari. I'm basically just tinkering by myself for endless months. And this one is just like, rehearse a lot, get it tight, I go in the studio, and then concentrate for a week. And that to me is a musical extension. 

And then also, a lot of the history and reimagining of history, that's something that's an extension for me from Omoiyari, because, with Omoiyari, I was looking at marginalized communities. And when you're out in the frontier west, you really get a sense of the struggle and the genocide and just the displacement, but also how really violent it was and how grateful we are now to not have to — I don't know — starve or fight, fight for a land or fight other people for their land. 

Another thing that’s notable about the new EP is that you embraced playing your violin in a fiddle style after learning about the Japanese bluegrass scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. How did that discovery happen?

A long time ago, when I was at Berklee College of Music, my jazz violin teacher mentioned to me, hey, did you know there was a bluegrass scene in Tokyo, like in the ‘70s? I didn't think twice about it. (laughs) He's like, yeah, there's some really great players. And I was like, I don't care. I'm just going to play, you know, jazz violin. 

And then I looked into it recently as I was trying to figure out how to comfortably integrate mountain music into my own album. I always felt out of place playing fiddle music because I'm not from Kentucky or whatever. Like here I am, as an American, I'm Japanese playing a violin, which is a European instrument, playing jazz or improvising, you know, with an African American tradition. And like, what am I? I'm just really whatever I want to be. And so, to think that country music or folk and fiddle music cannot be my own music, I think it's just an insecurity I had. That's why I was like, oh, maybe I'll just put a little fiddle tune in there because I love fiddle music. 

Like here I am, as an American, I'm Japanese playing a violin, which is a European instrument, playing jazz or improvising, you know, with an African American tradition. And like, what am I? I'm just really whatever I want to be. 

And the EP was inspired by a road trip you took?

Yeah, I mean, it was a road trip I would never have been able to take had COVID not happened because I was so busy touring and doing all this stuff. I didn't even have, like, a week in the summer to go traveling, and then all of a sudden, I have an entire year to myself, which is great. We have this camper. So, I took my daughter up to Bozeman, and then in the second half of the trip, I went out to the West Coast with this camper and then back through the deserts of Texas. 

What is her understanding of that part of history?

I make sure that she follows all the work, the research I do, and we talk about it a lot. And then, I pose these questions while we're driving, especially when we talk about indigenous Native Americans and their tribal cultures. So, like, “do you think it was possible that they could have actually coexisted peacefully in this country and that we have a different outcome?” You know, questions that obviously you can't answer. But I'm very doubtful of that, just based on how arrogant everybody was back then, and how vicious the patriarchy was. It's like kill or be killed, to various degrees of that. But, these are the kind of philosophical questions I pose to her. 

But I think, in general, her generation is way more inclusive and tolerant. Younger people are progressive. They can't wait for the world to change. 

Was this the first time that she got to experience the camps?

No, actually, we went up there, and actually my parents really wanted to go. So, we went on a pilgrimage in Wyoming. Every year, in this camp, and all the other camps, the survivors come back and they kind of hang out and talk about it and there's a museum. And there's also a beautiful mountain that I love to hike called Heart Mountain. My parents came down last summer, and we filmed a little bit two summers ago. They're in the movie, too. So, they've been there, and she just loves it on the mountains. 

What was that experience like for them? For both generations, your parents and for your daughter, to visit the site of a Japanese internment camp? 

I think to them, and also a lot of Japanese people, it's really a bizarre thing. “Gaman” is this word they have, and it means tolerating things despite how bad it is. And if you think of Japanese people, if you weren't nobility, you had a pretty meager and really rough life that could end in death any time, you know, like the peasants of Japan. It's a pretty miserable existence. 

And, they still have deserts out there. You go out there, it's just tumbleweeds and sagebrush. You're like, wow. This is where they put them, you know? And it's kind of like, good luck. Yeah. This is your new home: the desert. 

I'm fascinated by the people who experienced it, who make the pilgrimage and go back yearly. 

I mean, it's a community gathering. They've built a community around that shared experience and the shared trauma. It's not all sad, you know. They're old friends, just getting back together. And, this is also 75 years ago, so, it's their grandkids. There's an aspect about keeping the legacy alive and community building, and then also like, how can we apply this lesson to help marginalized communities today? 

There's an aspect about keeping the legacy alive and community building, and then also like, how can we apply this lesson to help marginalized communities today? 

I appreciate the fact that it doesn't allow for erasure, like it can't just get buried in the past, and, through your film and music, it lets more than just Japanese people know and be aware of it. 

Yeah, and [there’s] a new movement within that, like incarceration studies and stuff like that, because for the longest time, it was basically survivors and their descendants. Same thing with the Holocaust. When survivors perish, how do you continue that message? Because it's so important. And I think that's something they're always trying to figure out.

Did you learn about the internment camps in school, or later as an adult? 

I did a project on it in high school, because, as far as I was concerned, it was just like a little blip in the history book chapter of World War Two. I think, at the time, it was finally in the '80s, they finally acknowledged it. There were some reparations. Before that, the U.S. government would rather have not mentioned this really awful thing that they did, you know. So, yeah, I knew about it in high school. 

And my mom, she told me about it. In Seattle, she was a graduate research assistant, and she actually went and interviewed [the internment camp survivors] a lot in the ‘70s because she could speak Japanese. And she said that basically, they were really not happy about it and they'd rather not talk about it. 

She also said that there's a lot of people in Seattle who just didn't speak Japanese, like, didn't want to, and that really perplexed her. Why wouldn't you want to speak Japanese [if you’re of] Japanese descent? It's really heartbreaking. It’s forced assimilation. Also, this happens to every minority culture in America. It's like it's internal, because you feel like you need to fit in, and sometimes it's external, when the government tells you you have to assimilate or else. 

The reason I ask is because I didn’t learn about the Japanese internment camps until I was an adult and had moved to Seattle. It’s like it was completely eradicated from my American History classes, but it happened here, in America.  

It was probably in your history book, it's just up to the teacher to really make a point about it. I think that's where education is so important. When history teachers don't think it's important, that's a problem. But, geographically, the West Coast, I think they definitely need to. I mean, there's family connections that were lost, because you're talking about, like, literally evacuating the entire West Coast population of Japanese people. When I say evacuating, I mean forced removal. They're called “relocation centers,” but they're basically prisons in the desert. 

In the year between the release of Omoiyari and Emigrant, anti-Asian attacks have increased. Has that affected the way that you look at this project?

Honestly, for me, it took me a while to process Asian hate because, you know, I'm a very privileged person. I'm also male. A lot of violence was against women and the elderly. So, as an Asian male, I have a uniquely privileged position, like, I don't have bad outcomes with law enforcement and I don't feel too threatened on the street. 

I think with Trump-ism and xenophobia and a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric, it was really a group of people who kept their mouths shut when Obama was president, and then once Trump became president, they're just like, oh, if our president can say that about COVID, you know, blame it on a race of people, then maybe I'll do this and that. 

I think, when you have hate speech, it basically lets the worst people do the worst things, like get violent towards really vulnerable people. And, that's really unfortunate. 

I think it's really important to be able to tackle more abstract things like racism and racial hierarchy and combating white supremacy. 

Do you feel any parallels with what's going on now in the world with what was going on back then?

The words "racism" and "genocide," these are all post-World War II words. Basically, World War II was just so awful for everybody that they really started to cultivate empathy and try to figure out how we can avoid the Holocaust or like internment camps and and just like doing awful things to each other. 

The more I study history, the more grateful I am. I think we are headed toward a safer place, where we don't have to fight and we're not starving, and so basically we can think about things like, you know, uplifting marginalized communities and combating police brutality. Brutality was just something that was a way of life up until very recently. And it is a way of life in other parts of the world that still need to catch up. I'm generally optimistic about where we're headed as a country just as long as we have modern comforts and safety. I think it's really important to be able to tackle more abstract things like racism and racial hierarchy and combating white supremacy. 

I love that a lot of this history is coming up to the surface. 

I think people are just more receptive now. When I say "people," I mean "white people" are more receptive to difficult histories. Also, like over 50% of school-age kids are people of color now. So, it's just a changing dynamic of society just becoming more tolerant to people other than white people, seeing that the country is really going to be different. Which is not a bad thing, you know… A lot of white people are fearful of that. And I think a lot of politicians will play into that fear, you know, “replacement theory” or whatever they want to call it. No, it's just changing. We're going to be a different country within a generation. 

It must be inspiring to have a 15-year-old daughter and see these changes firsthand. Do you feel like that helps you maintain the spirit of “omoiyari”?

Yeah. I think “omoiyari” is this whole idea of just empathy, you know? And I think empathy is like a new thing. It was really after the Holocaust that social scientists were like, this is what happens when you don't have empathy for another person, and so, it's a really fragile idea that's that has to constantly be cultivated and constantly be infused in different ways to to a changing society. But, it's really fundamental to a more peaceful coexistence. 

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