Kishi Bashi Uses The History Of Japanese Internment To Explore America Today | WOSU Radio

Kishi Bashi Uses The History Of Japanese Internment To Explore America Today

May 28, 2019
Originally published on May 28, 2019 7:39 pm

Kishi Bashi's "Summer of '42" is a love song inspired by and set in one of the darker chapters of American history: the internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. "What are the things you wanted / The same as anyone," the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist sings. "Just a hand to hold a little / After all is said and done."

"Summer of '42" is the lead single from Kishi Bashi's latest album, Omoiyari, out May 31. Although Kishi Bashi's family was not sent to the internment camps — his parents immigrated to the United States after WWII — the Japanese-American artist says that the current political climate has turned his attention back to that period. On Omoiyari, he considers the lessons it offers and how they might inform the modern American experience.

Kishi Bashi spoke to NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about the camps that inspired Omoiyari, reckoning with his identity as a Japanese-American and more. Hear their conversation at the audio link and read on for interview highlights.


Interview Highlights

On how visiting ex-internment camps inspired the album

Frankly, if you go in the summer, [the camps are] really beautiful, some of them on the West Coast. And it's really conflicting, because these places are pretty desolate in the winter — probably pretty miserable. So, to kind of get that effect, I went to Arkansas in the winter. And that was very bleak.

To have to suppress or even forget or destroy your own culture in order to survive is something that really was heartbreaking for me. - Kishi Bashi

There was a lot of Japanese culture in these camps that was largely suppressed, internally and also externally. Like, the camps wouldn't allow you to have Japanese material, written material. And everybody was encouraged to assimilate. To have to suppress or even forget or destroy your own culture in order to survive is something that really was heartbreaking for me. That became the ["Theme from Jerome (Forgotten Words)."]

On the connection between Japanese-American internment and the modern political climate

For me as an artist, you know, or a songwriter, you connect it through stories and these emotions that are timeless and universal — love, loss, desire — you find these connections so that you can actually empathize with how they might have felt.

I also looked back at how hysterical it was back then in World War II. We know that they weren't the enemy, they were civilians, just families locked up. But if you look at a lot of the average people on the ground, citizens, white Americans, they probably were afraid. I think that's exactly where we stand today and that we have to be very careful to not fall into this hysteria, so that this kind of thing doesn't happen again with new vulnerable minority groups.

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The immigration debate, Islamophobia and, you know, 'Immigrants are coming to kill us and take our jobs.' This is a fear tactic that was exactly the same as what happened 76 years ago and ultimately, our leaders failed us by not protecting civilians.

On the moral complexity heard on the track "F Delano"

So, Delano is obviously the middle name of [President Franklin D. Roosevelt.] It's kind of interesting, because FDR is really still considered one of the greatest presidents of all time. He helped America out of the Great Depression and created all of these social programs that we still depend on today, yet he was a villain in the story about Japanese-American incarceration, because he just took away civil rights for a whole entire race of people. And I think the lesson here is that history is really complicated. You can have heroes and villains, and that's easy for children to understand, but for adults, we have to look at the complexities of the situation and understand that there's a lot going on back there. But the more you understand, the more you can grow as a person.

On Omoiyari's warning and underlying optimism

I mean, yeah, that's the simple message: Be careful. But also, the good thing about history is the more I study it, I see that humanity is actually progressing towards a more compassionate, empathetic state. I see my daughter, and her classmates. I see them as a kind of hope for a new generation, that we are headed in the right direction.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I want to let you listen for a moment to a love song - a love song inspired by one of the darker chapters of American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMER OF '42")

KISHI BASHI: (Singing) Were all the things you wanted the same as anyone? Just to have and hold a living after all is said and done.

KELLY: The song is "Summer Of '42." It's about something beautiful - falling in love while living in a prison camp - one of the prison camps where Japanese Americans were sent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The song is from the new album by the Japanese American artist Kishi Bashi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMER OF '42")

BASHI: (Singing) The first day that I met you, I wrote down in my book, I am in love with you.

KELLY: Now, his family was not sent to the camps. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Japan after World War II. He was born in Seattle. He lives today in Athens, Ga. But Kishi Bashi says today's political climate has got him thinking about American history. And just to note, this interview contains a term some listeners may find offensive.

Kishi Bashi, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BASHI: Nice to be here.

KELLY: So this album is your way of reckoning, I guess, with our country's internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. And I want to start by asking, why is that a subject that you felt needed tackling now?

BASHI: I think it's reckoning for a lot of reasons, mainly myself because I really didn't understand why I started feeling so insecure here in America. You know, I'm an American citizen, and I love this country. And I love the ideals that it stands for, but I really recently started to feel insecure and fearful of my own identity. And I think I started to look into this historical event in that it's a - it was a lesson, you know?

KELLY: And you actually went and visited a lot of these old camps. What's that like? What can you see when you go today?

BASHI: Frankly, they're - if you go in the summer, they're really beautiful - some of them - on the West Coast. And it's really conflicting because there's places - they're very desolate. In the winter, they're probably pretty miserable. So to kind of get that effect, I went to Arkansas in the winter. And that was very bleak.

KELLY: This is the Jerome War Relocation Center. This is the one in Southeast Arkansas. It was open, I gather, from 1942 to 1944. And you reference it in one of the songs on the album - "Theme From Jerome."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEME FROM JEROME")

BASHI: (Singing) After today you speak the new. With every word you walk from the comfort of my hand.

There's a lot of Japanese culture in these camps that was largely suppressed, you know, internally and also externally. Like, the camps wouldn't allow you to have Japanese material - written material. And everybody was encouraged to assimilate. And to have to suppress or even forget or destroy your own culture in order to survive is something that, really, was heartbreaking for me. And then it became the song.

KELLY: In the song, it's talking about trying to communicate between generations and the language barrier but other barriers that can spring up.

BASHI: The language barrier is very evident because, you know, if you're a grandfather and your native tongue is Japanese, then you really can't communicate with your grandchildren in the way that you'd like to. And I've seen - you know, my dad's English is kind of broken. (Laughter) He's probably listening to this. But I think a lot of people may not be able to connect with their relatives like that because they have this barrier, this language barrier. And I think that's really sad.

KELLY: Do your kids speak Japanese?

BASHI: My daughter - we tried for a while, and it's really difficult, you know? She understands a lot more Japanese than she speaks. But she tries with her grandmother. She's from Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEME FROM JEROME")

BASHI: (Singing) And while they'd sleep, she'd sing this melody to her beloved sons - forgotten words from Japan.

KELLY: So what resonated? I mean, it sounds like the history and the stories and the just humanity of what was going on in these camps resonated for you. What connects that to this moment where we are today, as you see it?

BASHI: Well, I think, for me, as an artist or a songwriter, you connect it through stories and these emotions that are timeless and universal, like love, Loss, desire. And you find these connections so that you can actually empathize with how they might have felt. And then I also look back at how hysterical it was back then - World War II. We know that they weren't the enemy. They were civilians - just families - locked up. But if you look at a lot of the average people on the ground, you know, citizens - white Americans - they probably were afraid. And I think that's exactly where we stand today is that we have to be very careful to not fall into this hysteria so that this kind of thing doesn't happen again with new, vulnerable, minority groups.

KELLY: You're talking about, like, the immigration debate playing out at the moment, for example.

BASHI: Immigration debate, yeah - Islamophobia and just, like - yeah, like immigrants are coming to kill us and take our jobs. You know, this is a fear tactic that was exactly the same as what happened 76 years ago. And then, ultimately, our leaders failed us, you know, by not protecting civilians.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "F DELANO")

BASHI: (Singing) Named of the leader who favored a nation after his own. Into the desert he pushed all the Nips, he wasn't alone.

KELLY: Talk about the song "F Delano."

BASHI: So "F Delano" is obviously - Delano is the middle name of FDR. And it's kind of interesting because FDR is really still considered one of the greatest presidents of all time, you know? And he helped America out of the Great Depression and created all these social programs that we still depend on today, yet he was a villain in this story about Japanese American incarceration because he just took away civil rights for a whole entire race of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "F DELANO")

BASHI: (Singing) Summer was sunny, but history, funny to settle with. Was he right? Innocence without a proper fight. Fight F. Delano.

And I think the lesson here is that history is really complicated. You can have heroes and villains, and that's easy for children to understand. But, like, for adults, you know, we have to look at the complexities of the situation and understand that, you know, there's a lot going on back there. But the more you understand, you know, the more you can grow as a person.

KELLY: Listening to you, I'm realizing it's still really uncomfortable to talk about because, I think, a lot of Americans of your and my generation - we're both in our 40s - would like to think this was a bad chapter of American history, but it's history. Lessons were learned. It sounds like, among other things, you intend this album to be a warning. You know, be careful. We could go down that path again.

BASHI: It's - yeah. I mean, that's the simple message is that, you know, be careful. But also, you know, the good thing about history is that I see - you know, the more I study it, I see that humanity is actually progressing towards a more compassionate, empathetic state. I see my daughter, and she's - her classmates I see as a kind of hope for a new generation, you know, coming in and that we are headed in the right direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF KISHI BASHI'S "MARIGOLDS")

KELLY: Kishi Bashi, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BASHI: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: Kishi Bashi's new album is called "Omoiyari."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARIGOLDS")

BASHI: (Singing) The word that you had found for me, a favorite sound of mine, it swayed under a canopy to fill the end of time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.