Kishi Bashi explores shameful history of Japanese American incarceration with 'Omoiyari'
“What does it mean to be American? How do we know that we belong?” Kishi Bashi asks near the top of “Omoiyari: A Song Film.”
The documentary opens with the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist also known as Kaoru Ishibashi in a desolate field playing violin with fingerless gloves as snow-capped mountains loom. It is the site of the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming where over 10,000 Japanese Americans were detained during World War II.
The film splices historic news clips, family photos and interviews with former detainees with breathtaking drone footage that captures the harsh beauty of the remote corners of America where roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated during the war. Ishibashi, a Japanese American whose parents came to the country after the war, hosted intimate performances at the camp sites and composed music inspired by the experience. Along the way, the project became a vehicle for self-discovery.
The 2019 album “Omoiyari,” a sweeping work inspired by his research, connects the dots between WWII incarceration camps and modern anti-immigration sentiments. The documentary, which explores the same themes, premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, just weeks after the 80th anniversary of the first camp opening.
Ishibashi will be in Austin to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his debut album "151a" at the Mohawk on Monday. "Omoiyari: A Song Film" is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit.
‘I kind of pretended like I was white’
Though his parents kept Japanese traditions alive in his home, Ishibashi grew up isolated from other Japanese Americans in a predominantly white area of Norfolk, Virginia. As a youth, his social strategy was to ignore the fact that his family was different and assimilate as much as possible. In adulthood, this approach carried over to his artistic endeavors.
“As a musician, I kind of pretended like I was white, because I'm in the indie rock genre which is pretty much hipster white people,” he said in an interview during the festival in March.
He began to really think about his own heritage and the history of Japanese people in America after the presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump unleashed a wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric in 2016.
“I was really angry,” he said.
The realization that “a lot of people in America are still not too psyched about immigrants” rekindled residual insecurities from growing up as a minority in America. In the film he describes a pervasive sensation of “not being able to sit with the cool kids at the cafeteria.”
Recent news clips woven into the documentary show members of the Trump administration, including the president himself, citing the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII as precedent for proposed immigration restrictions, including a ban on Muslim immigration.
It was that argument that “really triggered the creation of this piece,” Ishibashi said.
‘Pearl Harbor was just a powder keg that exploded’
“Omoiyari” traces the growth of the Japanese community on the West Coast through the early part of the 20th century. In the years before the war, Japanese farmers in California found great success in agriculture. At one point they controlled over half the produce in the state.
“Agricultural jealousy” in the region had been “brewing for a long time,” Ishibashi said.
“Pearl Harbor was just a powder keg that exploded, just an excuse really, to get rid of the wealth of these immigrants,” he said.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, laying the groundwork for the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps.
The Japanese military at the time was “vicious,” Ishibashi said. “They had a reputation. But to conflate that into an innocent immigrant population, that's really the nuance that people couldn't handle at the time.”
“The media hysteria at the time was so rampant and the level of propaganda against Japanese Americans was just in everyone's face,” Justin Taylor Smith, the director of the documentary, said at SXSW.
As families were given the incarceration orders, they were forced to evacuate rapidly, leaving behind the homes and communities they had built, taking with them only what they could carry. They lost everything. Families who were accustomed to the temperate West Coast were crammed into thin-walled army barracks in states like Utah and Wyoming. Family footage donated to the documentary crew shows people in the winter “just trying to survive,” Ishibashi said.
Other family videos provided to the crew were surprisingly upbeat. People in the camps formed communities. They created schools and athletic teams. They hosted concerts. At first Ishibashi was surprised to see how many people were smiling in the videos. Despite living through one of the grave injustices of American history, “they were trying to make the best of what they could do for their families and their peers,” he said.
‘I get pulled over, I don't get shot’
The research gave him a new appreciation of the resilience of Japanese Americans. Through the process, Ishibashi and his team also took a hard look at how Asian Americans fit into the broader conversation about social justice in America. As Japanese Americans reentered society after incarceration, they were instructed to assimilate. When many families did so successfully, it contributed to a “model minority” myth that was used to disparage Black Americans whose communities were devastated by generations of destructive social policies beginning with the horrific practice of slavery.
“East Asians are kind of privileged in that we have a very high median income. We're very highly educated. We play in orchestra, you know, so we're very accepted in white societies,” he said.
Portrayed in popular culture as submissive, Asian Americans don’t tend to have confrontations with the police.
“I get pulled over, I don't get shot,” Ishibashi said.
Still Asian Americans, even those who have lived in this country for generations, struggle with being treated as the perpetual foreigner.
“We have a certain amount of privilege, but we're also a minority, you know, we have disadvantages as well,” he said. “Being a minority is not a monolithic experience.”
With the rise of nativist sentiment in America, anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise around the country and the film underlines the importance of solidarity among minorities in the country. The film includes footage of Asian Americans standing shoulder to shoulder with Latinx activists to protest migrant detention and family separation at the site of the Northwest Detention Center in Seattle. It mixes in scenes from Black Lives Matter protests.
As for Ishibashi, who worked with the Chicago-based Ho Etsu Taiko drum troupe on the album and the film, the project gave him an opportunity to lean into his Japanese identity in a way that he hadn’t before.
“It’s important for me to feel and act as a Japanese American, because that’s what I am and nobody can take that away from me,” he says near the end of the film.
If you go
Kishi Bashi celebrates the 10th anniversary of his debut album "151a" in Austin. He is joined on the tour by Tall Tall Trees.
When: 6:30 p.m. June 6
Where: Mohawk, 912 Red River St.