Omoiyari (思いやり) is the Japanese for word for compassion. The ability to empathise with other people’s perspectives in an effort to show kindness and understanding. Karou Ishibashi (a.k.a Kishi Bashi) is an American-born musician of Japanese heritage, with his parents emigrating to America after World War II. Even though he bilingually speaks English and Japanese and has always had this multi-cultural identity installed within his 40+ years, he hasn’t felt labelled as part of a minority group until very recently. The new Trumpian era of social division has made Kishi Bashi feel uncomfortable and revisit his roots, in particular the political tension between Japan and America during his parents’ WWII generation. He feels shocked by at a tragic moment in history in 1942 when over 120,000 non-threatening Japanese-Americans were imprisoned under the instruction of president Franklin D. Roosevelt. A hysterical reaction to the Pearl Harbour attacks.
His scholarly compassion for minority victims of discrimination by looking back at history and how it parallels with cultural problems today is the core concept behind Kishi Bashi’s new fourth record Omoiyari. From the album art of hand-carved bird pins – which were created by Japanese-Americans during captivity – to the music’s strong lyrical detail, to the crowd-funded documentary film which will discuss Asian-American societies among others things and will be released in 2020 to accompany the album, it’s Kishi Bashi’s most passionate thought-provoking project to date.
The Fleet Foxes folk of ‘A Song For You’ and energetic organ-acoustic-guitar-pairing ‘F Delano’ sound like the most cheerful sounding tracks on Omoiyari musically, yet they are actually the most damning accounts of the 1942 incarnations. The former boldly describes the fighting and loss of innocence in World War II, while the latter criticises the contradictory legacy around then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was seen as a hero to white Americans during the great depression, and yet completely deserted his Japanese-American citizens. These thoughts came to him while he was staying at hotel in Nevada named after the President called Delano Las Vegas. Kishi Bashi sings with irony: “Named of the leader who favored a nation after his own. / Summer was sunny, but history, funny to settle with…”.
The beautifully filmic violin-meets-banjo lullaby ‘Theme from Jerome (Forgotten Words)’ features both Japanese and English lyrics and was written after Kishi Bashi visited the Jerome War Relocation Centre in Arkansas, the concentration camp for those Japanese-Americans from 1942 to 1944. It discusses the notion of racial self-embarrassment, for example not learning the language of your ancestors out of self-conscious societal shame. “And when they sleep, she’d sing this melody. To her beloved sons. Forgotten words from Japan”, sounds like a mother desperately trying to preserve her language in the family history.
However, the epic torch song ‘Summer of 42′ sees the war situation in a different rose-tinted light. It focuses on blossoming romances that could have happened between the prisoners at the camp, with the captured finding love as a solace. It could also be a tale of love from the perspective of a soldier who has regretfully left his wife to fight in a war. He knows that when he returns their once special connection is unlikely to be the same. It’s really powerful and evocative with lyrics such as: “But years have turned to ages. And I know you’ve someone new. I looked for you with every breath. A soldier wrecked with solitude.”
As compassion (Omoiyari) is the theme of the record, other forms of historical empathy other than WWII victims are sympathetically addressed. ‘Angeline’ is from the point of view of a man who’s trapped in a system of racial “convict leasing”, a sort of slave work system in southern parts of America, when all he wants to do is see the love of his life. “Seven years until I’m free. Working off this prison fee. My fingers smell like kerosene. In a mine in Tennessee”.
Furthermore, the dramatic ‘Violin Tsunami’ is about chaotic nature destroying lives and how humans rebuild their existence afterwards. It was first inspired by the Fukishima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster of 2011 when radioactive explosions occurred as the result of a tsunami. The violin performed by Kishi Bashi was made by a Brazilian-Japanese friend of his, who made it when the disaster was unfolding. While album closer, ‘Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea’ references civil rights activist Annie Pearl to continue the theme of racial oppression. Although, admittedly it sounds like the most atypical song in Kishi Bashi’s catalogue for its sea-shanty and pirate-like lyrics.
One of Kishi Bashi’s best traits has always been his curiosity. It’s what fuels his playful compositions and the mythical wordplay lyrics of his previous records. However, this time his curiosity is meaningful, as it’s pointed towards his own cultural background and the oppression of other cultures. The perfect formula of curiosity + empathy = a powerful thought-provoking discussion.
Omoiyari is released on 31st May through Joyful Noise Recordings.