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Seattle Symphony remembers Executive Order 9066 with new work by Paul Chihara

The silhouette of a man stands in front of a large graphic of an image of the Executive Order 9066. The words "Instructions to all persons of Japanese Ancestry..." are prominent.
James Holt
Courtesy of the Seattle Symphony
February marks 80 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which forced all Japanese and Japanese Americans into incarceration camps. Paul Chihara was sent to one of those camps as a child and reflects on his time there in a new piece "Beyond the Hills."

Paul Chihara was just 4 years old when he and his family were forced from their Seattle home and sent to an incarceration camp in Idaho. Now 83, Chihara returns to his hometown to debut a piece that commemorates 80 years since Executive Order 9066.

The Seattle Symphony is commemorating 80 years since Executive Order 9066 was issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. Paul Chihara's original composition "Beyond the Hills" is a piece that reflects on his time spent in an incarceration camp and the music that surrounded him there.

Around 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were sent to what the government called "relocation" camps. Chihara was just 4 years old when he and his family left Seattle and were sent to an incarceration camp in Idaho. One of the things he remembers most about that time was the music. This was the time of big band music like Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. It was Goodman's song "Idaho" that inspired the name of Chihara's piece.

"'Beyond the Hills' is a reference to that pop song. Why was it so important to all of us? Because for us, hearing a song called 'Beyond the Hills of Idaho' was a song as if they had written it just for us," Chihara said.

The piece explores the dichotomy of loving this very American music while being imprisoned for supposedly “not being American enough.”

"Those three years behind bars is very much clouded by a sense of terror and guilt and shame — and the best music that I’ve ever heard. So all of that comes out in my music," Chihara said.

Despite being in the middle of a war, Chihara recalls how the most popular songs of the time were all about love, like "I'll Be Seeing You" and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square."

"That's what's interesting [about] growing up in that era. It was a very violent time, and when we were shown movies every Saturday, they were usually more movies in which we had people who looked like me were the enemy were the bad guys," Chihara said. "You can see what a maelstrom of emotions that created and those of us who were incarcerated there for three years and why the music would have stood out as something special to us."

In his piece "Beyond the Hills," Chihara said he drew on both American songs and Japanese songs as inspiration. It was a sort of reconciliation between the two cultures that he saw reflected in their music which he thought shared a lot of similarities.

"Basically American cowboy tunes are pentatonic and always major. And that's almost the definition of Japanese music," Chihara explained.

Chihara has written music about his time in one of the incarceration camps before. But this particular performance is special to him. It marks one of the first times he's been back to Seattle in 60 years after graduating from the University of Washington. He recognizes his ability to provide a unique perspective on that era as one of the few professional musicians who is still alive today who was in one of the camps.

"I'm not writing music that I recreate it from reading history books or seeing movies and documentaries. I'm writing music about the music and the emotions that we felt living in a relocation camp, being American citizens as I was, and yet being treated as the enemy," Chihara said. "There's that pain. But on the other hand, there's that escape of love lovely music because the music that was truly gorgeous."

The symphony performs “Beyond the Hills” Saturday in its EO9066 concert, which also features Seattle-born violinist Kishi Bashi.

There is an accompanying exhibit featuring photos from Dorothea Lange that you can also buy tickets to through the Seattle Symphony website.

Updated: January 28, 2022 at 5:18 PM PST
Clarifies that this is one of the first times Chihara has been back to Seattle.
Grace Madigan covers arts and culture with a focus on how people express themselves and connect to their communities through art, music, media, food, and sport.