A portrait of Sasami from her self-titled LP, "Sasami."

‘It’s all mixed’: Sasami makes music inspired by her multicultural heritage 

Sasami’s latest album, “Squeeze,” is a musical concoction of different genres and influences — including her family’s multicultural heritage as zainichi Koreans. Meklit Hadero, host of “Movement,” our series on music and migration, speaks with Sasami about her family history and upbringing. 

The World

Artist Sasami Ashworth, who goes by “Sasami,” says recording an album is like planning a menu. 

First, she forages for raw ingredients. And then she experiments with new ways to combine them into something magical. 

“Because I think that's where so much discovery takes place — when you've kind of [broken] down the arbitrary forms of things.” 

Her latest album, “Squeeze,” is a musical concoction of different genres and influences — shaped by her own reckoning with her family’s multicultural heritage as so-called zainichi Koreans, or “Koreans residing in Japan.” 

To this day, Japan is home to a large population of zainichi Koreans who can trace their ancestry back to Japan’s decadeslong occupation of Korea, before and during World War II. 

Sasami said she began a deep-dive into her family’s history during the early days of the pandemic. She wanted to know more about her family history of migration from Korea to Japan, and then eventually to the United States.

“I was interested in getting knee-deep in the gnarliest stuff,” she said. 

Sasami’s grandparents were zainichi ethnic Koreans who lived in Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea. She said her grandfather owned pachinko (arcade) parlors and her grandmother owned a kimchi shop in Tokyo. 

“My family history has a lot to do with combining these different cultural elements because my grandmother was ethnically Korean, but living in Japan, she created a lot of food and specifically kimchi that had this very zainichi flair to it.” 

She said her grandmother used kombu and dashi in her kimchi, flavors that veer from the  Korean version, which is typically a spicier dish. 

Sasami’s mom was born and raised in Japan, and her dad is from the West. 

She said she had a “largely culturally Korean upbringing” in the United States, attending a Korean school and going to a Korean church.

“So from an early age, I learned how to kind of compartmentalize … certain parts of my identity,” she said. 

Growing up, she often ate foods that were both Korean and Japanese, and heard phrases in both languages. Sometimes she couldn’t tell the difference. 

“I mean, if I was hearing Korean or Japanese, it meant I was in trouble, for the most part! So I just associated those words with ‘I'm in trouble.’ I know how to say, ‘brush your teeth’ in Korean and Japanese very fluently.”

Looking back on her childhood, she said her mom was “ very culturally Japanese.” But when she was a kid, she said it was sometimes hard to tell what was cultural and what was just her mom’s unique personality. 

“It’s all mixed. You're not really talking politics when you're growing up, you're just thinking about trying to be less awkward and be accepted by your evil peers,” she said. 

As an artist today, Sasami draws inspiration from her multicultural upbringing.

“I think it is really interesting growing up and being like, ‘now let's throw those all together, and see what happens!”

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