Study Guide

Stephen Nakane in Obasan

By Joy Kogawa

Stephen Nakane

Why can't big brothers ever be nice? No offense to all you nice big brother Shmoopers out there (if you even exist!), but it seems to us that literary big brothers like Stephen should be a little nicer to their fictional siblings.

We get it. The war sucks. The relocation sucks. It makes sense that he wants to get the heck out of Granton. And he's lucky, because his musical abilities get him out. But does he have to pick on his little sister while they're going through the whole ordeal? We think not.

Anyway, here's what you need to know about this kid. He is Canadian. Not Japanese. Got it? He's also a musical wunderkind who sails that dreamboat all the way out of Granton.

Definitely not Japanese

If you get anything straight in this novel it should be this: Stephen Nakane is definitely not Japanese. Sure, his last name is Nakane, but he does everything that he can to avoid any and all Japanese traditions. He won't take baths with his Grandma. He won't eat onigiri (rice balls). He pretends that he has never spoken Japanese when someone recites a haiku. We've never seen somebody so determined not to be Japanese before.

Sometimes it's pretty annoying, but you have to remember that Stephen's experience of prejudice was very different from Naomi's. This is what happens to him: "One day he comes home from school, his glasses broken, black tear stains on his face" (12.26). He gets beaten up. Kids Naomi's age aren't even old enough to beat someone up yet, but Stephen learns early on that being Japanese is a bad thing. So can we blame him?

But it doesn't matter how much Stephen says that he's Canadian. He's still treated like a Japanese foreigner and shipped off to the camps like everyone else. So how will he get people to believe his Canadian-ness? Well, besides his birth certificate? That's where music comes in.

Musical Genius

We kinda feel bad for Naomi. Stephen is a musical prodigy and everyone in town loves him. But she's just not as impressive as her big bro.

Stephen gets his love for music from their father. His dad plays tons of instruments by ear, and teaches him to play the piano and flute. It becomes such an important part of their relationship that they greet each other like this:

Deftly, Father places the pads of his fingertips on the holes and, holding the mouthpiece flat against his lower lip, he plays arpeggios rapidly. [...] Without a break, Father leads into "Waltzing Matilda", and Stephen improvises harmonies. (24.40)

Yeah, we totally greet all of our friends with improvised music jam sessions. Don't you?

Music is what ties Stephen to his father, and it seems to be the one thing he cares intensely about. When Stephen cracks a record that his mother loved, we know that it is extra painful for him and his father because music was their connection to the word. And when he doesn't even play the flute at the beet farm, we know that things are really, really, really bad.

Music is also how we know when the family begins to return to normal. When they finally get a proper house, Stephen starts to play music again. And he gets so good that he wins competitions and girls go gaga for him:

Stephen receives permission to play the piano in the auditorium and every noon hour and recess, and before school begins, he is there alone or with a few girls who stand in the hall outside giggling and listening. [...] For two years in a row, 1948 and 1949, Stephen comes in second in the talent show on CJOC Lethbridge radio. All of Granton is proud of Stephen. (30.17)

Stephen knows when he's got a good thing going, and he uses music as his train ticket out of there.

Interestingly, music is the way that Stephen manages to get that Japanese taken out of his Japanese-Canadian hyphenation. When he starts to win awards, he's not Japanese anymore. Granton accepts him as their own, as a Canadian. Without his music, he'd probably be like Naomi. She's constantly mistaken for a foreigner. But not Stephen, he's earned his official Canadian badge.

Lucky Stephen. He got what he wanted. It just sucks that success purges the Japanese out of Japanese-Canadian… that just goes to show the deep-seated xenophobia and racism of mid-century Canada. Blerg.