Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko Book Cover Pachinko [2017] – ★★★★

“The Japanese could think what they wanted about them, but none of it would matter if they survived and succeeded” [Min Jin Lee, 2017: 117]. 

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko had a long road to publication, almost thirty years, being first conceived as an idea by the author in 1989. The story spans four generations, and tells of Korean immigrants who come to Japan to seek a better life in 1933. This family then faces all manner of hardship, including poverty and discrimination, in the new country. For example, we follow Sunja, a daughter of a cleft-lipped, club-footed man, who takes her chance to marry a missionary, Isak, and goes to Japan to give birth there to her son, whose father, Hansu, remains a powerful man in Korea. In Japan, she meets her brother-in-law and his wife, and their life to survive begins. This emotional novel is a real page-turner and this is so not only because of its fascinating story set in a particularly turbulent time period. Pachinko is sustained by its vivid characters whose resilience in times of hardship is somehow both admirable and chilling. The characters’ determination to survive and succeed in conditions which are designed to make them fail will not leave the reader uninvolved. 

In Pachinko, the story starts in the 1910s and it ends in 1989, meaning that the characters in the novel experience the effects of the Japanese colonisation efforts, the Second World War and the post-war recovery. We follow different characters throughout the novel, first Sunja’s parents in Korea, then Sunja and her husband Isak in Japan, then Sunja’s children – Noa and Mozasu, and then Mozasu’s son. The plot also moves forward rather rapidly and jumps forward in time frequently. This does not mean that the story is any less interesting, however. It is absorbing right to the end, or almost right to the very end. Min Jin Lee makes historical and cultural observations throughout, and, by following the lives of the characters, we really get to know about the situation in Japan and the day-to-day hardships the characters experience as they try to adjust to their new life in a foreign country. Guilt, doubt and hope all mingle in the story, and religions and different classes clash. In the context of much deprivation, including discrimination, persecution and poverty, morality has the capability to be bent, and Min Jin Lee bravely explores this topic as well. Besides, the relationship between parents and children is one of the most prominent and fascinating themes. In Pachinko, parents want the very best for their children, and, to that aim, will not mind sacrificing a lot. It is also clear how much hope parents put in their children and how close Korean immediate families really are. The narrative goes “Back home, having two healthy and good sons was tantamount to having vast riches. She had no home, no money, but she had Noa and Mozasu” [Min Jin Lee, 2017: 209].

Even though it is not easy to keep up with all the characters in the novel (hence, feel sympathy for all of them), one of the most admirable features of the book is that different characters’ perceptions count. There is no one main character in this novel, and we are shown how different people cope with threatening circumstances and how they try to survive in a country which treats them as second-class citizens. For example, Noa, Sunja’s son, is very sensitive and has a belief that if he will be a perfect student who gets high marks and who is determined to persevere and work hard, then the society of Japan accepts him for who he is, recognising his humanity. His brother Mozasu, on the other hand, is not so sensitive, and does not mind to be employed in unprestigious positions as long as this is what he wants to do and he has a roof over his head. The point of the author is also that perspectives on national identity/discriminatory condition change as new generations in a family emerge. Pachinko is eye-opening in this respect because a person’s integration or belonging to a country in the novel also depends on their background, language-acquisition, views on their condition, their own temperament and desires, as well as on their ability to cope.

Having said that, Min Jin Lee is also clear in her thesis – nothing is going to change for Koreans in Japan, echoing the destiny of any foreigner settled in Japan, one of the most “closed” countries in the world, that remains somewhat averse to the concept of full integration of foreigners in terms of giving them full societal acceptance as “being one of us”. This is echoed in the title of the book. A pachinko machine is used to play a game of chance, but, as one of the characters note in the novel, the game may be fixed in advance in such a way that it is very unlikely or impossible that you will ever win. The same could be said about the characters in the novel – they may try to receive acceptance of the country they immigrated to and hope for the best, but, because unspoken rules have already been set, they will never win in this “game”. Only Hansu, a yakuza, seems to feel at home and successful in Japan despite being Korean, but he also clearly achieved this status through criminality.

The aim of the author to demonstrate the plight of those whom history may have forgotten, i.e., Korean immigrants to Japan, is admirable and, as readers, we truly sense this conviction to show the injustice in Min Jin Lee’s story. There are passages in the novel such as “[Isak] felt an overwhelming sense of brokenness in the people” [Min Jin Lee, 2017: 63], and “every Korean must be on his best behaviour over there [Japan]. They think so little of us already. You cannot give them any room to think worse of us” [Min Jin Lee, 2017: 94]. Heartstrings will be pulled when reading this novel and it is impossible not to sympathise with the Koreans caught in a country which is so hostile to them, even to a person whose grandparents were born in Japan. However, there is also this feeling throughout the novel that the author strikes home this message of “hardship” too many times, as though her readers will not quite grasp the full importance of remembering those people or appreciate the horror of their situation back then to the full extent. Sometimes, there is a feeling that the narrative is just there to underscore the belief of the author of the appalling discrimination and treatment of Koreans in Japan, and that also means that the novel gets a little depressing and, definitely, a tad repetitive in its message.

Moreover, sexually-explicit passages are included in the story for no other reason than simply being there, and the story introduces too many new characters, with their own stories and life events, for no apparent clear purpose. For example, Pachinko jumps from one family to another without hesitation, describing in-depth Noa and Mozasu’s girlfriends and their family circumstances, something which becomes overbearing and needless since the main characters are hardly these brothers’ spouses or love interests. Realism and idealism also clash rather oddly in this novel. It may be all realistically traumatic when Tess of the D’Ubervilles [1891]-inspired heroine Sunja starts selling kimchi on streets out of desperation, but then we also have this idealistic turn when Rhett Butler-inspired character Hansu, who only knows how to serve himself (through crime), comes as an almost gallant protector of the heroine and tries to “rescue” her through the decades.

Pachinko is an easy-to-read, highly emotive novel with some great insight into the history of Japanese-Korean relations and the characters, even though it also loses its momentum towards the end and sometimes feels like a presentation to convey the message of the author on the plight of Koreans, rather than a stand-alone novel to be enjoyed in its own right.

7 thoughts on “Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

  1. Tu blog me ha parecido muy interesante, Diana. Volveré a visitarlo para leer atentamente los fantásticos artículos que publicas en él. Saludos! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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