When I went to Japan the winter of 1990-1991, I remember watching TV and learning about an upcoming election. One of the candidates (an incumbent, I think) discussed on television was singled out, not for any political reasons, but because he was Korean. He spoke fluent Japanese and his family had been in Japan for decades, my friends told me. But his Korean background would forever set him apart from the candidates who were of only Japanese ancestry.
A few years later, I became close friends with a woman from Japan who held a Taiwanese passport. Her family came from China and had been in Japan for decades. But they weren’t Japanese citizens. The concept of identity in Japan started to fascinate me during my trip there and later when my Chinese friend from Japan told me that none of her family members held a Japanese passport, even though they’d never lived anywhere but Japan.
So I became interested in Min Jin Lee’s novel, Pachinko when it came out because it tells the story of a Korean family in Japan that spans most of the 20th century. I also have to admit I was drawn to the book because of its beautiful cover. I’m a sucker for pretty covers. A couple of friends had read Pachinko and had raved about it, so I wanted to save it for a short trip this spring.
I wish I’d read it earlier. Pachinko is one of my favorite novels now. Min Jin Lee starts her book in 1910 and it ends in 1989 and by the time you finish, you feel like you’ve been witness to the innermost secrets of the Baek family. Lee’s female characters are particularly sympathetic, especially Sunja, a young woman toward the beginning of the book who falls victim to a manipulative predator. Her life is forever changed after her relationship with Koh Hansu.
What I love about Pachinko is that Lee doesn’t romanticize this relationship. It endures one way or another for many years, but there’s no Disney ending. Lee doesn’t turn Hansu into a Prince Charming, excusing his predatory behavior as many authors would to achieve a happily-ever-after they think readers somehow need in order to enjoy a book.
Through her characters, Lee shows how Koreans in Japan are treated as outsiders, no matter how long these families have been in Japan. It’s not that they’re second class citizens. They aren’t citizens at all unless they undergo a painstaking application process. And after the way they’ve been mistreated, many Koreans in Japan don’t even want to be Japanese citizens. They’d rather be South Korean citizens even if they’ve never been to Korea.
Since the story starts in 1910, Lee covers many turbulent events in modern history: the Japanese colonization of Korea, World War II, the Korean War and partition of Korea into two countries, and South Korea’s rapid development in the 80s.
Pachinko, of course, is a big part of the latter part of the story. I saw and heard pachinko parlors in Japan and thought they were pretty silly. It seemed like a waste of time and money to play this upright pinball game with flashing lights and bells and whistles. But now that I know more about pachinko, I’m glad it’s in Japan. According to Lee, most of the pachinko parlors in Japan are run by Koreans. But even more amazing, most of the Koreans in Japan have been involved in the pachinko industry, either directly or indirectly. And the industry brings in way more money than the auto industry. If it weren’t for pachinko, Koreans in Japan wouldn’t be able to find as much employment and enjoy as high a living standard as many do.
I can’t say enough about this book and certainly don’t want to give away too much. I read it on two flights and on the NY subway and came home with about 100 pages to go. So I blocked out a day to finish it. Pachinko is a long book, but is a quick read.