Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
A decade on from the publication of her international bestselling debut Free Food for Millionaires, Min Jin Lee returns with a sprawling epic saga exploring the Korean experience in 20th century Japan through the stories of four generations of a single family.
Opening in the seaside Korean city of Busan, Pachinko begins with an aging fisherman and his wife bringing up their son in the aftermath of the annexation of Korea by Japan in the 1910s. Their son, despite being born with a cleft palate and twisted foot, goes on to marry a hardworking Korean lady and the couple proudly bring up their only daughter, Sunja, in the boardinghouse inherited from his parents. Popular among travellers and fisherman, the boardinghouse is a local hub in the community and enables the family to meet people from both throughout Korea and occasionally Japan. While still a teenager, Sunja falls in love with a wealthy older traveller from Osaka. Upon learning she has become pregnant, the man asks Sunja to marry him and be his wife in Korea. He also informs Sunja that he is already married with three children in his home country. Sunja is distraught and ashamed; she refuses to marry the man despite his offer to take care of her and her child. She instead turns to her family to help confront the problem. Without a father and a name to give to her child, Sunja will bring great shame to her family and their reputation in the local community.
It is at this time that a sickly but handsome and kindly pastor is staying in the family boardinghouse and eventually learns of their daughter’s difficult situation. Having already passed his life expectancy, the pastor offers to marry Sunja and take her and her unborn child to Japan where she might be able to begin a new life under his name. The family and Sunja agree, and the happy newlyweds move to Japan to live with the pastor’s brother and sister-in-law. Squeezed into tight living quarters, the two couples form a closely knit family unit supported initially by the men but eventually by the women’s honest, industrious work in kimchi and candy operations during the war and post-war. Sunja gives birth to a second child, a brother to young Noa, and the story slowly shifts to follow their childhood stories growing up as Koreans in Japan.
Following the Free Food for Millionaires in 2007, Min Jin Lee was the subject of an article in The Japan Times entitled “Tackling the ‘Zainichi’ Experience”. Zainichi is the world used in Japan to describe people such as Sunja’s two sons, permanent ethnic Koreans living in Japan. The author explains herself in the book’s acknowledgements that she first came up with the idea for the story almost 30 years ago in 1989. A lecture series at Yale included a talk by an American missionary based in Japan about the Zainichi; “Some Koreans in Japan do not wish to be called Zainichi Korean because the term means literally “foreign resident staying in Japan,” which makes no sense since there are often third, fourth, and firth surviving generations of Koreans in Japan”. The Korean experience in Japan is at the heart of Pachinko, and Lee tackles the subject through deeply etched characters, humane narratives, and meticulously researched settings. Rather than feeling preachy or moralising at any point, the stories of the novel’s characters suck you into their world and allow you to almost feel the pain of the discrimination they are regularly subject to. While Min Jin Lee is most likely conjuring her sentiments of the Zainichi experience, the anger, frustration and deep sadness evoked for the novel’s characters becomes your own, extracted by Lee using strong character development and feelings of empathy.
Describing the plights of four generations of the same family and stretching to 500 pages long, Pachinko is a fairly substantial novel that I felt was stronger in its opening half than its final sections. The inevitable proliferation of characters makes the plot more difficult to control in the novel’s latter stages. Lee undoubtedly does manage to control and dictate the novel well throughout, but I felt it was difficult to maintain the same level of attachment you feel for the characters earlier on in Pachinko. I enjoyed the subtle manner in which the author deals with her subject in the book, giving the reader plenty to ponder on questions of belonging, identity and legacy. I also found the portrayal of women in the novel as a whole fascinating. Lee describes varying narratives of the female experience in Japan, but I felt that there were certain qualities that were present in most female characters: strength, resilience, courage, industry. Women like Sunja were simultaneously the glue and foundations of their family, fighting to keep the family unit together while also supporting it financially and emotionally.
“Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.”
Pachinko is a game similar to pinball that is played for money in Japan. It is tarnished with a negative reputation, and is has been one of the few industries in which the Zainichi have been able to find jobs in Japan over the past century. Despite their intelligence and industry, both of Sunja’s sons eventually end up working in one of the country’s pachinko venues. Understanding the context of the pachinko parlours seems important to the subject of the novel; if this is the case in Japan, I imagine that seeing both Sunja’s bright sons working in pachinko parlour might just feeling like a sad inevitability for Koreans living in Japan. In a novel that is concerned with ideas about belonging and finding home, it is a sad but perhaps fitting that the only place these two men are eventually allowed to call home in Japan are the pachinko parlours, tarnished areas of Japanese society left to the Zainichi.
Pachinko will be published by Grand Central Publishing on 7th February 2017. My thanks to the publisher for the advance copy of the novel.