Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

A New York Times Bestseller, Pachinko is a work of historical fiction set in Korea and Japan that follows the lives of one family and how their circumstances and choices continue to reverberate through the generations.

It demonstrates how discrimination towards ‘perceived outsiders’ and their descendants becomes so deeply ingrained within a culture it distorts the way people live, even when from the outside there is no visible difference.

I won this book from the publisher after answering the question, “What do you think Min Jin Lee wanted to express with her first line of the book?” I hadn’t read the book then, but I liked how thought-provoking the first line (below) was. I’ll share my response at the end of the review.

History has failed us, but no matter.

Review

Photo by Jayant Kulkarni on Pexels.com

When we meet the family it is 1910, an ageing fisherman and his wife live in Yeongdo, a coastal village near Busan in Korea. They decide to take in lodgers for extra money. They’ve had three sons, but only Hoonie, (27) the eldest and weakest survived.

Hoonie was born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot; he was however, endowed with hefty shoulders, a squat build, and a golden complexion. Even as a young man, he retained the mild, thoughtful temperament he’d had as a child.

1910 was the year Japan annexed Korea. After years of war, intimidation and political upheaval; the country would be considered a part of Japan until 1945.

Hoonie went to school long enough to learn to read and write Korean and Japanese well enough to manage the boarding house ledger and do sums so he wouldn’t be cheated in the market. They raised him to be clever and capable ensuring he’d manage when they weren’t around. One day a matchmaker paid them a visit.

We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly.

Marriage in that era was like a business transaction, a person’s chances were attributable partly due to physical attributes and mostly by their family’s potential for a dowry and gifts. Hoonie was fortunate, he married Yangjin who after losing her first three, gave birth to Sunja, her fourth child and only girl. When she was 13 her father died of tuberculosis.

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Sunja and her mother work hard running the boarding house; her life is turned around when at 16, she is cornered by a group of boys on her way home from the market. Husan, a man twice her age, intervenes and forms a friendship with her, eventually seducing her; she believing he will marry her.

When she learns of his wife and family in Osaka, she severs contact and accepts an offer of marriage from a Isak, a gentle, young man recovering from illness in their boarding house, soon to depart for Osaka to be with his brother and take up a role as assistant minister in the church.

Isak noticed that when Sunja worried,  she furrowed her brow like she was trying to see better. He liked being with her;  she was capable and level-headed.  She was not helpless, and that was appealing because, although he wasn’t helpless himself, Isak knew that he was not always sensible. Her competence would be good for what his father had once termed Isak’s “impractical nature”.

The couple move to Osaka and live with Yoseb and his wife and discover life is more difficult than Isak realised. Survival is already a challenge, but being outside their native country they encounter for the first time that they are foreigners, perceived differently.

Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.

After giving birth to her son Noa, they have a son together and the boys are raised as if Isak is father to them both. Sunja’s affinity for hard work and her ability to negotiate and stand up to situations, leads her and her sister-in-law into working to support the family despite resistance from her brother-in-law.

Isak knew how to talk with people, to ask questions, and to hear the concerns in a person’s voice; she seemed to understand how to survive, and this was something he did not always know to do. He needed her; a man needed a wife.

Photo by Linn Htut on Pexels.com

The women in this lengthy saga are stalwarts, it is their story, their trials and tribulations that carry the narrative and make it unique. This could easily have been a story about the underworld inhabited by men who survive and thrive on the other side of the law; instead the author ventures into the lives of women, showing how they support and strengthen families.

It is a story of their endurance and survival and how perceptions change as one generation segues into the next and yet shame and stigma continue to exert their undermining influence.

I loved the book and the immersive experience it offered due to the combination of carefully drawn characters, the attention to the detail of their lives and the expectations under which they lived.

It is clearly a work of great dedication and love, the author originally wrote a version called ‘Motherland‘ which was completely rewritten after living in Tokyo for five years, meeting and interviewing many Korean-Japanese people, discovering how much more complex their lives, identities and connections to both countries were. It necessitated a complete rewrite, taking the story back to 1910, resulting in this extraordinary, all-encompassing, immersion into a rich cultural and familial history.

The Title

It is not until page 142 that we come across ‘pachinko’, the Japanese name for pinball, a huge industry in Japan at the entry into the workforce of Sunja’s son Mozasu.

We discover the difficulty Korean-Japanese citizens have in the workforce, unable to work in ordinary professions, pushed out to the margins of society where they become street traders or involved in ‘less than ideal’ industries such as pachinko parlours. Many  Korean-Japanese person she met had a historical or social connection to pachinko.

It is a metaphor for the predicament of Koreans in Japan, caught in the aftermath of historical conflicts as they win, lose, struggle to survive, sometimes thrive and sustain their gains.

I did not know until I lived in Japan that it was a business dominated by the Korean Japanese. It’s also seen as very second class and kind of vulgar and dirty and dangerous business,” said Lee, adding that these sorts of words and attitudes are still commonly associated with Korean Japanese, even those who have lived in Japan for decades.

My Response to That Question

On the opening line of the novel: History has failed us, but no matter.

History refers to the past and it seems that there are situations or circumstances that have been lived through before, whose lessons have not filtered through to future generations. Tragedy, destruction, suffering and corruption continue. Certain people of every generation encounter inequality and discrimination, no matter what they do to blend in.

However, we should not lose hope, as somewhere in our subconscious we carry the will to survive and thrive no matter what the circumstance. The future belongs to all of us, as yet unknown, to be ventured forth into without preconception.

Further Reading

YouTube – What is Pachinko? Japan’s Strangest Obsession

Business Insider Article – Japan’s pinball gambling industry rakes in 30 times more cash than Las Vegas casinos

Buy a copy of Pachinko via Book Depository

 

24 thoughts on “Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

  1. This is a terrific review for an immersive and absorbing book. We went to Korea on holiday when my daughter worked for a year in Busan, and quickly became aware of the complex relationship with Japan. This book did much to develop my understanding. That response of yours to the book’s opening sentence is thoughtful and insightful. Brilliant.

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    • Thanks Margaret, it was interesting to read what I wrote after finally reading the book, because the breadth of understanding it from the point of view of people from Korea was something I certainly knew nothing about. And then when you do, it becomes hard to fathom, except that we know humanity creates its own complexities that quickly become oppressive. Thank you for your kind words Margaret.

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  2. I deeply admired this book and was so happy to learn more about its writing from this review. I love that your answer won you this book! I hadn’t understood what it meant to be Korean in Japan — but the parallels to what it meant to be an immigrant to the US were not lost on me. Those who leave home to live and work in another country are so very brave.

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    • Thank you Jennifer, it’s so great to hear from you on here and to hear about your reading experience and reflections that this wonderful novel provoked. I think it’s true that the majority of us know little about the relationships and perceptions between Asian countries and this book perhaps only skims the surface of this unique relation. We learn so much from a good story with characters we care about and yes, leaving the village is courageous but necessary, we’re all on our own heroine’s journey, as Joseph Campbell would remind us!

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  3. I love your answer too! And I also appreciated so much the journey this book took me on. The dedication of the author to bringing an untold story to light really shines through.

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  4. This is one of the only books ever that everyone in my book group has loved. Unfortunately I found her first novel a bit of a disappointment, but I’m looking forward to whatever she writes next.

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    • It seemed to me that this was the story Min Jin Lee was born to write and what dedication and years of trying and rewriting and interviewing people and realising it was so much more than what she first perceived. I hope she has taken in that learning and has the energy and dedication to do it again.

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  5. I really enjoyed this book too. I love visiting Japan, but am aware of its nether side regarding Koreans. This book provides a fascinating insight into this.

    I really like your comment that “This could easily have been a story about the underworld inhabited by men who survive and thrive on the other side of the law; instead the author ventures into the lives of women, showing how they support and strengthen families.” Those two sisters-in-law are wonderful characters. What I liked about the novel too is that it almost never went where you think it is going to go.

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    • I know exactly what you mean, every time that influence comes near, and you think it’s going to take over the narrative, it is rejected. Yes! I could have said more about that, I was aware and believed that Sunja’s strength came not just from her genetic heritage but from her strong sense of self-worth and there are lines I highlighted that show where I like to believe that came from, from Hoonie’s love and devotion to his wife and that he had treasured his daughter; that is what empowered her to live up to that boosted sense of self-worth, to stand up to a powerful man as a 16 year old and continuously, despite the temptation to submit.

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      • Yes, good point about Hoonie’s impact on her. You could wonder why we got all that early history for Sunja, but that is why isn’t it? He’s a lovely character. Most people I know really like this novel. Some novels you love you also understand why people may not like it, but this one mystifies me when I come across the odd person who doesn’t!

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        • I really loved the way it began, even if those early years passed by quite quickly, but they were also necessary for the historical arc. I haven’t read any negative reviews, but I can imagine some not liking the choices the author makes, the way some threads come to pass.

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  6. This is fast approaching the top of my pile and I’m looking forward to it even more after reading your insightful review. I find it fascinating that she had to do a complete rewrite of her original story – what a labour of love. I think it’s extremely admirable that she wanted to tell the story more completely and am looking forward to learning about a perspective I know very little of.

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  7. A couple of years ago, one of the members of my book group picked this for us to read and it went down very well, generating lots of discussion about the social/cultural context and challenges of living in this kind of society, especially for women. I think you’ve done a great job in capturing the novel’s themes in your review. It definitely feels like your kind of book!

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