Matilda Singer reviews Min Jin Lee’s epic historical novel.
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee’s sprawling generational saga, shares the story of a Korean family living in Japan amidst the continuous cultural and political tensions of the 20th century. This backdrop includes the turmoil of Japanese occupation, the hardships of wartime and the painful tearing of the country into two nations. The length of the book matches its ambitious scope and vast time span – over 500 pages – but Lee has such authorial skill that Pachinko never feels anything but a page turner.
The plot begins on the Korean Peninsula in 1883, when a young woman begins an affair with a yakuza – a gang leader, a man who is older and overtly more powerful. When Sunja falls pregnant, risking great shame on her family, she is rescued by a generous Christian minister, who offers himself as a father for her son. However, this offer of refuge means leaving her native country to marry and settle in Osaka, a decision that shapes the lives of her descendants for decades to come.
Migration, and the experience of being a migrant, form a central part of this novel, with Lee portraying situations that are so specific, yet speak to the common challenges of being an outsider. Like Sunja, many Koreans settled in Japan as subjects of the empire during the early years of the 20th century, coming together in close-knit communities and being collectively referred to as ‘zainichi’. In addition to general discrimination, liberation of the Korean Peninsula post 1945 meant Koreans were no longer legal citizens, and were suddenly subject to a new challenge: rigorous background checks and reassessments of citizenship every few years, despite having lived in Japan for decades. The physical resemblance between individuals blurred this boundary further, making it possible for immigrants to ‘pass’ as natives, which is something we see Sunja’s elder son, Noa, adopt to secure reputable employment. But such a facade is not easy to maintain and the shame associated with his Korean heritage continues to eat him alive throughout the novel.
Sunja’s younger son, Mozasu, leads a comparatively lavish life, amassing great wealth as the manager of a pachinko parlour. Clustered together in huge establishments, these slot-machine-like pinball games (for which the novel is named), are still a gambling sensation in Japan. Frequented by Japanese but staffed by Koreans, pachinko became a method for elevating the socioeconomic status of zainichi families. It is an industry that pays well, but pays in dirty money – the game is seen as shady and dishonest, snobbery amplified by racism.
Authority on this subject comes not only from Lee’s experience of being Korean – she was born in Seoul – and being a migrant – her family moved to New York City when she was seven – but also from the extent of her research. From passages covering life in nineteenth century Korean fishing villages to student life in 1980s Osaka, these vivid depictions are exemplary of the author’s deep immersion in historical sources and the number of personal interviews she conducted with members of the Korean diaspora.
Despite the compelling historical context, this book is truly illuminated by Lee’s characters. Sunja and her sister-in-law demonstrate true resilience and ingenuity in the face of great hardship; working day and night to provide for their children, setting up their own business selling homemade kimchi when the job market dries up, and continually sacrificing their personal needs for the survival of the Baek family. Nonetheless, we find that the rules of pachinko mirror Sunja’s life – and perhaps life for minorities during this period more generally – in that individuals are merely pinballs in the slot machine of history and life is often a rigged game.
Above all, I found Pachinko to be a quiet masterpiece; a work that leaves readers with hope that we may one day see past national boundaries and cultural differences, to appreciate the commonality of the human experience.