Far into this saga of a Korean family in Japan, Min Jin Lee offers the reason for naming her book – Pachinko – for a popular Japanese pinball gambling game:
“Mozasu believed life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control…something that looked fixed but which also left room for randomness and hope.”
Across four generations of Koreans, Min Jin Lee follows the history of Korea as it struggles through poverty, sublimation under Japanese rule, and the famous war dividing the country as it is today. Nominated for the National Book Award, Pachinko captivates the reader with its characters while revealing their long and continuing effort for freedom and prosperity.
The timeline begins in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, continues to Japan before World War II and finally to the late 1980s in Japan. The novel opens with an arranged marriage in a fishing village in what would be South Korea today. The one daughter from the marriage, Sunja, is the continuing fulcrum for the story of her progeny. When Sunja falls in love with a prominent and older married mobster, Hansu, she becomes pregnant. After declining Hansu’s offer to be his Korean mistress, she accepts the offer of marriage from a local Presbyterian minister from the North visiting her parents’ boarding house. She escapes her disgrace by marrying him and immigrating to his brother’s house in an ethnic Korean neighborhood in Osaka, Japan. Throughout the novel, Hansu’s influence acts as a counterbalance. His world of gambling seems innocuous until an incident reveals his cruelty and mobster power against anyone who crosses him.
Koreans in Japan were noncitizens, forced to change their names and regularly reapply for passports within a country where they might have been born. Discrimination against them ranged from outright hostility to snobbish avoidance. Sonja’s sons do not escape being ostracized; Noa, the son of the gangster and first in his family with a university education, yearns to be Japanese, his younger brother, Mozasu never seems to attain social status despite his wealth and connections. Both sons eventually become pachinko house managers.
As time goes on, with each generation trying for a better life than their parents, the world changes but prejudicial attitudes seem to remain. The last hope for equality among peers seems to be with Soloman, Sunja’s grandson, an American educated banker who has a promising career with a Japanese bank. But not all is as it seems. Sadly yet hopefully, Min Jin Lee ends the saga, true to her words:
“…life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing…”
The author successfully reveals the complicated state of Koreans in Japan, covering difficult topics from the yakuza, immigration, and real estate deals to personal views of expatriate life, religion, and, of course, the pachinko industry. A book of substance and introspection, Pachinko is a story worth reading and discussing; this reader will never make the mistake of forgetting the history and individualism of Asians.