‘Pachinko’ brings history and the immigrant experience to life
- The novel from Min Jin Lee follows four generations of an ethnic Korean family, through the Japanese occupation of Korea and the second world war
- The title comes from an arcade game used for gambling in Japan and represents the fate of the book’s characters
By Min Jin Lee
Published by Apollo
The second novel by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee, Pachinko portrays the hardships and resilience of four generations of an ethnic Korean family from 1883 to 1989, a period that includes the Japanese occupation of Korea and the second world war.
For those who find history to be tedious, this is a book that will help change that mindset.
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It begins with an arranged marriage in Yeondo, a fishing village in Japan-occupied Korea. The couple has a daughter, Sunja, who, as a teenager, falls for a married man and becomes pregnant. It’s the early 1900s and conservative society did not condone such behaviour.
So, for the sake of her family’s reputation, Sunja moves to Japan with a local pastor who promises to marry her and give the child his last name. Together, they raise their family, trying to make ends meet in an extremely hostile Japan.
By giving voice to those neglected by society, Pachinko restores a history that time has attempted to obscure: Sunja’s family serves as a microcosm of the plight of ethnic Koreans in Japan during the first and second world wars.
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Every character is vibrant and multifaceted. Sunja and her sister-in-law Kyunghee highlight the formidable strength of women who are determined to protect their families.
Through Sunja’s sons, Noa and Mozasu, the novel also touches on themes such as racism and the difficulties of being caught between two cultures. Due to their Japanese upbringing, the brothers struggle with hiding their Korean roots, while trying to pursue upward mobility. It echoes the experiences of modern-day immigrants.
All the characters face immense suffering which draws the reader emotionally into the story.
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The author uses the pachinko – an arcade game and gambling device in Japan – as a metaphor for the fate of her characters. She says in her book: “Life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control.”
Mere individual effort may not be enough as people struggle against other more powerful forces of history. But, ultimately, the book is a celebration of life. It encourages the readers to “believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win”, as the author writes.
However, the perseverance, hope, and love that propel the characters in Pachinko could be a timely inspiration for us as we contemplate the future in these difficult times.