Last spring I read about something called “Blind Date With a Book” that sounded like fun. Libraries apparently do them, and it involves choosing a book, wrapped in paper so you cannot see the title, based on some descriptive words (mystery, romance, other voices, etc). It’s a fun way to change up your reading and maybe try something you wouldn’t have picked for yourself. Over on Etsy, a number of sellers offer this same service for a range of fees and I decided to give it a try. The seller I chose was BookNookJessie in Kansas, and based on some questions I had answered about my interests, things I had read and liked, things I did NOT want, she sent me Pachinko (along with some delightful treats and truly beautiful packaging — I recommend this service for just giving yourself a little surprise).
Pachinko checks a lot of boxes for me: historical fiction, multi-generational, and set in a “non-Western” environment. Author Min Jin Lee gives readers a look into the lives of four generations of one family spanning most of the twentieth century. While the family is Korean, very little of the action takes place in Korea. The story begins with a Korea that has been colonized by Japan, and as the economy crumbles and World War threatens, members of this family move to Japan in the pursuit of a safer and perhaps better life. Yet, worldwide depression, World War II and racism provide formidable obstacles toward realizing dreams of prosperity and happiness.
Pachinko begins in 1910, in Busan, Korea, when Japan annexed the country. Hoonie runs a small inn with his wife Yangjin, and while Hoonie’s disabilities mark him as perhaps unlucky and will make the marriage of his daughter difficult, he is a kind man, devoted to his family and admired by neighbors. After his untimely death, Yangjin and daughter Sunja work hard to maintain the inn and have a reputation for running a good establishment. At the market one day, 17-year-old Sunja encounters a very handsome man in western clothing who is clearly attracted to her. Hansu is some kind of businessman whose work takes him all over Korea and Japan. He and Sunja have a clandestine relationship that results in Sunja becoming pregnant. When she tells Hansu, she finds out that he is in fact married to a Japanese woman and has children. He wants to keep Sunja as his mistress and is hoping they will have a son, but Sunja refuses him, devastated to find he is married. She and Yangjin are distraught over Sunja’s fate, as being pregnant without a husband is taboo. No one will have Sunja now, and given that the women are already living on the edge of poverty, it seems they are doomed. Until, that is, fortune smiles upon them in the form of a kind, handsome but sickly Korean Presbyterian minister named Isak Baek. He takes pity upon Sunja and offers to marry her, accepting her baby as his own. He has been offered a job in Osaka, Japan, and so he and Sunja move there to start a new life.
It is in 1930s Japan that Noa, Sunja and Hansu’s child, and Mozasu, Sunja and Isak’s son, are born. Despite being born in Japan, Noa and Mozasu will never be accepted as Japanese citizens. Japanese discrimination versus foreigners, including Koreans, effects every generation of this family, through the entire 20th century. Koreans are considered dirty, lazy and unreliable despite any and all hard work and achievements. Noa, who wishes to attend university, must work twice as hard as Japanese students in order to distinguish himself. He feels the taunts of his classmates but powers through in order to succeed, but as an adult in the 1960s, he will find that the stigma and shame of his background will always hold him back. Meanwhile, his younger brother Mozasu hates school but lets the taunts of classmates roll off his back. He seems to understand from an early age that nothing he does will make him acceptable to Japanese society and more than once his response to this is, “So the fuck what?” Mozasu is my favorite character. He sees how he can become successful and provide both love and financial support to his extended family, and that is through pachinko parlors. These entertainment/gambling machines are seen by many as a kind of crooked and stereotypical Korean thing to do. They have a reputation for being associated with organized crime, even when they aren’t. Pachinko the game is a metaphor for life that several characters point out in the story. For Mozasu
…life was like this game where the players could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control. He understood why his customers wanted to play something that looked fixed but which also left room for randomness and hope.
The characters in this novel struggle with discrimination, threats to their safety, and economic insecurity. They also work very hard to support and love their families. Generational division and patriarchy are important themes in this book, and the family’s situation is often complicated by the “fathers” Hansu and Isak. Hansu’s identity as father to Noa is a secret, and so the boys both think Isak is their real father. Isak and Hansu could not be more different. We learn that not only does Hansu cheat on his wife but he is an important member of the Japanese mob known as the Yakuza. Hansu is wealthy and wants to be generous with Sunja and her family, but Sunja resists. Isak, a Christian whose older brother was a minister and was killed for his political protests, is a deeply moral man but comes to see how innocent and ignorant he has been of the reality that many people have to face. His brother Yoseb is a much more practical man and becomes a mentor and father to Noa and Mozasu when Isak is arrested. Yoseb, however, is very proud and cannot bear to have his wife or Sunja work, even though the family is desperate for the money. The strength of these women is what will sustain the family through the worst years of the war and its aftermath.
As adults, Noa and Mozasu, and later Mozasu’s son Solomon, find very different ways to deal with their tenuous position as Koreans in Japan. One of the things I was surprised to learn was that despite being born in Japan, Koreans were still considered foreigners and would have had to apply for citizenship. If a Korean wanted a passport, he/she would have to apply to either the North or South Korean government for one. A Korean born in Japan still had to register as a foreigner with the government at age 14 and could be deported. Moreover, Koreans in North and South Korea considered Koreans who had moved to Japan and/or were born there to be not real Koreans any more.
This book was a National Book Award finalist and has received much critical acclaim. I found the first hundred or so pages a bit of a slog but then became enrapt in this family’s struggle to survive and succeed in Japan. If I have any criticism it is that some characters are not as well developed as I would have liked. The author has a tendency to sometimes “tell” us things about a character rather then demonstrate them through that character’s words and actions. I felt like this was especially so with the character Noa, whose actions as an adult have enormous impact on his family but seemed a little out of left field for me. I also wondered why certain characters were introduced at all, such as Mozasu’s friend Haruki and his wife. Certain details about their personal lives are revealed and seemed like they ought to have had more importance. I gather that they were there to demonstrate repressive attitudes about sexuality. At any rate, this is a fascinating, often heartbreaking story about one family’s journey in 20th century Korea and Japan.