Pachinko by Min Jin Lee


Having admired her first book Free Food for Millionaires, I was happy to see Min Jin Lee has another out. This one is set almost entirely in Japan, covering a time period of 1910 to 1989 and tells a multi-generational story of a Korean family.

It begins with the parents of Sunja in Korea; when her beloved father died young, she and her mother survived by renting to and feeding even poorer workers. They were known to be hard working and kindly to the boarding house residents. During a trip to the market, Sunja met a well-dressed man who charmed her, that is, got her pregnant. She was horrified to learn he was already married to a woman who lived in Japan. Meanwhile she and her mother nursed back to health a well-educated minister who showed up at their door. He repaid them by marrying Sunja; they left Korea for Japan to live with his brother. The stories of the lives in Japan of Sunja and Isak, their sons, the rich and ruthless father of Sunja's son, Isak's brother and his wife illustrate the many difficulties of being Korean in Japan.

All Koreans were stereotyped as somehow criminal, lazy, filthy, and aggressive; it was shameful for a Japanese to be associated in any way with Koreans. The family's experiences ranged very bad to bad. Isak was imprisoned for no cause until he was near death, Yoseb worked near Nagasaki during the war and suffered the consequences, Noa passed for Japanese until he was threatened with revelation, Mozasu became successful by working in a pachinko (betting) parlor, and Solomon was used and discarded by a bank in the 1980s. As the Korean American girlfriend of Sunja's grandson says, "Everyone knows, Solomon, in Japan, you're either a rich Korean or a poor Korean, and if you are a rich Korean, there's a pachinko parlor in your background somewhere."

While these stark facts about the family make this seem pretty grim, the spinning of the tale of the family is filled with insight and is compelling. The characters are more representational than complex and the story is a morality tale; still, the stories are varied and maintained my interest. I described the disdain for Koreans in Japan as in the past though I don't know whether it continues to exist. In the time frame of the book, as late as the late 1980s, Koreans born in Japan had to register each year, were not considered citizens, and could not get a passport. A NYT story in 2005 describes a Japanese Supreme Court decision that confirmed that a woman of Korean ancestry born in Japan could not take a test to quality for a supervisory position in a public health center because she is a foreigner. 

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko, Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 496 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries.

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