Pachinko – by Min Jin Lee – book review

Despite the title, this is NOT a story about a popular Japanese arcade game. Instead, it is a multi-generational story of one family that the author uses to explore the complex relationship between native-born Koreans and native-born Japanese.

Beginning in Korea in 1910 with a couple of peasant farmers (just as Japan is about to occupy the Korean Peninsula), author Min Jin Lee traces their descendants across seven generations (until 1989) as they work toward bettering their lives in Japan, using opportunities provided by religion, education, and business. However, this is not a typical rags-to-riches story. Because at the heart of every relationship each family member has along the way is the deeply rooted prejudice native Japanese have toward non-natives. Even after these non-natives have lived in Japan for many generations.

Japanese prejudice against Korean seems particularly acute, perhaps because so MANY Koreans moved to Japan (many because of the Korean War) and wound up doing many of the jobs Japanese weren’t interested in. (sound familiar?) According to this novel, the discrimination Koreans experienced was and still is manifested in attitude, housing, education, employment, custom, and law — establishing, in effect, a class system which limits the kind of life non-native can establish in Japan.

On the plus side I learned a great deal about both Korean and Japanese cultures including their abiding respect for elders, the unfailing importance of politeness, much ingrained sexism, and the value placed on extended family. I found the story of Sunja — the teenage daughter of poor innkeepers who unknowingly gets involved with a shady businessman — particularly compelling and rich.

On the minus side, as Lee began to tell later stories of younger family members, I felt the book lost some focus. Instead of following a single central character I came to care about, there were many more stories threads to track. And the chapters often skipped multiple years so I began to feel that I was transitioned to following the family saga through a series of vignettes, instead of reading one continuous story.

Author Min Jin Lee
(Photo from Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, a very worthwhile and educational novel.

More about the author, Min Jin Lee.