By Min Jin Lee
Read Oct 2017
Lee gives us an engaging saga of a family and their friends over several generations and about 80 years. The setting being Korea and Japan provides an opportunity to learn about the challenges faced by working class families in this area of the world during this period of dramatic change.
Pachinko is a gambling game in Japan found in Pachinko parlors which are run nearly exclusively by Koreans. We don’t start learning about Pachinko until about half way through into this novel that follows an extended Korean family. We slowly learn that Koreans in Japan have very few opportunities for rising above a poverty or poor working class level. Pachinko is a primary path for actually running a business and developing some wealth. Through this book we learn or are reminded that Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and lost it through WWII. A new learning for me was that Japan has maintained a policy that Koreans can never attain Japanese citizenship, even if they are the second or third or more generation born in Japan. Further, social standing for an entire family, even among Japanese, can be lost through a shameful act by a family member, making it impossible for them to marry well or find good employment.
Lee slowly reels out the story of the various family members and their friends and how they deal with the limited options available to fishing village working class Koreans in Korea and Koreans in general in Japan. For much of the story, the strength, daily hard labor, and resourcefulness of women members of the family (the widowed mother, her daughter and her daughter’s sister-in-law) are essential to the families’ survival. The story shifts to the daughter’s sons and their families and friends and how they make their way through life as non-citizens of Japan and having no real country that’s theirs. The sons rise above the manual labor lives of their parents through education for one son and through hard work in a business setting for the other son. Both end up working in the Pachinko business but from totally different paths. A grandson seems to have an a chance at breaking out of the confined opportunities for Koreans with a US based education and a US born girlfriend but in the end finds himself limited by his Korean background.
Lee uses a universal narrator approach so we are told the thoughts and feelings of the character being discussed at the time. This is effective in telling us what the author wants us to know but seems a weakness at the same time as Lee leaves us little to figure out for ourselves about the characters. The dialog and some responses to challenges seemed a little “modern” and “western” to me at times.
However, Lee does help readers in the USA appreciate the precious treasure of a policy that confers citizenship to all those born here and that this is not a world-wide policy. She directly reveals the unfair challenges of being a non-citizen in Japan if you descend from Koreans even if your family has been there literally for generations. She also expands our consideration, though not directly, of the plight of other peoples who aren’t considered citizens of a particular country, defined by current political borders, either because they have migrated to it, usually driven by man-made reasons for fleeing their native country, or because they aren’t members of the ethnic (defined by bloodline, race, region, etc) majority of the current political country. She quietly provides us the opportunity to think about how groups treat other groups that are different, how hard and fast that line of differentiation can remain, and the resulting human barriers raised against being simply human.