Pachinko goes through four generations of a Korean family’s odyssey in the 20th century. It’s a remarkable work of literature that displays Min Jin Lee’s meticulous research with pride.
Pachinko holds real historical value. This is the first book that offered me a glimpse of Japan’s imperialist endeavors throughout the Korean peninsula. One of the biggest strengths of the novel is its decision to follow a peasant family’s struggles from beginning to end, and while this narrative tumbles near the end it still teaches us about the racism, discrimination, and poverty conditions that Korean immigrants endured while trying to build a new life in Japan.
The title comes from the name of gambling houses in Japan. Casinos are literally called pachinko, based on the sound that slot machines make. The pachinko employment sector didn’t inspire much respect in society, and people came to relate the industry with yakuza, or Japanese gangsters. Consequently, struggling Koreans who couldn’t find a job anywhere else found some leeway in this world.
The settings are wondrous. We start in Yeongdo, a rural fishing community on the southern tip of Korea. The textures and smells that are in the boardinghouse in the beginning of the book come off the page without much effort. Lee’s writing is colorful. Despite its size, this beginning setting takes us between memorable places like a vendor’s market, rocks by a beach, and a forest. It evokes a fantasy-like atmosphere, suddenly transforming when we travel to Japan.
Japan is subject to a lot of romanization and fetishizing in modern media, but Lee is following a peasant family, and the setting reacts accordingly. Osaka is dirty, cruel, and hostile. We never get a real feel for how Japan was for middle-class or even lower-class citizens because Korean immigrants and their children were never considered citizens. It’s within these settings that the reader can grapple with what it means to be a “citizen” of a country. Japan has no right of soil laws, meaning that the act of being born within national territory isn’t enough to grant citizenship. One of your parents has to be a citizen. Lee’s characters aren’t able to escape their blood.
The one downside of the novel is that it relies on a deus ex machina for too many occasions. A certain recurring character offers too much too often, which makes the family’s fate unrealistic and a little absurd near the end of the novel. The character in question serves a great purpose in the beginning of the novel and strengthens the plot and themes, but the tendency to bring them in to swoop everyone away from misfortune takes a toll on the enjoyment of the book as a whole.
The book reminds me in scope and intention to something like Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being, which is a heavyweight in its own right. Both novels work with time and war to reflect on the impact that history has on the present. Pachinko is a modern classic that deserves a place in as many bookshelves that have space for it.