Following one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.
Thus begins a generational saga of the struggle of Korean immigrants to Japan. I admit to being ignorant of the longstanding prejudice and harsh treatment of Koreans there, which is in many ways comparable to what African Americans suffered here in the US. Children are bullied because for their ethnic features and traditions, families are forced to live in a ghetto where few can ever hope to own their home, job discrimination abounds, options are limited and cause stereotypes to persist, etc. Even as recently as the 1970s, Korean boys had to register with the government at the age of 14, after which it would be determined if they could stay in Japan or were going to be deported.
I was moved by the story of Sunja, her husband Isak, her sons Noa and Mozasu, her brother-in law and his wife, and the rest of their growing (and, sadly, diminishing) family. The women especially showed strength and ingenuity, always finding a way to survive, if not to get a tiny bit ahead. Secrets and lies inevitably lead to conflicts, as with any other family, and the ups and downs of these hardworking people made for fascinating reading. My interest began to drop off, however, with the youngest generation. The characters in the last third seemed less fully realized, and the section seemed to rush through to the ending--a rush that nevertheless, for this reader, seemed to drag.
If you are wondering about "pachinko," it's a kind of upright pinball game popular in Japan, often associated with gangsters because it is a form of gambling for prizes. Sunja's youngest son enters the business but does his best to stay honest. Every night, the owners rock and tilt the pachinko machines to throw them off a little from the day before--just enough to ensure that the players' chances of winning decrease. I'm sure the author intends it to be a metaphor for the way the Koreans in Japan held on to a little hope, although the odds were stacked against them.
Pachinko would have been a solid four-star read for me, if not higher, except that my interest really waned in the last third. Bringing the story into the 1980s and beyond apparently meant bringing in a lot of drugs, alcohol, and sex, which I found rather boring and off tone from the rest of the novel; I just didn't care much about the self-destructive younger characters, even though I know I was supposed to feel that the years of intergenerational oppression were what brought them to this point. Still, I learned a lot from this book, including some things that put the current hostility between Japan and North Korea into perspective.
“There was consolation: The people you loved, they were always there with you, she had learned. Sometimes, she could be in front of a train kiosk or the window of a bookstore, and she could
“In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I'm just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am. So what the f*ck?”
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee has gotten mixed reactions on LT, but I fall into the camp of those who greatly enjoyed it. It's a multi-generational story of a Korean family, beginning in the 1920s. In an afterword, the author explains that it was 30 years in the making, and that she scrapped it completely and started over in 2008 after interviewing many Koreans living in Japan and finding her first draft was off target.
I didn't know that Korea was occupied by Japan during WWII (my bad), or that Koreans historically have been looked down upon by many Japanese. (Amazing how prejudice can take so many different forms). This story begins with good-hearted but cleft-palated Hoonie, who normally would never get married because of his deformity, but does because of the dire economic times. His daughter Sunja grows up carefully watched over in their boarding house near the port city of Busan. When at age 15 she becomes coveted by Hansu, a sophisticated businessman, her life changes, and then changes once again when a Christian priest enters her life and the family moves to Osaka, Japan.
There are lovely moments and terrible ones, and many hardships overcome, often through family effort. Sunja proves hard-working and resilient, and her family the same. All the characters are skillfully drawn, and the writing is smooth - drafts of the book apparently were run by what seems like a cast of thousands, including early enthusiast Junot Diaz. If you're looking for a reading experience set in a different part of the world, with an interesting clash of cultures and memorable characters, this one fits the bill. Yes, like many long books, it could have been shorter without harming the story, but I'm one reader who says, so what.
“Akiko adored rough sex, foreign books, and talking,” Lee writes breathlessly in one of her more banal attempts at character development. “…she sent Noriko off to a toruko where she would have to bathe and serve men in the nude until she was too old to work that job. Her tits and ass would last a half a dozen years at most in the hot water,” she blithely writes off another. After a reasonably good start, there were times I laughed out loud at the writing.
One of the big misses was that it didn’t really transport me back to the 1930-1950’s in the earlier portions of the book, in part because the dialogue is written in the vernacular of today, and in part because a lot of the historical context is barely touched upon. Overall, it’s just not that intelligent or inspired, and honestly, it felt like anyone could have written it.
The story spans from the early 1900s to the late 1980s. I didn't know anything about what happened when Japan annexed Korea. We learn about this through our characters as they work hard to earn a living and even when born in Japan (as Korean), they aren't welcome and or treated well. An excellent, well written book that I absolutely loved.
It's long -- about 500 pages
Shortly after I started this book, I described it to someone as "well-written"... and then, when I opened it back up and started reading again, I found myself questioning that. The prose, really, isn't especially beautiful. If anything, it has a hard-to-describe but perhaps slightly "off" quality that I associate with books in translation, although it was written in English. And the structure is perhaps a bit baggy, with a thread or two that don't really seem to go much of anywhere. And yet, it reads to me as if it's very well-written, if that makes any sense at all. There's a quality to both the writing and the characterization that just easily and effortlessly swept me along. By the end, possibly it was wearing a tiny bit thin, but in general, the novel really didn't feel nearly as long as it actually was. And I was entirely content to just live these people's lives along with them, wherever the author might decide to go with them.
It was also rather interesting to me because it involves places and cultures and bits of history I had only a superficial knowledge of going in, but also ended up saying things about the immigrant experience that felt very familiar to me as an American.
Pachinko’s portrayal of Korean immigrants in Japan was very interesting. Subject to extreme prejudice, their employment opportunities were severely limited. They were unable to become Japanese citizens, but political events in Korea made it impossible for them to return home. Some Koreans were able to pass as Japanese and improve their socioeconomic status, but most lived out their lives within the Korean community in Japan.
The last third of the book extends the family saga one generation beyond Noa and Masuzo, and here, it tries to do too much. New characters are insufficiently developed. Major life events are dealt with far too hastily, and the characters respond in predictable, shallow ways. Min Jin Lee throws in everything but the kitchen sink to make it clear we are now in the 1980s -- drugs, prostitutes, AIDS, pop music stars -- and it’s all just too much. Pachinko was great when it focused on Sunja, her children, and her husband’s family, and would have been more powerful had the story remained centered on those central characters.
The Japanese were never held accountable for all of the horrendous shit they did in the first half of the 20th century, and a large part of this book is
I appreciate the author's research and her numerous observations that make this wonderful novel such a pleasure to read. Highly recommend.
Pachinko begins in the early 1900s and ends in 1989, three generations later. The novel opens in Jeongda, an island off Busan, where Hoonie the fisherman is more concerned about feeding his family than the politics of colonization. His daughter, Sunja, meets a sophisticated Japanese-speaking businessman, and her innocent life is set on a new trajectory. She marries a Christian minister, who takes her to Osaka, where she and her family will live throughout the rest of the occupation period, World War II, and the Korean War. Buffeted by historical events, economic hardships, and discrimination, her children and grandchildren struggle to find success and happiness in a culture that never fully accepts them.
There was much about Pachinko that I loved. The author did years of historical research and interviews with Koreans living in Japan, and her efforts show. The plot touches on many of the events of the time without seeming forced, and the themes of assimilation, what it means to be successful, generational conflict, and being a minority Christian are handled deftly. The characters are well-developed and vivid, and I had no trouble keeping track of who was who, unlike in some family sagas. The tone was of quiet strength, exemplified by the women who held the family together. Some readers felt the last third of the book, dealing with the third generation of characters, was less interesting or engaging. I felt like it was a natural development, as the old mores gave way to foreign education and modern sensibilities. It may not have been as romantic, but it felt real.
My only quibble is that I found myself putting it down for long periods of time before picking it up again, but I think the fault lies with me not the book. If I had read it at a different time, perhaps I would have remained better engaged.
I would recommend this book.
Sunja and her family are Koreans living in Japan before, during, and after WWII. They are perennial outsiders in what is a highly insulated society, yet manage to make their way through hard work and determination. Some of her family slip away, some cling to life and make it work for them, and its not always who we might expect in either case. Some make their mark, looking past their social position to the status that success can bring.
Pachinko is very much about the expectations people have of themselves and of each other, and yes, it's very much about family. But for once I wasn't put off by the formulaic treatment inherent in a family story. Even the family members I didn't like I liked, if that makes any sense. And in the end, the story was satisfying which is all I really ask of a novel.
This story follows the life of Sunja as she gives birth to another son, Mozasu, fathered by Isak who is a loving father to both boys. She becomes a young widow when Isak is imprisoned for his Christian beliefs and dies of brutal injuries. Isak's brother, Yoseb, is deeply responsible for his family including his brother's sons and sister-in-law, but times are hard and Sunja and sister-in-law, Kyunghee, find opportunities for income by selling food. Sunja becomes aware these opportunities are made possible by Hansu, the father of Noa, her first son. Hansu, a wealthy Korean, has made his money by being involved in organized crime.
World War II devastates Japan and the family as Yoseb is severely injured at Kagasaki. Noa, a brilliant studen,t is treated poorly at school because he is Korean, but again, thanks to the anonymous help of Hansu, manages to enroll in a highly-respected university while Mozasu becomes street smart and begins work in a Pachinko parlor, a business scorned by the Japanese and Koreans alike, but one that is very lucrative.
"Pachinko" is a family story which evolves in the midst of the cultural and political climate of Koreans in Japan. Koreans who have lived in Japan for generations are still required to register, they are unable to attain good jobs or proper housing, discrimination is deep. The last chapters of the novel take place in the 1980's. Solomon, Sunja's grandson, has graduated from Columbia University in America; he is a bright investment banker, but still deep, unacknowledged prejudices toward Koreans exist when he returns to Japan.
The game of Pachinko is an apt background for this story of individuals who are shaped and limited by their backgrounds but still are responsible for the choices they make in life. This is a story of family devotion and love, disappointment and separation, pride and shame.
This was an interesting book to read. The author kept things moving and the history she recounted was largely unfamiliar. She was clearly writing for a western audience, and she took pains to explain historical events. My only complaint about the book is one that wouldn't be an issue for many readers; Lee keeps the secondary characters uncomplicated, and often the primary characters as well. They aren't complexly drawn. Admittedly, in a novel that has such a large cast of characters and which covers so much time, this is difficult to do.
One of favorites for the year!