By Lynn Willoughby
Pachinko ~ Min Jin Lee
This is an historical novel with a multigenerational cast. It begins in Busan, Korea in 1911 but the main location is is Japan. The opening line is “History has failed us, but no matter.” I was hooked!
The Korean family we follow live in Japanese occupied Korea early in the 20 century. They move to Japan years before WWII. An arranged marriage for the poor family, scratching daily to feed themselves, produces a daughter, Sunja. While her father has a club foot and a hare lip, he is a wonderful father. Their short time together leaves enough memories for a lifetime.
Now the story becomes really interesting. Sunja falls in love with a married mobster, Hansu. When she becomes pregnant, he wants her to be his “Korean wife”. She refuses. But while she is pregnant, works long hours in her mother’s boarding house where the fishermen sleep by day in the beds vacated by the factory workers who sleep there at night. When a tubercular American pastor, also staying in the 200 square foot boarding house, asks her to marry him, she says yes. They move to his brother’s home in a Korean neighbourhood of Osaka.
I liked this book. The writing was excellent and while there are a lot of characters, Sunja is the thread we follow from beginning to end. The discrimination against Koreans is unrelenting – even in the fourth generation of this family in Japan. No matter how hard they work or study, what they wear, how well they speak Japanese, they are never accepted. On the other hand, there is no Korea for them to return to. The Americans have arbitrarily divided it.
As a visible minority who are politically disenfranchised, the Yakuza (mobsters) run the Pachinko Parlours. This is one of the few options for the Korean people to find work. It is also the only opportunity to accumulate any wealth.
The locale changes several times to various parts of Japan. Of course, the atomic bombs affect the family, but they really have no home or ties to Korea. The history of stereotypical discrimination is sad and distressing, but I see again how pervasive it is around the world. We are not any wiser than we were thirty-sixty years ago.
Pachinko is a type of mechanical game origination in Japan. It is both a form of recreational arcade game and much more frequently, as a gambling device comparable to the slot machine in western gambling.