Historical family saga novel about Japanese occupation of Korea
Content warning: suicide, HIV
I have heard a lot about this book and so when a copy made its way to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s Great Book Swap I hosted at work last year (go team Yirrikipayi!), I snaffled it up. This year is the 10 year anniversary of this incredible fundraising event, so make sure you sign up (using appropriate social distancing, of course). This is another book that has waited patiently on my shelf for a while, and ticks the box for two reading challenges I’m doing this year: the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge and #StartOnYourShelfathon.
“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a historical family saga novel that spans from 1910 to 1989 in what is now known as South Korea and Japan. The book begins with the birth of Hoomie, a stoic, sensible man with two visible disabilities in a south-eastern seaside village in Japanese-occupied Korea. As the story progresses, the focus shifts to his young, pragmatic wife Yangjin and their beloved daughter Sunja. Seduced by an older, wealthy man, when Sunja discovers he is married, she is determined to forget him and raise their child alone. However, when a young Christian minister called Isak boarding at their home offers a solution, she travels with him to Osaka, Japan to start a new life. There, the reader meets Isak’s brother and sister-in-law, and we watch Sunja, her children and her children’s children unfurl in a country that, decades on, looks down on ethnic Koreans.
This book is a very compelling read and particularly in the beginning hooks you in. Lee has done exceptional research and the settings and era are fully realised, particularly through food, clothing and cultural norms. I have never been to Korea (and sadly had to cancel my honeymoon to Japan), but I had a number of Korean friends and classmates when I was in high school. A beautiful and unbelievably sweet Korean friend who only studied with us for a year had a similar facial difference to Hoomie. Lee’s exploration of how stigma associated with visible disability, intellectual disability and mental illness impacts not only the individual concerned, but their parents, children and even grandchildren, especially in relation to marriage prospects, gave me so much more understanding of what my friend must have gone through growing up.
I had another classmate who people used to say was part Japanese, was in gangs and had connections with yakuza. Reading this book really unpacked some of the meaning in this kind of talk for me, and how precarious the position was for Koreans who stayed in Japan after the war and ingrained racism became for these people who were no longer as Korean as the people left behind, but also not Japanese enough to be recognised as citizens. Disadvantage is something that marks Sunja’s family – evolving from poverty to racial discrimination. Even after Sunja’s children and grandchildren manage to claw their way to success, they are still marred by their ethnicity and for some, the knowledge that they will never be Japanese is too heavy a cross to bear.
I think one of the most interesting things about this book is it is only the second book I have ever read about a non-Western nation colonising another. I think these stories are incredibly important because it is a Eurocentric idea that the only examples of colonialism were Western examples, and because these themes of power imbalances, direct discrimination, stereotypes and structural inequality are universal themes that still play out around the world today. The title of this book, pachinko, was absolutely perfect. It references a key industry for several of the characters, but it also captures the struggle of trying everyday to win success in life when so much is left to chance and overnight someone tampers with the machine in such a succinct metaphor.
However, there were a few things about this book that I wasn’t completely supportive of. Lee introduces an ensemble cast, and the story skips from one character to another, highlighting a lot of the various social issues they are exposed to. As is tempting in a book of this magnitude, I think there were times where Lee tried to include too many things. Some of the stories As strong a proponent I am for inclusion, the parts of the book that deal with same-sex attraction felt gratuitous and lacking in the depth accorded to their heterosexual counterparts. I felt that while Lee very convincingly describes the situations her characters found themselves, I would have liked a little more development of the reasons why her characters found themselves there. Lee writes about suicides, and perhaps this is me showing some ignorance about the significance of cultural belonging in Japan, but I felt that the reasons weren’t expounded upon enough.
Anyway, a gripping book about a very important part of history in which it was occasionally a little difficult to see the forest for the proverbial trees.