Book Review: Pachinko


When I read Pachinko , I discovered that experiences about immigration, integration, stigma, and racism are more or less the same around the world, no matter the country. I also discovered that every country which was once a colonial power faces the same challenges when it comes to integrating the people they colonized into their own. This book is a work of fiction based on historical facts. It is taking place in Korea and Japan, but it is relevant to anyone coming from “somewhere else” and trying to integrate into a new society.

Pachinko. A betting game, very popular in Japan. A business, mostly handled by the mafia. The only way for Zainichi to have a career and make money.

“Zainichi” ? The Korean ethnic minority in Japan.

Once upon a time, at the beginning of last century, Japan had expansionist and colonialist views. As a result, Korea was annexed, and made part of Japan. Some Koreans decided to immigrate to Japan, and became Zainichi (which literally means “foreigner”). Pachinko follows the story of one such family. Leaving Korea behind, where they had family, business, and their own land and home, Sunja and her Korean Christian husband, pastor Issak Baek, arrive in a place where they are regarded as second class citizens and parked in dirty ghettos. Still, they make do with what they have, and work hard.

The story spans over almost a century, covering three generations. History affects them, and through Sunja’s family, we are able to understand how their daily life is impacted by what’s happening “outside”. After the end of World War II, Korea was “liberated”, the southern part by the US army, and the northern part, by communists. And so the partition of the Korean peninsula happened, Pyongyang becoming the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, and Seoul of South Korea.
The status of Koreans in Japan thus became a grey zone. They were not Japanese anymore, but were they North Korean or South Korean? Or neither? Some of them decided to go back home. But what did it mean exactly? The Korea they had left behind, although poor, was a beautiful country. Some of them had land, businesses, and families. What would they find upon their return?

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Some of Sunja’s female friends return to South Korea with a promise of getting a job in a factory. But instead, we understand that they were lured and served as “comfort women” for the Japanese army (women forced into prostitution for the Japanese soldiers). A male friend decides to go back to what has become North Korea, and we never hear about him, ever again.
Pachinko tells the story of how Korea was once one, how Pyongyang was a beautiful and cultured city. It tells a story of being torn apart, between a life well established in a country where one will never really be accepted, and the desire to go back to something that isn’t anymore.

Sunja is the main character, the matriarch. Her destiny is linked to two Korean men: Hansu, the handsome Korean yakuza (Japanese Mafioso) who fathered her first born; and Isaak, the cultured and frail Christian Korean missionary who marries her to save her from the shame of being an unmarried mother, and takes her away to Japan. From these two men, she has two children with two very different destinies: Noa, who works hard to integrate into Japanese society and even disguises his name into Nobuo; and Mozasu (Moses), the good-for-nothing son, who embraces running a pachinko to make money, and will thus become a typical Zainichi.

The character of Noa was very touching. He believed that by working hard, he could pass as Japanese and stop suffering from racism. At University, his Japanese girlfriend thought she was open-minded because she was dating him – just a way to feel cool and not racist, but actually pretty much the contrary.

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The young generation is neither from here not from there. At 14 years old, they have to register as Zainichi at their local police station. It is like a rite of passage, but a sad one. A reminder that they don’t belong. When they finally manage to get a passport and travel “home”, South Koreans regard them as Japanese, and they feel, again, that they don’t belong.

This book tackles lots of issues specific to the situation of Zainichi, but I had the feeling that many people born from foreign parents in a third country could understand and identify as well. This is a universal feeling.

I liked the writing style. Chapters are short, and written from different perspectives depending on the character we follow. Being a saga, the book has a lot of characters, especially towards the end when most of the “old” characters are still alive but their grand children start having kids themselves.

Issues dealt with in the book are numerous and range from identity, immigration, family, history, farming, the Church, faith, the Yakuza, homosexuality, bullying, cultural misunderstanding, and many more.

The topic was very dear to Min Jin Lee. I appreciated the research she did, as her descriptions of the Zainichi ghettos as well as the trouble they face in their everyday lives is very thorough.. Again, I had the feeling that despite being specifically about Zainichi, many feelings and situations would resonate with readers from other ethnic background. In my country of France, people from Northern Africa were also parked in such insalubrious parts of town; it is also difficult to rent or buy property, and access to the job market is more difficult for people of colour.

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The book received very good reviews when it was published. On top of being well written and researched, it is the first time that the Zainichi issue is dealt with outside of Korea. Many outside of the Korean communities, know little about the Zainichi. Min Jin Lee, the author, was born in Korea but grew up in Queens, in New York, USA. Thanks to her book, Zainichi are now in the spotlight, and the outside world knows about their history and conditions.

This book was an eye opener for me, as I knew next to nothing about the recent history of Korea, and even less about Zainichi. It is a great read for anyone who is interested in Asian history, but also for people who take an interest in issues such as immigration and integration.

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