The New York Times Book Review: “Stunning Novel”

Home but Not Home: Four Generations of an Ethnic Korean Family in Japan


FEB. 2, 2017

PACHINKO By Min Jin Lee 490 pp. Grand Central Publishing. $27.

Min Jin Lee’s stunning novel “Pachinko” — her second, after “Free Food for Millionaires” (2007) — announces its ambitions right from the opening sentence: “History has failed us, but no matter.”

“Pachinko” chronicles four generations of an ethnic Korean family, first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, then in Japan itself from the years before World War II to the late 1980s. The novel opens with an arranged marriage in Yeongdo, a fishing village at the southern tip of Korea. That union produces a daughter, Sunja, who falls in love at 16 with a prominent (and married) mobster. After Sunja becomes pregnant, a local pastor offers her a chance to escape by marrying him and immigrating together to his brother’s house in an ethnic Korean neighborhood in Osaka. Together, they embark into the fraught unknown.

Pachinko, the slot-machine-like game ubiquitous throughout Japan, unifies the central concerns of identity, homeland and belonging. For the ethnic Korean population in Japan, discriminated against and shut out of traditional occupations, pachinko parlors are the primary mode of finding work and accumulating wealth. Called Zainichi, or foreign residents, ethnic Koreans are required to reapply for alien registration cards every three years even if they were born in Japan, and are rarely granted passports, making overseas travel nearly impossible. From a young age, Sunja’s oldest son sees being Korean as “a dark, heavy rock”; his greatest, secret desire is to be Japanese. His younger brother, Mozasu, even after he accumulates great wealth through his pachinko parlors, confides to his closest Japanese friend: “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.” Mozasu’s son, Solomon, learns this too quickly after graduating from an American university. He returns to Tokyo on an expat package with the Japanese branch of a British investment bank, then is fired once his ethnic Korean connections are no longer needed for a business deal. Still, Solomon is of a new, less wounded generation. He believes there are still good Japanese people and sees himself as Japanese, too, “even if the Japanese didn’t think so.”

Like most memorable novels, however, “Pachinko” resists summary. In this sprawling book, history itself is a character. “Pachinko” is about outsiders, minorities and the politically disenfranchised. But it is so much more besides. Each time the novel seems to find its locus — Japan’s colonization of Korea, World War II as experienced in East Asia, Christianity, family, love, the changing role of women — it becomes something else. It becomes even more than it was.

Despite the compelling sweep of time and history, it is the characters and their tumultuous lives that propel the narrative. Small details subtly reveal the characters’ secret selves and build to powerful moments. After Sunja arrives in Osaka, her modest life is underscored when she enters what is only the second restaurant of her life. When her husband, Isak, is finally cleared of trumped-up charges and released from jail looking “both new and ancient,” their oldest son is “unable to take his eyes off his father for fear he’d disappear.” Their reunion is moving yet understated: Isak simply holds his son’s hand and says: “My dear boy. My blessing.”

Dozens more characters amplify the vortex of points of views: a hostess bar girl, a farmer who has “no wish for the war to end just yet” so that he can benefit from the higher black-market prices to realize “his grandfather’s dearest wish” of buying the adjoining land. The numerous shifts are occasionally jolting, but what is gained is a compassionate, clear gaze at the chaotic landscape of life itself. In this haunting epic tale, no one story seems too minor to be briefly illuminated. Lee suggests that behind the facades of wildly different people lie countless private desires, hopes and miseries, if we have the patience and compassion to look and listen.

Krys Lee is the author of the novels “Drifting House” and “How I Became a North Korean.”

| A version of this review appears in print on February 5, 2017, on Page BR18 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Home but Not Home. Today’s Paper | Subscribe |