By John W. W. Zeiser
The burdens of immigrant life in Japan provide the meat of Min Jin Lee’s new novel Pachinko. Spanning five generations, Pachinko is the arresting tale of a Korean family which emigrated to Japan and is a welcome and timely publication dealing with the fraughtness of colonial and immigrant experiences. Although such scope might make one think of a sprawling, Tolstoyean narrative, Lee maintains a taut, narrow focus, unraveling the uniqueness of her characters while providing a deeply satisfying attention to detail.
Pachinko begins in 1910, the year Japan annexed the peninsula. Korea had been at the center of Japan’s quest to challenge Western hegemony in East Asia. Throughout, Lee elides much discussion of historical contexts, which reflects in many ways her characters’ own predicaments, poor, often illiterate and at the whim of social forces over which they have little control.
The first chapter is an evocative vignette that compresses the span from 1910 to 1932 and it instantly draws the reader in. We first meet Hoonie, the only surviving son of a fisherman and his wife, who run a lodging house in Yeongdo, an island village a ferry ride from the port town of Busan:
Hoonie was born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot; he was, however, endowed with hefty shoulders, a squat build, and a golden complexion…. Like his parents, Hoonie was not a nimble talker and some made the mistake of thinking that because he could not speak quickly there was something wrong with his mind, but that was not true.
When Hoonie dies of tuberculosis, his wife, Yangjin and their daughter, Sunja, take over the lodging house. It is renowned as a sparse but comfortable place, equipped with a fine kitchen. Author Lee is a food and travel writer and her attention to those kinds of details pervade the prose, providing a sense of comfort and familiarity. There are rich descriptions of simple meals or visits to the market early on, and her style is constantly grounding the reader in setting:
stacks of rice and soup bowls rested on the well-built shelves and braids of white garlic and red chilies hung from the low kitchen rafters. In the corner near the washbasin there was an enormous woven basket heaped with freshly dug potatoes. The comforting aroma of barley and millet steaming in the black rice pot wafted through the small house.
When the teenage Sunja meets Koh Hansu, a successful fish dealer from Jeju at the fish market, who defends her from the violence of Japanese school boys, the two begin a courtship that leads to an affair. One of the few shortcomings of the novel is Koh’s character. He often seems a bit too knowledgable, and is often used to move the story along to deeper, darker places. Sunja discovers Koh is married to a Japanese woman in Osaka and has three daughters, but only after she becomes pregnant. Refusing to speak about it or reveal the father, Sunja is destined to be scorned and her child left nameless for lack of father.
This devastation is the springboard for Lee to propel her characters and the reader to new and unfamiliar places: Christianity and then Japan. Baek Isak, a young, tubercular missionary from Pyongyang staying at the lodging house, is grateful for the care mother and daughter give him and he takes pity on Sunja’s predicament. Isak believes this is a test of God’s and marries Sunja in order to save her from disgrace. The price she must pay is leaving Korea for Osaka where Isak is to be the assistant pastor at a Korean church. She trades her hard but simple life for the often miserable life of an immigrant in a country that sees Koreans as at best second-class human beings and certainly not citizens.
Koreans who emigrated during the colonial period, or who were born in Japan during that time, were denied any hope of citizenship. Referred to in Japan as “Zainichi”, which means foreign visitor “staying in Japan”, these Koreans are in limbo, particularly because Korea became two countries after the war. Yet they divided themselves into the Chongryon and Mindan, reflecting the situation on the peninsula, despite few having formal citizenship from either country. Lee’s characters speak elliptically of the troubling situation in the North and simply scoff at the thought of returning to the South, which for most of the novel is one of the poorest countries on earth.
Sunja and her generation, which includes Isak’s brother Yoseb and his wife Kyunghee, remembers Korea, and they hold out hope of perhaps one day returning. In the meantime, she is prepared to do anything, bear all the racism and classism of Japan in hopes of a better life for her sons. The elder Noa and the younger Moazasu, however, have much more tortured lives in Osaka and this conflict over identity provides a vital underpinning to the narrative. Lee even doubles down on this by making the characters Christian, a group doubly at odds in Japan where there they are seen as a cult.
Most important, though, is the slippery conception of self the immigrants must face. Koreans are seen as hot-blooded criminals, prostitutes and drunks, good only for being yakuza or pachinko parlor owners, which in the Japanese estimation is the same thing. Noa, for example, is studious and takes after his adoptive father, Isak. But deep down he harbors deeply troubling feelings about wanting to be Japanese and leaving his Koreanness behind. The messages are so muddled for him as everyone around him wants for him to excel exactly to prove the Japanese wrong.
Jordan Peele’s recent blockbuster Get Out posits “the sunken place” a lovely visual metaphor of the double consciousness required to “fit in” among a largely homogenous and hegemonic group. In the case of Peele’s film it is the sacrifice of black identity required to fit into whiteness. Something similar is at work in Lee’s work as her characters wrestle with passing or not passing as Japanese and deep down the characters know that they will never be accepted.
For example, when Moazasu’s son Solomon turns 14, he, like all Koreans born in Japan after 1952, must get fingerprinted to receive an alien registration card. For readers in the anglophone world, where citizenship often rests on jus soli this may seem outrageous. It is a moving scene that fully encapsulates how it is not just individuals, but the State that heaps humiliation on immigrants. Even Moazasu in some way agrees, having given up any hope of changing Japanese minds:
Anyway, the clerk was not wrong. And this is something Solomon must understand. We can be deported. We have no motherland. Life is full of things he cannot control so he must adapt. My boy has to survive.
Deeper into the novel, as her characters go from eking out an existence to solid immigrant successes, Lee’s gaze rests longer on the trappings of comfort that come with such success. It is a good device for showing their desires to distinguish themselves in an adopted land that cares little for them:
Father and son sat down in the armchairs in the center of the large room. Baskets of fruits and bowls of nuts topped the glass and stainless-steel coffee table opposite the long low-backed sofa. A stack of today’s Korean and Japanese newspapers remained half-read.
Pachinko is a rich, well-crafted book as well as a page turner. Its greatest strength in this regard lies in Lee’s ability to shift suddenly between perspectives. We never linger too long with a single character, constantly refreshing our point of view, giving the narrative dimension and depth. Add to that her eye and the prose that captures setting so well, and it would not be surprising to see Pachinko on a great many summer reading lists.
John W. W. Zeiser is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His criticism and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of publications. You can follow him on twitter @jwwz.