Book Reviews, Korean Drama Recaps, Reviews

Book Review-Pachinko By Min Jin Lee

-By Soul Sword-

Genre- Historical Fiction, Domestic Fiction.

Pachinko is a novel by Min Jin Lee. It narrates the story of Korean migrants in Japan from 1910-1989. The author has based the story on the accounts of Korean migrants in Japan. The timeline is depicted in detail and experiences of the characters are vivid. The reader is transported back in time and taken through the timeline along with the characters.

The book is divided into three parts- Hometown, Motherland and Pachinko. It depicts the life of a Korean migrant family throughout 4 generations.

There are quite a few main characters in this novel and every one of them adds to the substance of the story.

Generation I

The story starts with a fisherman’s family in Yeongdo (an islet near Busan). His son Hoonie marries Yangjin and they have a daughter Sunja. After Hoonie’s death, the mother and daughter continue to run a boarding house to make their living.

Generation II

Sunja (the protagonist) is 16 years old when she gets pregnant out of wedlock. She breaks up with her lover Koh Hansu when she finds out that he is a married man with three children. In fear of her daughter being outcasted, Yangjin gets Sunja married to Pastor Baek Issac(from Pyongyang), who is on his way to Japan to live with his elder brother Yoseb. Sunja vows to remain faithful to her husband Baek Issac who had decided to give the unborn child his name.

Koh Hansu is a Korean fish broker who lives in Japan. He meets Sunja at a Korean fish market and has an affair with her. When Sunja says she is pregnant he offers to maintain a family with her in Korea. He is unable to divorce his wife due to circumstances revealed later in the book. He is present in Sunja’s life though Sunja doesn’t entertain his presence and he shows interest in her welfare right until the end. 

Baek Issac is a pastor from Pyeongong and chooses to marry Sunja after learning that she is pregnant out of wedlock.

Yoseb is Baek Issac’s elder brother who lives with his wife Kyunghee in Ikaino, Osaka Japan. He takes pride in being the head of the family and works hard to run the family. He invites Baek Issac and Sunja to stay with them. His wife Kyunghee is a pleasant and accommodative woman who behaves like a sister to Sunja.

Generation III

Noa is Sunja and Koh Hansu’s son. He grows up in Japan among racism but he keeps this from his family. He feels he can overcome racism/discrimination by excelling in his studies. Noa is smart and brainy and works on the side to make money for his higher education. He learns very early that it is next to impossible to live a normal life as a Korean migrant in Japan. Noa tries to hide the fact that he is Korean and he pretends to be a Japanese. Due to unforeseen circumstances he breaks up with his Japanese girlfriend Akiko and finds himself working at a Pachinko parlour (Pachinko is a type of mechanical game originating in Japan and is used as both a form of recreational arcade game and much more frequently as a gambling device) as a bookkeeper, which is nowhere near his dream job. Later on, he marries his Japanese colleague Risa and has 4 children. 

Mozasu is born to Sunja and Baek Issac. A stark contrast to his half-brother Noa, Mozasu is a free spirit and shows no interest in studies. He finds a friend in the Japanese boy Haruki. Mozasu fights racism by throwing punches. At one point, when things get out of hand he starts working for Goro (who later becomes his mentor) at his Pachinko parlour. Mozasu does well in his business and goes on to become very successful and rich. Mozasu falls in love with Yumi, a Korean seamstress and marries her. He is a doting father and he does everything in his power to give his son Solomon a good life. In the later part of the book, after his wife’s death, Mozasu starts seeing Etsuko, a Japanese woman and later marries her.

Generation IV

Solomon is Muzasu and Yumi’s son. Born into a Korean migrant family which is well off, Solomon is brought up in a loving atmosphere where the elders try to provide him with the best facilities available. Solomon’s first girlfriend Hana who happens to be Etsuko’s daughter breaks up with him before he leaves for America to pursue his higher education. Solomon meets Phoebe in America. He completes his education and procures a job in Japan. He moves back to Japan with a dream of continuing his life in there.

Throughout the novel, it was very interesting to see the thought process and priorities change with every passing generation. The problem that each generation faced differed over time and that has been penned very well.

The first generation migrants had a dream of returning to their motherland one day. Sunja’s generation is the first generation of Korean migrants, in Japan. Keeping a shelter over their heads and surviving was considered a luxury by itself and they didn’t dream of anything more. Sunja, Kyunghee and Yoseb work hard to make ends meet. They don’t have dreams of their own and they try to give a better life for their children. Violence against migrants is a common occurrence during this period.

The next generation faces racism while growing up as children. Getting an education is a top priority here. It is common to see them trying to hide their family background. Here the migrants are seen trying to blend in with the Japanese culture and pass off as Japanese. Though it is impossible to get away with it, they still try. They find jobs which make money (usually Pachinko parlours) so that they can provide for the next generation. They try to set a strong footing in society. 

The generation following them is well provided for. With the support of the generation before them, they live a normal life as the Japanese do. This generation dreams of career, love etc. But, they face the fact that no matter how much they try, the migrants are and will be always seen as outsiders and the stereotype still exists. The society knows and remembers their roots and racism finds its way through no matter how well off they are. 

The women in this book are strong, hardworking and resilient. The determination of the women stands out throughout the novel. Sunja is a plain-looking woman and that doesn’t reduce her strength. The novel reiterates that physical beauty of a woman is nothing when compared to an emotionally strong woman.

Sunja is a character that sticks with the reader right till the end. She lives with what is given to her without any complaints. She is a loving mother and a devoted wife. Now and then, Sunja reflects on her past and one gets to know her thoughts. Sunja’s decisions and actions brings the family a long way.

The book has a fast pace and moves through the timeline swiftly. As Sunja’s tough life progresses through the timeline one has to remind themselves that she is getting old. Though she is in her early 70s at the end of the book, one still remembers her as the young woman walking through the streets of Yeongdo island or the determined woman who sells Kimchi at the market in Osaka.

Through Sunja’s point of view, we see Koh Hansu, the only main character who isn’t a part of their family, but very much a part of their lives. Koh Hansu lived in Japan long before Sunja did. As a child, he was adopted by a rich Japanese moneylender. He has connections with Yakuza (Yakuza, also known as gokudō, are members of transnational organized crime syndicates originating in Japan.) 

He seems to be well aware of how things function in Japan. He comes across as influential and powerful. Unlike other characters for whom there is a clear background, Hansu’s character is mysterious as he pops in now and then in Sunja’s life. He knows how to get things done using his connections. Hansu is keen on keeping Sunja’s family safe. Sunja believes the reason Hansu is in touch with her is that he wants to get to know his son.

Hansu’s moral compass doesn’t point due north. He is not a patriot but a businessman. His is loyal only to himself. Hansu’s appearances are brief but essential to the storyline, as it is in these scenes where the reader learns about what is going on in other parts of the world, the plight of Koreans back home and the harsh reality of the situation. Towards the end, the powerful Hansu reflects on his past and one learns how much authority/power he really had over his own personal life.

There are some Japanese characters who are a part of the Korean characters’ lives. Some of them are friendly and loyal while most of them are distant and emotionless.

The book also touches upon the effect World War II had in Japan.

Pachinko is a very good narrative of 80 years of history packed in 530 pages. It keeps the reader hooked with its crisp storytelling. It wastes no time in getting clear details across to the reader.

 It is bound to shock the reader now and then with some of its harsh realities faced by the migrants. It ends up showing how the brutal violence against migrants has reduced slowly to what is now called as racial discrimination and bullying. The significance of the title is revealed later in the book as most of the Korean migrants are associated with the Pachinko parlours one way or the other. It also talks about the Yakuza and their reputation in the society.

The first generation migrants had a dream of returning to their home their motherland. They didn’t realise that the dream is slowly fading away and the generations to follow will not have a home back in Korea but a hostile country which hates them equally as the Japanese do. At one point, the migrants find themselves stuck between a country which discriminates them and their motherland which no longer wants them. Korea’s independence did not affect the lives of the migrants. Pachinko sees Sunja’s family starting from scratch attempting to build a home in Japan. They do well financially and match up to the Japanese but sadly the same can’t be said about equality in the society. The same applies to the migrants in many parts of the world.

I rate this this book 4.8/5

Pachinko is being adapted to a series on Apple TV plus starring Lee Min-ho (Boys Over Flowers, The Heirs), Jin Ha (Devs, Love Life), Anna Sawai (Fast & Furious 9, Giri/Haji), Minha Kim (Call, After Spring), Soji Arai (Cobra Kai, Legacies) and Kaho Minami (Angel Dust, Household X). 

-By Soul Sword-

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