I read Pachinko for a book club and also for my Reading All Around the World challenge. This book was also listed frequently as one of the best of 2016. It’s about a Korean family who move to Japan during World War II. While it covers several generations of the family, it focuses on relations between Japan and Korea, and differences in the two cultures. In particular, the book focuses on the treatment of Koreans as second-class citizens in Japan.
This is a thoughtful read that minimizes drama in favor of detailed historical analysis. I will admit that as much as I appreciated the writing, I did find it a long book, and a slow one to read. But those looking for a good historical novel will appreciate Lee’s attention to detail and thoughtful character development. After I’d read the book I was happy to have a deeper understanding of the troubled relationship between the Koreans and Japanese.
Set in the time that Japan annexed Korea, the book begins in the 1910s with the birth of a young girl, Sunja, to a boardinghouse owner and his wife. Though poor, Sunja lives a good life with her family, until she is seduced by a wealthy married man and becomes pregnant. A kind but sickly young minister asks her to marry him, knowing she’s pregnant, and the two of them move to Japan to begin his career and their family.
Unfortunately, it is much harder than they expect to live in Japan, where they face discrimination and oppression. Sunja grows close to her sister-in-law, and this friendship sees her through many difficult times. She raises two sons and struggles to give them a decent life in a world where Koreans have few opportunities.
The book is named for the game of pachinko, which was wildly popular in Japan after World War II. The business of pachinko parlors helped many Koreans earn enough to survive (Wikipedia estimates that 80 percent of pachinko parlors are owned by Koreans). While some Koreans benefit, at the same time it is clearly not viewed as a respectable profession because of its ties to organized crime. In this book, it is portrayed as almost the only way for a Korean family to accumulate any wealth.
This was an excellent book, and one I’m glad I read. What I appreciated about Lee’s writing is that she focuses not just on the history, but on the development of Sunja as a person, and the difficult choices she has to make, as a woman, a mother, and a Korean. I always appreciate when characters aren’t all bad or all good, and that is very true of this novel. Even Hansu, the married man who seduces Sunja, has redeeming qualities.
However, it’s much stronger in the earlier parts of the book that focus on Sunja and her two sons. The book is weaker once the sons grow up and their children become the focus of the story. It simply becomes difficult to engage the reader fully with characters when you have to cover multiple generations. I think all books that try to cover decades of history face a similar challenge, and this book covers about 80 years. I was glad to follow the Korean history into the near-present, because I wanted a better understanding of today’s situation. Yet the story becomes difficult to follow towards the end, and the characters less sympathetic. For one thing, she brings in too many different narrators (Haruki and his wife, for example); I would have preferred to focus just on one or two characters in each generation.
Author Min Jin Lee was born in Seoul and moved to the U.S. when she was seven years old. She spent from 2007 to 2011 living in Tokyo researching this novel. I’ve read historical novels about Japan but I’ve never read one from the perspective of Koreans living in Japan during World War II and afterwards.
Challenges: this book meets the Reading All Around the World challenge (set in Japan and Korea), and it meets the Read Harder 2018 challenge (a book of postcolonial literature).