“History has failed us, but no matter.” Min Jin Lee opens Pachinko with a puzzlingly simple statement that ultimately encapsulates the powerful five-generation saga that unfolds within the book’s pages.
Set in 20th-century Korea and Japan, the book follows Sunja, the only surviving child of a family of Korean peasants. Young and immature, she falls for a wealthy and dangerous gangster, Koh Hansu, and wishes to marry him. But after finding out about his pre-existing marriage and wife, she is overcome with shame. She instead marries Baek Isak, a protestant minister, and the two immigrate to Japan to escape poverty and humiliation. Arriving, they find lodging in the slums of Ikaino and are stuck at the receiving end of a world war that threatens their lives. While facing violent discrimination, they must find ways to survive, reform their own identities, and raise their children. Tragedy, triumph, and everything in-between play out as they navigate a world that insists on separating them and a history intent on erasing them.
Pachinko is deeply rooted in the history of Zainichi Koreans (Koreans living in Japan) in the 20th century; therefore, its context must be explained. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea and began its imperialist brutalizing of Korea’s people and resources. Thousands immigrated to Japan to escape poverty and militaristic cruelty. These people became known as Zainichi, and a complicated history of discrimination and resentment began to take root between them and their host country.
Consequently, the book’s predominant theme is that of racial discrimination and identity. Microcosms of discrimination are littered throughout the lives of each character. For example, Yoseb, Isak’s elder brother, works as a factory manager but receives less pay than the Japanese workers whom he oversees. Mozasu and Noa, Sunja and Isak’s sons, struggle to cope with relentless bullying and slurs at school. Furthermore, Lee goes to great lengths to show how racism is prevalent through the ages. Solomon, Sunja’s grandson, works as a banker in New York City and leads a prosperous and affluent life. But after closing a massive deal, he is fired by his Japanese boss for vague reasons, and is left to contemplate whether it was his nationality that led to his dismissal.
A significant portion of Pachinko chronicles the divergent lives of Noa and Mozasu, Sunjua’s sons. Isak taught Noa the importance of pacifism and of enduring hardships, while Mozasu grew up without these ideals. Their disparate upbringings are reflected in the way they confront their common identities. As the two grow up, Noa bets everything on his studies and attempts to enter Waseda University in the hopes that a prestigious education would lead people to overlook his Korean heritage. However, Mozasu embraces the insults that people levy at him, proud to be known as a ‘bad Korean.’ Their opposite responses to cultural alienation depict the surprising and daring actions that the alienated take in an effort to find their place in the world.
Pachinko, where the book draws its title, is a Japanese gambling game similar to pinball, but one in which strategy is absent. The game itself is a motif for the lives of the characters. In the grand scheme of geopolitical chaos, their sorrows and happiness are dictated by the whims of chance rather than their skill at playing the game of life.
Despite this, their stubbornness remains aloft. No matter how cruel the game becomes, they trudge forward, a mentality that serves to relentlessly drive the narrative forward. This sublime dynamic is summed up here, “There could only be a few winners, and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones.”History is not indiscriminate; suffering is told, or it is not. The stories of the oppressed, their oppressors, and those in-between can easily fade into the forgotten corners of time. In Pachinko, suffering is not forgotten, but interpreted with an artfulness and vigor that is rare to find in literature. Lee ultimately convinces us of her words, “We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly.” In remembering the suffering of these people, we see how their stories relate so closely with ours.