This review is intended for persons who have already finished at least 75% of the book and discusses major themes without major spoilers.
What could be a better analogy for the lives of her characters? For life at large?
“Pachinko” by Lee Min Jin, a historical fiction surrounding one family through four generations, opens a dialogue about racism, colonialism, discrimination and generational trauma through an East Asian lense. Somewhat more subtly, she also creates a conversation surrounding struggle and the meaning of suffering. She challenges cultural pride, responsibility and what is important in life. True to her characters and the setting of the piece, she does not inject her own opinion through the plot but instead leaves questions and thought-jerking plot twists to urge the reader to ponder for themselves. Lee’s style stands out from other authors through her ability to keep the context centre in the story without revealing too much or catering to a Western, white-American gaze. Her and her editors include just the right amount of anglicised terminology to intrigue, reference and educate about the culture without leaving her readers completely lost at sea.
The most profound of them, perhaps, is suffering and perspective; the connection to survival and the role it plays in our lives. Lee discusses suffering through her characters and leaves their suffering widely unresolved. Their ends or outcomes are results of an ununiform draw, a chance. The way life often is. The title Pachinko is a reference to a Japanese form of gambling-like slot machines where the owners of the “Pachinko Parlours” fix the results of the machines every morning to produce different results. “The minuscule adjustments he made were sufficiently frustrating enough to the regular customers who’d studied the machines before closing hours for better payouts in the morning, yet there was just enough predictability to produce attractive windfalls, drawing the customers back to try their luck again and again” (page 249). What could be a better analogy for the lives of her characters? For life at large?
Life, for both the rejects and Koreans in Japan, was like Pachinko. The game was methodological enough to keep people trying to win, but ultimately rigged, set beforehand and uncontrollable to the players. There was a small chance that you could succeed in the game, but no matter how diligent or able you were at the play, your chances were slim. Lee goes on to explain the connection of pachinko and her choice for the title by saying, “For me, the pachinko business and the game itself serve as metaphors for the history of Koreans in Japan-- a people caught in seemingly random global conflicts; as they win, lose, and struggle for their place and for their lives.” (page 481).
Yoseob & Kyunghee
Yoseob and Kyunghee were “nobility” from Pyeongyang, the current capital of North Korea.
Their resilience and adaptation to their new reality was perhaps our first real example of suffering in the book. Unlike Sunja, who was used to work, or Isak who was wanting of nothing, Yoseob and Kyunghee had to relearn what it meant to live and create new identities for themselves. Yoseob, in particular, suffered from the beginning to the end, feeling alone and tortured by the life his reality forced him to live. “There were so many things he [Yoseob] failed to do. There were even more things he should never have done. He thought of his parents, whom he should never have left; his brother, whom he should never have brought to Osaka; and he thought of the job in Nagasaki he should have never taken. He had no children of his own. Why did God bring him this far?”
Yoseob was simply functioning under the social norms of his background, just as Sunja had when she chose not to be supported by Hansu. Despite my almost immediate frustration and distaste for Yoseob, I cannot deny his intentions and the innocence of his character. All he had wanted was to be near his family, and to support them like his father before him. Was that too much to expect from his life? They say the good die young and the evil is left to rot. My interpretation of this old saying is that those who grip life and expectations in their fist will be left hanging in sufferation. Those who are open to the rough waters of the sea will let themselves be washed away. In terms of the family’s Christian faith- Yoseob was worldly. He wanted worldly things to be produced through his own hands and ignored the fate of God. He made his bed and would be made to lay in it too, for years.
Kyunghee, a calm martyr who embodied the ideal of the perfect wife. One who was pure, kind, beautiful and loyal. Her needs came second to her husband, and her glow kept dim by the patriarchal needs everyone else expected from her. Kyunghee loved her husband in the way that all good wives do, with respect. Yoseob’s plight is inseparable from Kyunghee’s as she upkept her dignity and noble heritage the same as Yoseob by becoming his shadow. It was a choice that Kyunghee made, and despite the likability of her character, in the grand scheme of things, Yoseob and Kyunghee were one throughout this book. Despite whatever sufferation, they held onto their status and identities and in the process lost their ability to take care of their parents, their family and remain childless (all the pillars of a feudal upper-class home.
Sunja, the first character we hold dear, was born to a working-class family who believed in being respectable, and honest. Their simple family knew not of selfishness and lived quietly and diligently. Sunja’s heart was soft and open because the cards she had been dealt with had always shown her kindness. Things were rough, but things were plain and providing. She knew not how to be suspicious of a seemingly honest man. She knew not how to be suspicious of Isak or of his new family or their new land. Sunja was simple and strived for her simple pleasures.
Sunja’s burden was also her greatest gift, Noa. Had she not believed in Hansu, she would have never had her first son, and she would never have had her second. She and her mother would have likely died in Busan or been sold as comfort women. Yet, the very blessing that God had sent her became her single transgression in life. Her passion for Hansu was unforgivable, and her child was born with dirty blood.
“You brought shame on your child by having that an as his father. You caused your own suffering. Noa, that poor boy came fro a bad seed.”
“If Noa didn’t have a chance, then why did I suffer? Why should I have even tried? If I’m so foolish, if I made such unforgivable mistakes, is that your fault?”
In Pachinko, you can try your best, but in the end, the results are fixed and the chances are always low. That, evidently, doesn’t stop us from trying… there is just enough methodology and hope to keep us going. Sunja spent the entire first half of the book trying to atone for her mistake, staying away from a man she clearly had passion for, and giving everything she had for her family and most importantly her sons. As a response to her guilt, and out of motherly love she shielded Noa from any doubt in his potential and his worth. In the end, her efforts backfired and the suffering compounded.
“[Sunja] had suffered to create a better life for Noah, and yet it was not enough. Should she have taught her son to suffer the humiliation that she’d drunk like water? In the end, he had refused to suffer the conditions of his birth. Did mothers fail by not telling their sons that suffering would come?”
Mozasu and Solomon most greatly represent the zainichi in this book as they are Korean ethnicity, born and raised in Japan. Perhaps these two characters are actually the focus of the book because everyone else has been a historical build-up to the current issues still affecting the zainichi today. The running, cruel joke of this novel is that for a Korean, all roads lead to Pachinko. Noa, Mozasu and Solomon all end up being a part of pachinko ultimately, as results to their very different lives. “...nearly every Korean-Japanese person I met in Japan had some historical connection or social connection with the Pachinko business; one of the very few businesses in which Koreans could find employment and have a stake,” Lee said, commenting on her choice in centring this theme.
By this point in the book, suffering takes on a new meaning. It is dull, it is weathered and it is familiar. Do these Koreans who have lived through discrimination for their entire lives know anything but? But lives continue, suffering becomes a part of you. Your identity is somewhat linked with your suffering. You’re not even sure if you’re you without it. We see this especially with Solomon’s ultimate decision to stay in Japan and work in Pachinko. Solomon, unbeknownst to himself, had an affinity to Japan and his home was clearly in Japan. He couldn’t explain this to Pheobe, largely because I don’t think he had the ability to. I think it was something deep in his stomach that he didn’t have the words to even explain to himself. There was Japan, there was discrimination. He was a foreigner in his own country, and he didn’t know how to be anything else? The was...dare I say it… pride. His suffering became his pride.
This book has us coming full circle. From the shame of deformity being outshined by character, the miracle of childhood shrouded by shame, and the eventual formation of pride through shame. My ultimate take away from this book is that life is far from black and white. That morality and concepts of "just" are truly in the eyes of the beholder and are learnt and upkept to the unfounded success or detriment of a person. That suffering is as beautiful as it is painful. That we decide how we process the things in our lives, and ultimately our decisions, as carefully as we make them, as convinced as we may be, are still at the mercy of societies pre-set pins, in the big and often unforgiving game of Pachinko.
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