Book Review — Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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This afternoon I finished the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Lee is a Korean American writer who has written for organizations like the New York Times, the London Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Pachinko is an epic historical novel of a family saga set in Korea and Japan which took place between 1910 and 1989 — about 80 years.

As someone who is not a great reader of fiction, I was attracted to this book because of the reviews I got about the details it reveals about Korea-Japan relations. And I finished reading the book feeling like I know a lot about the interaction between these two.

One of the things that jumped at me reading the novel is that while a lot of Nigerians like me would not be able to correctly differentiate a Korean from a Japanese, you would be surprised to know that the discrimination against Koreans by Japanese is quite pronounced. Because Japan brutally colonized Korea for 35 years, a great event which defines modern Korea, Koreans were treated as second class citizens in their own lands, and while it was still economically better for Koreans who got jobs in Japan, they had to endured immense legal and social discrimination.

Even for fourth and fifth generation of Koreans in Japan, the discriminatory word “Zainichi” which means “foreign resident staying in Japan” was (and is still) used. The author mentioned (in the acknowledgement) a story of a middle school boy who was bullied in his yearbook because of his Korean background. Because of this taunting, the boy jumped off a building and died.

The novel itself details the life of Sunja and her family for four generations. How her father labored to get married and give birth to her before he died of a minor ailment. How a Japanese in Korea took advantage of her and got her pregnant. How a Korean Christian minister took her as his wife despite her pregnancy and then took her to Japan. The stories of her children and her grandparents rounded up the narration.

I greatly enjoyed the stories of Sunja’s parents and her own stories in Japan. In Japan, they were considered unwanted. They were jobs they could never have and it was illegal to rent houses to them, so Koreans lived in slums. This discrimination did not stop in Sunja’s generation. When the first of her grandchildren, born in Japan, turned fourteen (14), he had to go to the government’s office to register in order to continue his stay in Japan. The boy would continue to seek this permission every 3 years, or else risk being ejected from the country. It was almost impossible for them to get Japanese citizenships. This was as early as the 1970s.

When Sunja’s son went away to another part of the country and disguised as a Japanese, he got a good job and married wanting to strip away anything that could remotely identify him as a Korean. He wanted desperately to fit into the culture so much so that when his mother traced him to the new location after many years of searching, he shot himself rather than allow his new family risk knowing he is Korean. Tragic.

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Reading about cultural difference between generations of Korea was unbelievably familiar. I will mention a few.

The male child:

“…the widower, cursed with four girls and no sons.”


“A woman should always have something put by. Take good care of your husband. Otherwise, another woman will. Treat your husband’s family with reverence.”

“All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer — suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother — die suffering.”

The poverty of much earlier generation of Koreans:

“Yangjin pushed the tray of money toward him. If he still said no, then she would march into every rice shop in Busan so her daughter could have white rice for her wedding dinner.”

The influence of Christianity:

“The way Isak had explained it, when it was time to be with the Lord, your real body would be in heaven, so what happened to your remains didn’t matter. It made no sense to bring a buried body favorite foods or incense or flowers.”

I learned a great deal reading this book.

Yet for all the accolades I got that prompted me to read this book, I could not help thinking that it’s not as advertised. The book was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award for fiction.

It was too long. I would not have finished this book save for the audio book I downloaded from YouTube. If you ask me, the novel should have ended in the third quarter as it became tedious reading her repeat the Japanese discrimination of the Koreans and the unnecessary homosexual encounters — stories that didn’t relate to the central plot.

It was also no surprise that in an attempt to continue writing, Lee delved more and more into new characters. I sincerely didn’t care about the stories weaved into the new characters as they were not as engrossing as earlier characters, and therefore was not surprised that these characters died off or disappeared as quickly as she added them.

How it ended is so disappointingly abrupt and you cannot help but wonder if she was also tired of writing, which is a shame considering how it started. To be fair, she spent decades completing this book so it could mean that she didn’t cohesively connect them.

For a book that started with the best line I have read in any book this year — History has failed us, but no matter — I could not help thinking that she does disservice to the book by ending indecisively. The compassion I felt in the first 200 pages of this book overwhelmed me and ending the way it did is unfortunate.

Still, I recommend it to history buffs like me, especially those interested in knowing how Japan shaped modern Koreans.

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