Book of the Week: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Book Six: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Min Jin Lee's Pachinko is a beautiful novel that explores the inter-dependencies and tensions between the Korean and Japanese people over the course of about four generations. I don't know how to talk about this book without simply telling the story. Our story begins with an honest and hard-working family who runs a boarding house in Yeongdo, a southern seaside province in Korea, at the end of the 19th century. The family's only child, a son named Hoonie, has a cleft palate and a club foot—genetic markers that would normally disqualify him from marriage on account of the social taboos around physical deformity. Nevertheless, the family's prosperous business makes Hoonie a good match for a farmer who has too many daughters. Hoonie marries Yangjin and, after several miscarriages and infant deaths, the couple finally gives birth to Sunja. Hoonie is an exceptionally loving father and a well-respected man in the community, but he dies young, leaving Yangjin and Sunja to run the boarding house.
When Sunja comes of age, she is courted by Koh Hansu, a wealthy Korean businessman from Japan. Deceived into believing the relationship is honorable, she becomes pregnant only to discover that Hansu already has a family. It turns out that Hansu is Yakuza, and he offers to keep Sunja and the child as his "Korean family" but Sunja refuses his money and help. At the same time, she meets Isak Baek, a boarder from the north who is on his way to Osaka, Japan, to pastor a Presbyterian church. Isak, aware of Sunja's predicament, offers to marry her and to be a father to her child, rescuing her and her mother from the shame of the pregnancy.
The Baek family establishes themselves in Osaka, where Isak eventually becomes imprisoned and martyred for his faith when it comes into conflict with Japanese emperor-worship customs. He leaves Sunja and their two sons, Noa and Mosazu, to be cared after by his brother and sister-in-law, Yosef and Kyungyee. Koh Hansu inserts himself into the family's life again by secretly arranging for well-paying jobs for the women at a local restaurant. Then, as the American bombardment of Japan picks up steam, he whisks them away to a farm, where they wait out the rest of World War II. Yosef chooses to go to Nagasaki instead to work in the factories and make money for the family. He barely escapes the bombing of Nagasaki, but he is badly burned, leaving him bed-ridden and dependent upon pain medicine for the remainder of his life.
The women find themselves once again working to support their families. Now joined by Yanjin, Sunja's mother, the women start a candy-making business. The older son, Noa, is a good student and wants to be like his father Isak. The family puts everything they have into his education in hopes that he will gain admittance to Waseda University in Tokyo. The younger son, Mosazu, is a poor student and he eventually finds employment working in the Pachinko industry. Pachinko is a gaming machine that is similar to slot machines. It has a two-edged effect on the family. On the one hand, it brings financial security and upward mobility. On the other hand, it is not a respectable business. While the Japanese love to play Pachinko, they look down on the Koreans who own and operate Pachinko businesses. They associate the Pachinko industry with the Yakuza, forever tainting the family's financial and social prosperity.
Mosazu works hard and eventually owns his own Pachinko empire, allowing him to send his only son, Solomon, to school in the United States. With a foreign education, Solomon is able to work in the Japanese banking industry, where he does well for himself until his Japanese boss takes advantage of him. Mosazu discovers the limits to his own social mobility and the enduring racial tensions that exist between the Japanese and their Korean compatriots.
There are so many significant themes to explore in this novel. First, there is an interesting dynamic at work between the Christian and Buddhist ways of thinking that dominate the characters' identity. The Christian concept of providence is at work as characters like Sunja and Mozasu seek to make sense of their setbacks and successes in life. At the same time, Buddhist ways of thinking tend to be reflected in characters like Yangjin and Noa, who attempt to understanding the meaning of their lives in relationship to family honor and shame, prosperity and suffering. For Sunja, her unwanted pregnancy is something that "God intended for good" like the biblical figure Joseph's time in slavery in Egypt. It brings Isak into her life and gives her her children. On the other hand, for her son Noa, her pregnancy becomes his undoing. His life is dominated by a cultural distinction that is made between "good Koreans" and "bad Koreans." Proud of his father Isak, he puts all of his stock in becoming a good Korean like his father. He is an excellent student, excelling at his university studies, when he discovers that his biological father is not Isak but the Yakuza boss Koh Hansu. This secret undoes him because he becomes convinced that his bloodline condemns him to being a "bad Korean." He runs away and disappears from the family, passing as a Japanese citizen until he is finally discovered and commits suicide.
Another important theme is the centrality of women to the story. At the center of every success in the family is a hardworking woman who finds a way to make ends meet; at the center of every setback is a man whose pride leads him astray. The men often exercise authority in the family; yet, the women often tend to know what is best, constantly navigating between doing what is necessary to survive and doing what is expected by their male superiors. For these women, the mantra "a woman's life is suffering" is determinative. This mantra also highlights the religious and generational differences between characters. For Yangjin, the mantra becomes a comfort and a reminder to persevere in the face of her lot in life. For Sunja, it becomes an all-determining narrative from which she must break free.
Yet another theme that is consistently at the forefront of the book is the plight of Koreans in Japan. These people are literally "perpetual foreigners." Mosazu and his son, Solomon, are both born in Japan and yet they are forced to maintain citizenship in South Korea, a country that didn't even exist when their family immigrated to Japan. Solomon can't even speak Korean, but he is forced to register as a foreigner and ask for permission to stay in the country every three years. The only way he is able to gain access to the Japanese financial world is to go to America for university and then return under the guise of being a westerner. Even then, his Korean heritage eventually is used against him and prevents his professional development. For generations, Koreans are the hard-working backbone of the Japanese economy but they are socially stigmatized and marginalized. The novel places this in the sharpest relief in the final third when Solomon brings his American Korean girlfriend to live with him in Japan. Through her eyes, we see how the power dynamics of Japanese racial identity chafe against her American ideals and how Koreans have become compliant in their own Japanese marginalization by preferring to focus all of their energy on family success and producing "good Koreans" like Solomon who might one day break the glass ceiling.
I really do think I could go on. There are more themes to explore related to sexuality and hierarchy, the relationship between self-esteem and social status and the depiction of eastern and western ways of conceiving the self (for Mosazu's wife Yumi and Solomon's girlfriend Phoebe, America becomes a cipher for freedom, de-racialization, social mobility, and prosperity), the obvious problem of Japanese colonialism and its lasting effects (comfort women, for instance).
At the end of the day, the open question is whether Min Jin Lee believes her characters to be pinballs in a Pachinko machine or characters in a narrative guided by the all-determining providence of a personal God. Either way, it seems that how the characters believe their lives to be determined makes all the difference for the lives they lead.