Thursday, July 14, 2022

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was last month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. I nominated this one both because it was on my reading list, and because my second kid read and recommended it. Unfortunately, because of how the votes fell, it ended up being discussed while I was on our epic trip to Grand Teton and Glacier national parks. I wish I had been able to be a part of the discussion, but am glad I read it in any case. 

Pachinko is one of those sprawling multi-generational epics, and nearly 500 pages long. But it is a compelling read, and the minor characters, if anything, are ones you wish you could read more about. 


The story centers around Sunja, a Korean woman, who makes a fateful decision that affects her family for generations. The book takes place mostly in Japan, from 1910 through 1989, but it starts out in Korea. 


Sunja is a teen when she is seduced by Koh Hansu, a wealthy businessman. When she becomes pregnant, she finds out that he is already married - he has a wife and daughters in Japan - and she refuses to become his “Korean Wife” - his mistress. At the time, the boarding house her mother runs has a sickly Christian minister, Isak, staying there. Isak decides to “rescue” Sunja by marrying her, and taking her back to Japan with him. She agrees, and this decision (along with her pregnancy by Hansu) ends up changing her life and those of her descendents. 


The historical setting for this is fascinating. Japan was once a colonialist power, not much different from any other in history. Many of us know about the wars between Japan and China in the 20th Century, but less familiar is that Japan reduced Korea to a vassal state, plundered its economy, reduced its population to starvation and poverty, and refused to allow ethnic Koreans to become citizens of Japan - even when they were born there. Or even if they were fourth generation immigrants. This, as always, went along with vicious ethnic prejudice, exclusion from good jobs and housing, and the usual racist shit. Humans suck. 


So, Sunja immigrates to Japan with Isak (his family already moved there to escape poverty), and has two sons. The first, Noa, is Hansu’s child, and the second, Mozasu, is Isak’s child. World War Two means great hardship for everyone in Japan (and Korea for that matter), Isak is imprisoned and eventually sent home to die (for refusing to bow to the Emperor’s image.) The family scrapes by in large part because Sunja finds ways to make money - she sells kimchi in the street. 


But then, she and her sister-in-law Kyunghee are offered a job at a local restaurant. It seems too good to be true, but they take it anyway. Later, they find out that their benefactor is Koh Hansu, who is looking out for his son. (He also continues to desire Sunja - and will even when they are both old. She continues to refuse him.) 


From there, the story follows the fate of the family over the years. The title of the book refers to a kind of pinball-like gambling game popular in Japan. Denied access to good jobs, ethnic Koreans living in Japan found success on the fringes of society - just like every oppressed minority has done throughout history. (Examples: Jews and banking, which was forbidden to Christians; the Italian mafia; and drug dealing in various impoverished communities in the first world today.) At first, it is Hansu’s business - in addition to restaurants, he runs pachinko parlors. But eventually, Sunja’s children end up in the business as well. 


Lee uses pachinko as a metaphor for the family as well. The game has a certain element of skill, but luck is really the main feature. So, the family’s fate is like that. They make the best of the opportunities they have, but so much of their destiny is driven by chance and circumstance. It is because of Hansu that they are able to survive, and eventually thrive. But because they are Korean, they will never have the opportunity to become fully Japanese, or enter industries where jobs are in practice for ethnic Japanese only, and never Koreans. Likewise, they will always be on the outside socially, just like those Japanese in the story who (or their parents) have violated social norms. 


For the Koreans in Japan, they are in essence citizens of nowhere. In Japan, they are “those dirty Koreans.” In Korea, they are “Japanese” because they are part of Japanese culture and speak that language best. In the United States (and elsewhere), they would be “Asians.” There is no place that is truly home for them. 


The book, therefore, while about a specific immigrant experience - the author interviewed dozens of Koreans living in Japan while she and her family lived there - it is also about the experience of immigrants throughout time and place. Through the lives of the characters, the book explores questions of belonging, of identity, and of rootedness. 


Also explored are the implications of living in an “honor culture.” Women in particular are brutally punished socially for violations of the cultural expectations. Sunja is looked down on for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Hansu suffers no social disapproval - his behavior is expected of wealthy men. Another woman is exiled from polite society for having an affair (or at least getting caught) and her children are forever tainted by this. Never mind that men are allowed to have affairs at will. Being associated with the pachinko business - even though it is legal, and no matter how honest the owner of the parlor is - means being called a gangster. For the Japanese, being friends with or worse intermarrying with a Korean means social shame. It’s a really fucked up system - although it is pretty familiar here in the US too, although in a different way. 


Throughout the book, the characters that hold everything together are Sunja and Kyunghee - the two women who do whatever it takes to survive, to give their children a chance at success, and to make the best of the luck they have been given. Sunja is the sort of badass matriarch many of us know personally - the ones who are usually at the heart of our own immigration stories, or the stories of our rise to the middle class. Kyunghee is a different kind of great character. She is caught between her husband (who is embarrassed that his wife has to work - it is a failure of his manhood) and her need to survive. So, she ends up playing second fiddle to Sunja, who has never let pride get in the way and never will. But Kyunghee is superb in that she accepts Sunja from the beginning, and never looks down on her for her history. Childless herself, she becomes an integral part of raising Sunja’s children and grandchildren. I can imagine so many women would have loved having such a sister-in-law. 


I love the complexity of the characters in the book. There are no villains (other than the impersonal ones - systemic racism, unjust systems, social prejudice), and everyone has human flaws and weaknesses. Everyone is trying to get by, to succeed if possible, to live, to love, to be. 


As usual, a few lines stood out. When Baek Isak first appears at the boardinghouse, the employees find him puzzling. 


“No, no. He’s not a priest. Those fellows are different. Baek is a Protes-tant. The kind that marries.”


I also like the observation about what marriage means to a woman, particularly in a patriarchal society, where women are bound for life in a way that men are not. 


“For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life - but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman - just ourselves.” 


Later, Hansu muses on the problem of humanity - the ones in power are inevitably abusive, no matter who they are. 


“People are rotten everywhere you go. They’re no good. You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let’s see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants.”


In contrast to Isak, who is an idealist, his fellow pastor and boss Yoo advises his congregation to just play along with the whole Shinto bowing and emperor veneration. After all, why should anyone sacrifice themselves to prison and death because of a meaningless ritual. Particularly as an already persecuted minority - Korean AND Christian - what was the point of just throwing more fuel on the fires of prejudice? It is an interesting perspective, and one that many minorities have adopted. (Again, see the Jews in Europe…) Whatever one might think about martyrs in general, it is important to keep in mind that, other than the ones from the Roman times, the ones venerated now tended to be white Christians killed by other white Christians. So, not exactly the same situation as that of Koreans in Japan. 


After Isak is imprisoned, the family needs money, and again, pragmatism has to win out over ideology. Isak’s brother Yoseb is frustrating, in that his fragile ego will not let him embrace the talents of his wife and sister-in-law. (Later in the book, after he is disabled in an industrial accident, he becomes embittered by his dependency. It is one of the saddest things in the book - he literally has the most devoted and kind wife ever, and he essentially cuts himself off from her emotionally and physically rather than allow his machismo to crack.) 


So Sunja had to find work. She would become a peddler. It was one thing for a woman like her mother to take in boarders and to work alongside her husband to earn money, but something altogether different for a young woman to stand in an open market and sell food to strangers, shouting until she was hoarse. 


Yoseb forbids Kyunghee to actually sell the food - that is Sunja’s job - but Kyunghee insists on doing the cooking, despite his protests. The whole thing is stupid, because they clearly need the money, and there is no reason other than social rules and male pride why the women shouldn’t do what they can. I am reminded of the absolutely toxic advice given in Christian Patriarchy circles that a woman should under no circumstances work to support the family, even if the man is laid off or is disabled. 


Later, when the restaurant job is offered, Kyunghee knows she has to take it, and she also knows that Yoseb will be angry with her for doing so. 


Kyunghee knew they had to take this job, but she knew her husband would be humiliated by it. In their marriage, he had denied her nothing except for her ability to earn money. He believed that a hardworking man should be able to take care of his family by himself, and that a woman should remain at home. 


More pragmatism is on display with Hansu, who, as a businessman who could be targeted for his ethnicity at any time, simply does what he needs to do to survive. His employee, Lee, eventually decides to go back to Korea - North Korea - where he disappears. Hansu warns him beforehand, though, that there is nothing special about Communism - it is just another opportunity for a leader to abuse those under his power. 


“But here’s the truth: there’s no such thing as a benevolent leader.”


Hansu isn’t a bad guy, honestly, despite his seduction of Sunja. He spends his life doing what he can to make it right. He also has a good bit of insight into how things work in the flawed world they inhabit, but he also transcends in his own way. His advice to Noa regarding school is something I believe as well. 


“Just study,” Hansu had said. “Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge - it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.” Hansu never told him to study, but rather to learn, and it occurred to Noa that there was a marked difference. Learning was like playing, not labor.


Later in the book, there is an interesting bit of emotional and social drama. Mozasu is tragically widowed with a small son, Solomon. He takes on a mistress, a Japanese woman who is in disgrace because of her affair and divorce from her husband. She has found success in the restaurant business, and he and Mozasu are a good match. The problem is, while he would like to marry her, she refuses, because she would bring even more social disgrace to her children by marrying a Korean. It is okay for her to be a mistress, as long as she keeps it on the down-low, but marriage would be social suicide. 


The drama comes when he buys her a fancy watch - one that is apparently what wealthy men give their mistresses. She is mortified, because she feels she is a wife, even though she cannot marry him. 


I’ll end with a pair of passages on the question of identity and belonging. Mozasu’s longtime friend, Haruki (a gay policeman who was also bullied in school with Mozasu) investigates a suicide of a Korean boy who was bullied, and he is deeply shaken. He talks to Mozasu, who shocks him by admitting he too considered suicide as a result of the bullying. Even Haruki hasn’t realized how hard it is for Koreans in Japan. 


“Listen, man, there’s nothing you can do. This country isn’t going to change. Koreans like me can’t leave. Where we gonna go? But the Koreans back home aren’t changing either. In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am. So what the fuck? All those people who went back to the North are starving or scared shitless.” 


Similarly, when Solomon turns 14, he has to be registered as an alien with the authorities, and be subject to deportation if they refuse to renew his right to live in Japan. This despite the fact that his father was born in Japan, he was born in Japan, and he doesn’t even speak Korean. 


“This is something Soloman must understand. We can be deported. We have no motherland. Life is full of things he cannot control so he must adapt. My boy has to survive.” 


Despite his deep roots, Mozasu is still called a “guest” in Japan. And his right to live there can be terminated at any time. 


I should mention that this is what the American Right Wing wants for us. To make citizenship a matter of ethnicity, not birthplace. To insist that only white people are “real” Americans, and everyone else is just a guest, subject to eviction at the will of white people. Birthright citizenship has been one of the best things about the United States, ever since the 14th Amendment was ratified. The truth of the matter is that citizenship - and who we are - has a lot more to do with circumstance than genetics. We are Americans because we are in America, not because of color of skin or ethnic background. 


Just to give an example of this, I have far more culturally in common with fellow Americans than with people of my skin color. My language, for example. Or my general cultural literacy. When I talk Shakespeare with my Mexican-American friend of 20 years, she and I share something that I do not have with a German from Berlin, even though we share ethnicity. My African-American friend and legal colleague and I share a lot from our common origin in Los Angeles - things that I find I do not necessarily share with the average white guy from Arkansas. I am an American, a Californian, and educated white collar American, and so on. The accidental fact of my skin color is one of the least important facts about me in terms of my identity (although obviously, given a racialized culture here in the US, it affects me in many ways.) 


I think this book raises a lot of questions about ethnicity and identity and belonging that are very relevant to 21st Century Americans. And perhaps seeing things at a distance, it is easier to see the stupidity and cruelty of all forms of ethnic supremacy. 


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