Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Updated: Mar 22, 2020
Warning: this post contains spoilers.
Korean-American author Min Jin Lee paints a somber portrait of one Korean family living in Japan that stretches from the 1930s to 1989. There is a lot to unpack in this story — and I will try my best to analyze parts that stuck out to me the most — but my overall impression of the author's second critically-acclaimed novel is this: she does an excellent job of demonstrating how the struggle for survival transcends language and cultural barriers. Read this book if you need to flush your tear ducts.
The author and her motivations
Born in 1968, Lee spent the first 7 years of her life in Seoul. At age 8, her family moved and settled in New York. She attended Yale for undergrad and went on to graduate from Georgetown Law. After her debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, took off in 2007, she moved to Tokyo and stayed there for the next 4 years until returning to Harlem.
In writing Pachinko, it is clear that Lee wanted to give a voice to the millions of Koreans who lived in Japan during the 20th century. What is unclear (at least from the shallow digging I did into her bio) is whether this desire prompted her move to Tokyo or if it was something that stemmed from her experiences there. In either case, there was a story that needed to be told (to an English speaking audience) about a people without an identity. From the onset, you can tell that this book would not shed a positive light on Japan.
Something worth noting is that Lee has said before that she takes a lot of inspiration from the Bible, which helps explain why Christianity plays such a central role throughout the story.
Structure and Style
I do not know if this was deliberate or not, but something I really enjoyed about the book was that it felt structured like a game of pachinko. One major decision made by Sunja early on in the book cascaded in several other decisions, which then further split the timeline as the book progressed. Characters would make decisions and the ball would fall how it does.
The novel was written in third-person limited, which means the reader regularly jumps from one character's perspective to another fairly seamlessly. Lee makes use of colloquial language (e.g. her increased use of profanity during Mozasu scenes) in order to signal to the reader when a jump is happening.
The prose are not particularly flowery, but I think this was a deliberate artistic choice — rather than a shortcoming of the author's abilities — because she wants the reader to focus on the characters and their development. Although the scenes she paints are not vivid and imaginative, the dialogue is what captivates the reader. You can genuinely feel the emotions of the characters through their interactions with others. The dialogue is clearly the vehicle that Lee uses to progress the story.
I got the impression that the repercussions of a decision made by a character were less important to the story than the discussions they had along the way with other characters. Lee frequently lets months or years pass between scenes, only pausing the passage of time to focus on pivotal moments of a character's development that are illustrated through dialogue or observation.
Lee presents a few themes that I thought were especially noteworthy. Of course, this is not a comprehensive list (e.g. I do not delve into the topics of food, love, children, and filial piety).
Individualism vs uniformity
This, in my opinion, was the central tension of the book. Lee gives a particularly scathing criticism of the (traditionally labeled) Eastern value system, but she does so without rejecting the system entirely. Here are 3 such examples of where uniformity is a source of conflict in the story:
Homosexuality and mental illness. This can probably be more broadly be classified as "deviation from the norm." Haruki Totoyama recognizes he is gay early on in his life. What is a travesty is that he immediately labels himself as an outcast and hides his sexuality from everyone, including his wife. He even goes so far as to escape to the woods to pay for sexual favors. Haruki would not have to live a lie if homosexuality was more welcome in Japan at the time.
Staying on the topic of Haruki, we learn that he lives with a mentally impaired brother, who we can assume is also labeled an outcast considering he never leaves the house. While Haruki clearly loves his brother, he sees him as a burden as well. There is a really heartbreaking moment where Haruki admits he empathizes with those who commit murder and suicide because he thinks about doing it as well. Thoughts like these might not cross Haruki's mind if then-Japan was more accepting of those with mental illnesses and there was a stronger support system in place for families like Haruki's.
Marriage in a patriarchy. Baek Isak is considered a savior to Sunja's family when he agrees to marry her. And while Isak should be praised for his sacrifice and the way he treats Sunja, it is infuriating that this had to happen in the first place. She could not give her child a last name; only a man can.
Japanese disdain of Koreans. It is the blanket of oppression that suffocates every Korean family in the novel. It drives Mozasu to leave school and join the "dirty" Pachinko business, run mostly by Koreans. It forces Noa to reject his Korean identity entirely just to fit in. It is even prevalent after the war when Solomon applies for a visa to stay in the country where he was born.
While Lee frequently highlights how "uniformity in the extreme" can lead to suffering and isolation, she does not promote absolute individualism as the solution. Solomon is given the opportunity to move to the US permanently and start a life with Phoebe, which in many ways would be a symbolic victory for individualism. But he chooses not to marry her because he feels an inexplicable connection to Japan and his family there; his home is Japan, even if the country won't accept him.
This type of decision happens more than once. It is revealed at the end that Noa, who finally gets his Japanese citizenship after renouncing his Korean ties, cannot completely let go of the past and chooses to visit Isak's grave in secret every week for 16 years. Etsuko, Mozasu's Japanese girlfriend, refuses to let her daughter Hana self-destruct. She pays for Hana's abortion after years without contact and stays by her side even when Hana contracts HIV after running away for a second time.
I think what Lee is trying to convey here is that it is not as simple as packing up and moving to a different country where society is more individualistic. Abandoning family for "greener pastures" may not make a person happier even if their family lives on the outskirts of society.
This pops up in a number of different moments throughout the book. "Survival above all else" is a sentiment espoused by Koh Hansu, Yoseb, Mozasu, and Solomon's boss at least once in their interactions with other characters. Those who renounce their ideals and do what it takes to survive will be the ones who find success in the future. Lee makes no explicit value judgment about whether or not this is a good mentality to have for Koreans living in Japan, but the fates of Isak and Noa seem to suggest that it is.
It was clear pretty early on in the novel that Christianity would play a key role in most characters' lives. There is not much room for hope outside of religion and the promise of everlasting salvation. Lee really sheds a positive light on how faith can be the glue that keeps a family together during times of hardship.
This theme was more complicated than I was expecting. Early on in the book, it feels like money can solve any problem that Sunja's family has. This message is reinforced during the war as Sunja and Kyunghee deliberate over how they can help support the family. In the last third of the book, however, the message changes. Mozasu provides for his family and gives them the life they wanted all along, but for some reason it does not feel like a satisfying conclusion because they are still not accepted into mainstream society.
Here are my impressions of some characters/relationships in the book:
Sunja — Who I would consider to be the protagonist of the story outside of Mozasu. She is incredibly strong and hard working. She takes on the role of a mother early on and it defines who she is for the rest of the story. Sunja, to me, is unequivocally good and you want to see her happy.
Koh Hansu — He is easy to hate because he lied to Sunja (and cheated on his wife back in Japan), but Lee does a good job of making sure that is not the only thing that defines him. He is true to his word about taking care of Sunja even after she rejects him outright and, in multiple instances, he is the reason Sunja's family survives before and during the war. At the same time, I do not think he deserves to be painted as a hero for his actions. He has so much wealth and power that his good deeds probably did not require making major personal sacrifices.
Noa — Up until he discovered the truth about his birth, I thought Noa would carry the future of the family on his shoulders. I should have recognized that what made him special, his unwavering idealism he got from Isak, would become his fatal flaw.
Mozasu — He was incredibly lucky that Goro took him on as an apprentice. Otherwise, his scrappiness and sense of justice could have easily landed him in jail for a long time. What I really liked about Mozasu's arc was how much he matured once Yumi entered the picture.
Solomon and Hana — I loved this relationship because it made me go from furious to morose. Hana was the perfect foil for Solomon. She pulled the blindfold from his eyes to show how cruel she thought Japan could be to outsiders.
You can feel Lee's frustration when she describes the American perspective through Phoebe's arguments with her friends back home. Phoebe's vitriol for how her friends perceive Japanese people in the US suggest that this is the character Lee identifies with the strongest.
There are numerous heartbreaking scenes throughout the book, but to me, none as poignant as Yangjin's death. I interpreted her dying words towards Sunja not as regret for the life she lived, but as her fear of death. We are often motivated to push away the ones we love, especially when we fear losing them.
I understand the message Lee was trying to convey by having Noa reject his family entirely and then later commit suicide, but I still hated it. He knew English. I wanted him to finish his degree at Waseda — milking Hansu for his money — and then move to the US, never speaking to his family or Hansu again. But I guess the puzzle pieces of the world don't always fit neatly into the solution I create in my head.