After returning home from our trip to Japan, I wasn’t ready to let it go, so when I finished Memoirs of a Geisha, I turned straight to this glorious historical fiction set in Korea and Japan for solace. Not that Pachinko was a comforting read as such. There was tragedy, sadness, grief, loss and war. But there was also love, loyalty and strength of character.
Basically Pachinko is an epic multi-generational story. The consequences of a brief love affair by a young Korean girl with an older married man impacted several generations. The repercussions of the affair brought about great change and great joy as well as tremendous suffering and opportunity.
Min Jin Lee explores the nature of belonging via all her characters. I hadn’t realised how many Koreans had immigrated to Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 -1945 and how much discrimination they faced, and continue to face. After the war they were given the opportunity to move back to Korea, and some tried. But they often found that they had become so Japanese to their Korean neighbours that they were rejected. The political division into north and south Korea also prohibited the return of many former nationals. Yet they didn’t belong in Japan either.
To belong somewhere, is it country, language, culture, education, family, nature or nurture?
The Japanese call the Koreans who came to Japan during this time zainichi (foreign resident staying in Japan). They are a distinct minority group in Japan that are differentiated from even the Koreans who immigrated to Japan in the 1980’s.
The Japanese, like most countries in the world, have not readily or gracefully accepted cultures and peoples who differ from themselves. Sunja’s story highlighted all the discrimination, subtle and institutional, that this group of Koreans endured and the impact it had on individuals, families and the community as a whole.
I didn’t like the cover at all when I began the book (I preferred the prettier pachinko-style smaller format and international covers) but by the end I became quite attached to the young woman on my cover. Her stoic stare gradually revealed the pain and determination to survive in an hostile environment. And I got to wondering who was this woman and what was her story.
the Korean Japanese may have been historical victims, but when I met them in person, none of them were as simple as that. I was so humbled by the breadth and complexity of the people that I met in Japan that I put aside my old draft and started to write the book again.
It is this human complexity that she conveys so well in Pachinko.