The LA Book Club: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee - Arts & Culture

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko looks at the lives of displaced Koreans trying to survive in the country of their colonizers—a particularly apt read when compared to what is happening in the rest of the world right now.

In this new series, we highlight interesting pieces of literature that have lived in our brains long after reading. As we look back at these literary creations every week, we hope that your life is enriched, your perspective of what’s happening in the world is widened, and that you get to happily add one more good book to your collection.

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is an epic historical fiction novel that starts in 1883 and ends in 1989, spanning more than a hundred years. The story focuses on one Korean family through four generations, starting from Japan’s annexation of Korea, and follows them as they move to Japan, live through WWII and the atomic bombs, and try to survive as displaced Koreans.

READ ALSO: More than Hallyu: Go Literary Seoul Searching with These 6 Books on South Korea

While the family is fictional, displaced Koreans in Japan are very real. The name for Koreans (and their descendants) who immigrated to Japan during the annexation and before 1945 are the Zainichi. The Zainichi faced, and continue to face, discrimination in Japan.

The name of the book is taken from the mechanical arcade game, similar to a gambling device. It has taken on a particularly seedy image in the Japanese imagination, and because the only work available for the Zainichi was usually found in the 3D (dirty, dangerous, demeaning) industries, they usually owned and operated pachinko parlors. The family in the book themselves ends up in this business.

The LA Book Club: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
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The opening line of the book is “History has failed us, but no matter.” In a profile with The New Yorker, Lee asserts her meaning to be “[that] the people in charge are knuckleheads because regular people, ordinary people, have resisted and survived and done a lot of work-arounds.” She found herself surprised at the blasé attitude of the descendants of those Koreans who moved to Japan when she met them for research. “They’re very sturdy and strong. So I thought, Oh, well, where did that come from? And I realized it’s kind of like what Hemingway says about being broken, right? You’re stronger when you’re broken.”

The writing is engaging and propulsive. I found myself engrossed thoroughly, gripped in the lives of Sunja, the main character, and her family as they go through and try and survive every horrible thing thrown their way: loss of statehood, an unwanted pregnancy, moving to a new country that subjugates them, war, the atomic bomb, rebuilding only to watch their original nation be split in two, and her children caught between their impulses to assimilate and modernize. 

The LA Book Club: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Youn Yuh-jung as Older Sunha

I then understood that this is perhaps my favorite genre of writing: the intergenerational family story, against a backdrop of historical events in the background that serve to galvanize the plot forward. 

The racism the family experiences is racism within the same race, with one side being seen as the lesser (Korean) due to their status as the annexed country. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Japan finds they are now second-class citizens to the United States. The Zainichi then become the scapegoats. “Throughout history, we see this…I think in colonialism we have to figure out, how do you justify that these people can be treated this way? And very often it’s economics plus hatred.” says Lee to The New Yorker.

It’s hard for me not to think of current events as I read that interview and write this article. As of writing, Russia has just invaded Ukraine, a country Vladimir Putin thinks should be part of Russia, that he believes they had lost at what he perceives to be a humiliating end of the USSR. 

The LA Book Club: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Yu-na Jeon as young Sunja

I suppose it’s a timely thought to have because of current events, but I suspect I would have made the connection either way even if I weren’t writing this piece. Lee’s strength is just that: “Learning how to write stories is different from writing the facts,” she says.

Pachinko has been adapted as an eight-episode limited series on Apple TV and will start streaming on March 25. Starring Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung, Lee Minho, and Minha Kim, the trailer looks grand and sweeping, beautifully shot like everything I expected Pachinko to be.

Only two things seem to be disappointments: one, which is that the character of Noa, one of Sunja’s sons, seems to have been cut out. Noa has one of the most heartbreaking stories in the book, and perhaps he has been combined with Mozasu in an attempt to streamline the family threads. I find that disheartening: this isn’t a book that should be streamlined. It’s one of the reasons I was excited for it to be adapted as a TV series.

The other thing is that Lee had been announced as executive producer of the show. As of writing, she no longer is. She hasn’t explained why on social media (she is very active on Twitter), and has not posted the trailer at all. It may be due to such creative decisions explained above, or perhaps other things. I’m still excited, but a little less so because I can’t help but question if maybe her vision has been limited. I will, however, still be watching.

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