i-D book club: pachinko

Fall in love with this grand, emotional soap opera about the Korean diaspora in Japan spanning four generations.

by Dean Kissick
13 March 2017, 4:25pm

In recent times South Korean culture has been booming in the west, from its pop music to its fashion industry to its movies, and now books. Han Kang's distressingly weird novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize last year and her latest, Human Acts, is out now. As is Korean-American author Min Jin Lee's second novel, Pachinko: a grand, emotional soap opera about the Korean diaspora in Japan spanning four generations.

Pachinko begins in the 1910s in a small fishing village outside of Busan, in Japanese-occupied Korea, with the arranged marriage of Yangjin and the birth of her daughter Sunja. When Sunja is sixteen, she goes foraging for wild mushrooms in the woods with an older man and falls pregnant. Although she wasn't aware of it at the time, he is married and an important figure in the Japanese yakuza. But her shame is spared, or at least hidden, when a visiting Christian pastor offers to marry her and moves her away to Osaka, Japan. Sunja has a son named Noa with the yakuza and a son named Mozasu with the pastor, and the lives of this family and those around them are told over five hundred pages. Writing with absolute clarity, Lee allows a small cast to snowball and a simple tale to become elaborate and polyphonic over the course of the century.

At first there is a constant struggle for food and money. Later that particular struggle will pass, but the younger generations have problems of their own. Noa wishes he was Japanese and carries "the story of his life as a Korean like a dark, heavy rock within him." He finds himself caught in a place where he's always thought of as foreign, even by a girlfriend fighting his corner:

"She would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as only Korean - good or bad - was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human."

His little brother Mozasu is also snared in the trap between nations - "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?" - but has no interest in pretending to be something else or in playing the meek and too-humble role of a "good Korean" far from home. Growing wary of nationalism, he wonders, "What do we Koreans have to be so proud of?"

Both brothers end up working in the pachinko industry from which the story takes its name: a type of gambling machine that involves hundreds and thousands of falling steel balls and is often compared to pinball and slots (if you've never been inside a Japanese pachinko parlour, it's great; as soon as you step through the doors you're hit with an overwhelming, disorientating cacophony of falling balls, flashing lights, cigarette smoke). In the book it's described as a game of "chance and fear and loneliness… a foolish game," but at the same time these parlours are spaces of relaxation in the harsh metropolis.

Pachinko is a book in which a person's decisions follow them for the rest of their lives, and in which the consequences of these decisions can be clearly observed unfolding across the decades.

"The players also came to escape the eerily quiet streets where few said hello, to keep away from the loveless homes where wives slept with children instead of husbands, and to avoid the overheated rush-hour train cars where it was okay to push but not okay to talk to strangers. When Haruki was a younger man, he had not been much of a pachinko player, but since moving to Yokohama, Haruki allowed himself to find some comfort here."

Everything changes. The tale begins with a lost, rural way of life and grows into a setting that is more modern and recognisable in its forms of depravity. In Yokohama in 1974 (in scenes bringing to mind Kohei Yoshiyuki's series of black-and-white photographs of public sex in Shinjuku and Yoyogi Parks in Tokyo in 1979) Ayame happens across a polysexual nighttime dogging scene in a local park. In 1980, Hana, the lover of Mozasu's son Solomon, wants to practise with him sexual acts that hurt her, and learn to pretend to enjoy things that she doesn't, as preparation for her new life as a hostess in the wealthy and sometimes decadent enclave of Roppongi.

Pachinko is a book in which a person's decisions (who they go mushroom-picking with, whether they flirt with the girl at the market, where their university tuition comes from) follow them for the rest of their lives, and in which the consequences of these decisions can be clearly observed unfolding across the decades. It ends in 1989, a couple years before the Japanese market crash from which the country has never fully recovered, and before the sexual crisis in Japan that has contributed to plummeting birth rates. 1989 was also the year the emperor Hirohito died, ending the Showa era of the country's history, as well as the year that Lee was inspired to write this book after attending a guest lecture at Yale by a visiting missionary who told a story about a Korean schoolboy in Japan, who was badly bullied by his classmates and threw himself off a building.

Korea and Japan are conservative societies with intricate senses of shame, and in this book shame is considered at moments like an object, like thousands of pachinko balls that might be passed around between friends and family.

"In life, there was so much insult and injury, and she had no choice but to collect what was hers. But now she wished to take Solomon's shame, too, and add it to her pile, though she was already overwhelmed."

Throughout there are characters wishing others would not suffer because of their own, shameful, decisions. Sunja's brother-in-law Yoseb longs for a past when he could simply have been carried off into the Korean mountains to be eaten by wild tigers.

"He had caused others to suffer, and he did not know why he had to live now and recall the series of terrible choices that had not looked so terrible at the time. Was that how it was for most people? … He was no longer angry at Korea or Japan; most of all, he was angry about his own foolishness."

Despite such heaviness it is an uplifting story. At its heart is Sunja who recalls, reflecting upon her life, "Beyond the dailiness, there had been moments of shimmering beauty and some glory, too, even in this ajumma's life. Even if no one knew, it was true." There are moments of shimmering beauty throughout Pachinko also, and intimate themes such as how to keep a family from disintegrating, and when to speak and when not to, and how certain foods and landscapes and smells of department store cosmetics floors can remind us of loved ones when they're no longer there. But woven around this domesticity is an epic novel that tackles the biggest subjects of the Twentieth Century onwards: globalisation, economic migration, racism and other difficulties of integration; religion in decline and capitalism on the rise; and the slowly changing role of women in a conservative society that was, in other respects, modernising dizzyingly fast.

Pachinko is published by Apollo and out now


Text Dean Kissick

i-d book club
min jin lee