Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Updated: Sep 19, 2021
Xolo Score 5/5
Pachinko is a captivating story that follows one Korean immigrant family across four generations living in Japan in the mid-20th century. The story begins in the early 1900s when Korea is under Japanese occupation, and young Sunja falls in love with Koh Hansu, a fish broker with businesses in Japan. But when Sunja is pregnant and finds out Koh Hansu is married, she refuses to be his Korean wife and eventually agrees to marry Christian Minister Baek Isak. The two immigrated to Osaka in hopes of a better life for their child, not prepared for the lifetime of discrimination they would endure as Korean immigrants.
Min Jin Lee is an exceptional storyteller and brought a lot of truth and nuance to the immigrant experience. Through this multigenerational saga, she explores themes around identity, family, and self-preservation. Min Jin Lee doesn’t shy away from the grim and painful realities of what it means to live in a country that persistently believes in the inferiority of certain foreigners. And you’ll get a crash course in Japanese imperialism and how its nationalism contributes to the suffering of generations of Japanese and non-Japanese families.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
The great thing about Pachinko is that you get to see how the different generations within one family handle unique parts of their immigration story and how they each struggled in Japan.
For instance, Sunja and her generation struggle to survive and make ends meet, while Solomon, Sunja’s grandson, grew up with more financial stability and whose first language is Japanese. But Solomon experiences discrimination for being Korean and because his family runs Pachinko parlors. It is a sharp critique of assimilation and its empty promises. As an immigrant, no matter your proximity to the group in power, there will always be those who will intentionally “other” you and assert that power.
It was also incredible to see the complex conversations around identity that immigrants maneuver individually and as a family. Throughout several points in their lives, characters come to a crossroads and decide who they want to be and what they want to accomplish in Japan. They determine which parts of their identity they must preserve and which ones they are comfortable changing. Several characters believed that being a model minority (i.e., a “Good-Korean”) would be their salvation in Japan. In contrast, others acknowledged that prejudice against Koreans would never end and did their best to create a life for themselves in the stigmatized industry of Pachinko. the world.
Min Jin Lee also demonstrates how a person can have conflicting feelings about their identity and how it evolves throughout their life. It can be hard to understand how someone can be grateful to a nation that also brought them and their family so much pain and suffering. But that is the reality for so many immigrants all over.
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