Pachinko is a big book, in many senses of the word. It’s nearly 500 pages, for one thing. Those pages span over half a century and four generations, from Korea to Japan to the United States. There are a lot of characters. And unlike many other books we’ve included, it’s a bestseller — the sort with lots of laudatory quotes on the cover about Lee’s refined storytelling, the intricacy with which she crafts her characters and their world, and her inimitable ability to draw you into this family’s struggle. The sun has already shone on bestsellers, which is why they are seldom included in our boxes.
However, our choice of Pachinko was rooted in its status as the first English-language novel depicting the history of Koreans in Japan, known in Japanese as Zainichi (literally, “existing in Japan”) Koreans. This selection is a bit personal for me: my mother is a third-generation Zainichi Korean, something I didn’t understand until close to my high school graduation. Through family stories, most from my mother, some translated from family members, I learned my history piecemeal. I did my own light research, which led me to this life-changing book.
The Korean diaspora in Japan is fraught, as we learn through Lee’s sweeping multigenerational epic. Sunja, the daughter of a boardinghouse owner, becomes involved with an older businessman, Koh Hansu, who comes to her aid when she is harassed by Japanese men in occupied Korea. She eventually becomes pregnant with his child, but he is already married; instead, she weds Christian minister Baek Isak, and together they move to Osaka, Japan, in search of a better life. A cruel joke. Koreans are seen as dirty, poor, violent, and as such are left on the fringes of society in destitution. Lee follows several generations of the Baek family as they struggle to survive in a country that hates them, and one they did not exactly come to by choice.
Sunja, Isak, and their relatives and descendants live through World War II, the end of the occupation, the Korean War, and the beginning of the economic bubble. Through it all, they experience the ways Japanese attitudes towards Koreans (don’t) change; shadows cling to every corner and stick to their ribs like a disease. Some members of the family try to be model citizens to fight negative stereotypes, while others lean into them in their own personal rebellion. For some, the dissonance takes them far away from home; yet others find themselves unable to leave. Despite having read this multiple times, each character’s development through their successes, failures, gains, and losses still grips me tightly. Underneath this nuanced family drama are incisive observations on gender roles, class struggle, and the tribulations of embodying one’s identity in diaspora and difference — many of which are universal, I think, to populations in diaspora.
You may be aware that Korea-Japan relations are tense right now over territorial disputes and the recognition of Korean “comfort women,” women who were sexually abused and enslaved by the Japanese imperial military. In just the last couple years, art exhibits and documentaries covering comfort women have been heavily criticized by public figures in Japan. Pachinko covers the other side, the underside, showing us intergenerational trauma through an often-overlooked lens. I think that Pachinko being the first English book about my history is rather telling, but it also gives me hope. Hope that the Zainichi experience will find sympathetic eyes and ears so that even if we use Japanese names, naturalize, and forget who we are, the world at large will not. Some think the sun is setting on us, but I say it still rides high, thanks to people like Min Jin Lee.