I’m not going to beat around the bush with this book review and simple state that Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a fantastic book.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is not only fantastic, it is moving, heartbreaking, raw, cuts you right where it hurts, and leaves you stunned. Not only is the plot engrossing – even though some parts can feel like they weren’t necessary – but the reading experience makes you feel as though you’re there with the characters.
“History has failed us, but no matter.”
The story is based on the history between Japan and Korea during the early 20th century. The occupation of Korea by the Japanese and the effect it had on the Korean people. We follow the story of a Korean family through the next four generations, and see how the colonization affected every member.
“A man must learn to forgive—to know what is important, that to live without forgiveness was a kind of death with breathing and movement.”
The women surely are what drives Pachinko forward. The sacrifices they make, the hardships they endure, the societal stereotypes of not working and serving their husbands even if they go broke and starving, are all themes that the author truly brings to life.
I didn’t know that Japan and Korea has such a dark history, and while I wish our history class during school would’ve shed some light on it, I’m glad I got to read about it through Pachinko. There are so many things we take for granted today that were as valuable as gold in the previous century.
“Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests. And the guys in charge will exploit men who believe in ideas too much.”
White rice is such a kitchen staple in our homes, and for Koreans it used to be reserved for only special occasions such as weddings and only for special people like the bride and groom. Nowadays, if you follow Korean Vloggers on YouTube you’ll see what an integral part white rice forms in all three meals of the day.
“People are rotten everywhere you go. They’re no good. You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let’s see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants.”
Similarly, Pachinko touched on how Koreans working in Japan even if they were born in Japan, couldn’t get citizenship and were considered alien. The xenophobia and racism is so intense, and people from wealthy Korean backgrounds, educated, and well to do people had to scrap away at low end jobs to make ends meet.
“His presence would prove to the world that she was a good person, an educated person, a liberal person. Noa didn’t care about being Korean when he was with her; in fact, he didn’t care about being Korean or Japanese with anyone. He wanted to be just himself, whatever that meant; he wanted to forget himself sometimes. But that wasn’t possible. It would never be possible with her.”
There is so much history that is immersed in Pachinko and the family we follow for the next 4 generations, and the title is the most important part of it.
Pachinko basically is an arcade game/gambling mechanical device that you often see in the movies located in Las Vegas. However, Pachinko is a slot machine game that is specifically designed in Japan, and during the 20th century it was seen as a bad profession to be involved in.
“His Presbyterian Minster father had believed in a divine design, and Mozasu believed that life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control. He understood why his customers wanted to play something that looked fixed but which also left room for randomness and hope.”
Hence, Pachinko parlors were mostly run by Koreans because that was the only profession open to them where they weren’t mistreated or kicked out of. While many respectable Koreans didn’t go in the Pachinko industry, it plays a huge part in the story, as one of the leading female character: Sunja, does all she can to make sure her son goes to University and lands a good job.
“Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge—it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.
However, that isn’t so.
You may have noticed that I haven’t talked about the plot in detail, that is because there are so many characters and so many plot lines that I feel like I’ll either spoil it for you or not make a good job of summarizing it.
“It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor
But the verdict is clear. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, is a deeply historical work of fiction that goes into detail about the life of Koreans from the early 1900s to the late 1980s/1990s. As each generation comes in the story, we see how varying ideas of work and life they have from the previous generation.
“Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”
And if it wasn’t for the fictional aspect of this book, you wouldn’t even know that you were just schooled on a history lesson of the Korean colonization by Japan.
Pachinko will take you on a journey that is so intimate and insightful, that you’ll be surprised when it ends because you didn’t see it coming. Pick it up and immerse yourself into this moving story of family, love, loss, betrayal, and ambition.
Onto the basics:
- Rating: 5.0/5.0
- Favourite quote: “Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”
- Should you read it: If you’re interested to read books from Korea or Japan, Pachinko is a good start.
- Reader level: Fairly easy. You may end up looking events that happened, but otherwise Pachinko is easy to read and understand.
- Would I read it again: Oh yes, maybe in a few years.
Till next time,