While the history and contemporary status of ethnic Koreans in Japan, or the Zainichi, form the thematic base for Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” – a type of mechanical game often housed in parlours and used as a gambling device (it has been estimated that 80 per cent of these parlours in Japan are owned by Zainichis – it is the characterisation of the characters which truly stand out. The characters, especially the main protagonist Sunja, demonstrate stoicism in the face of never-ending adversity, as they confronted with one challenge after the other: Broader developments such as the annexation of Japan by Korea and the Second World War; and family developments such as illness and deaths, poverty and desperation, and even tensions among family members.
In her words: “The pachinko business and the game itself serve as metaphors for the history of Koreans in Japan – a people caught in seemingly random global conflicts – as they win, lose, and struggle for their place and for their lives”.
Sunja features across the three books of the novel, which respectively focus on her parents and her relationships in Busan, Korea, her marriage and the birth of her two sons Noa and Mozasu in Osaka, Japan, and the life of these sons. Through their trials and tribulations – which can feel emotionally draining, since Sunja and family appear to have no respite – the themes of identity, racism, and stereotypes are highlighted: First, on what it means to be Japanese, Korean, or a Zainichi in Japan; and second and relatedly, on the interpersonal interactions and relationships between these identities. And while Sunja and her family members are all victims of discrimination, it is her children and grandchildren, as the third- and fourth-generation offsprings, who confront these issues more explicitly than their elders, who were perhaps preoccupied with more basic needs.
Other interesting themes in “Pachinko”, besides the pachinko industry, include the yakuza (organised crime syndicates) and the Christian religion and faith. Immigration is another. “The movement of people changes the culture of the people around them, and the culture of the people around them affects the migrant people”. The two characters Kyunghee (Sunja’s sister-in-law and best friend) and Haruki (Mozasu’s lifelong friend and a homosexual Japanese man), however, deserved a little more attention, given Lee’s proclaimed interest in both major and minor characters through an omniscient, third-person narration. Still, it is a riveting read which covers a lot of ground, and which is beautifully summarised in an interview with the author at the end. Lee explained: “What we also witness each day is how many ordinary people resist the indignities of life and history with grace and conviction by taking care of their families, friends, neighbours, and communities while striving for their individual goals. We cannot hep but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly”.