Review of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)

While I was always subconsciously aware of the prejudices around me, I couldn’t understand the basis of these comments.

It was 2016, and I was at a dinner party organized by some neighbors before the local festival in the Japanese country town that I live in. It was the second year in a row that I had attended this particular gathering. The large black lacquered table I was sitting at was covered with a cornucopia of dishes that wouldn’t have been out of place in the bath house from the movie ‘Spirited Away’. It also wouldn’t have been a Japanese dinner party if there wasn’t enough liquor on hand to maintain a viking raiding party on a short campaign.

It was the second year in a row that I found myself seated next to the person whose opinions of Sydney’s underworld and its relationship to the local Korean community were so incongruous to what I thought I knew. As an Australian in Japan, most conversations I have with those unfamiliar with me tend to veer towards the superficial: Australian wildlife and cultural landmarks or re-tellings of the party opposite’s (or their relatives’) trip to Sydney, the Gold Coast or Cairns.

For the second year in a row, a trip that my dining companion had been on to Sydney came up in conversation. However, they asserted something to me again that I found disturbing yet puzzling:

Korean crime gangs are taking over Sydney!!

Ever since the White Australia policy started to be incrementally dismantled by Arthur Calwell’s Department of Immigration after the Second World War through to it’s unofficial abandonment by Harold Holt and it’s official abandonment by Gough Whitlam, Australia has had an interchangeable cast of immigrant boogeymen. Starting with those from the Mediterranean (‘they’re all Mafioso!’) through to the Asians (‘drug dealers who are taking our jobs!’) up to the Islamophobia that gets peddled today, there has been no shortage of disparagement shown to first generation immigrants. While the ‘mug punter’ style of racist tends to not see ambiguity and is more than willing to apply a broad brush to the stereotypes that they deal in, the journalistic and political sophists that they often take their cues from provide an overarching narrative that the former uses to provide a veneer of logic to their subjective biases. When it came to the public campaign against Asian immigration in the 1980’s and 90’s, my perception was that their animus was directed at the Vietnamese refugee community in suburbs like Cabramatta in Sydney and Footscray in Melbourne. I had never heard the more eloquent types target Koreans as the designated ‘dangerous other’. As I moved into my late teens/early twenties and my social circle expanded, I viewed the Koreans who I met as serious, responsible and hard working. Hence, I wasn’t sure which local authority in Sydney they were getting this from.

Sure, a 在日朝鮮人 (zainichi chousenjin/ Korean-Japanese person) colleague once told me stories of the abuse she copped going to her Korean community school by ultra nationalist dickheads. I had also heard a former Japanese English student of mine from my ESL teaching days once gushingly tell me of her ‘Korean’ boyfriend. Her description of him as ‘Korean’ seemed dissonant to me as he had been born in Japan, had lived there most of his life and, to her pride/amazement, spoke native level Japanese. To my way of thinking at the time, that would make him Japanese at best or Korean-Japanese if one were to draw a long bow.

While these examples were overwhelmingly heartbreaking and inconceivably unfair in the former case and mystifying in the latter, I was still hesitant to jump to conclusions. When it came to the case of my Korean-Japanese colleague, this was informed by a belief that the numbers of the genuinely malicious can seem bigger than they really are due to how conspicuous and vocal they make themselves. I felt one shouldn’t draw broader societal trends based on the most extreme demographics in any community. Besides, those guys hated everyone, as was demonstrated by their near weekly protests at their chosen ‘enemy of the week’ foreign embassy in Tokyo. In the second example, my former student at the time was still a teenager who had not lived anywhere besides the Japanese countryside as far as I could tell. Perhaps she just needed to shake off some of her more insular beliefs as she broadened her social experience? Therefore, I couldn’t say with any certainty that these three incidences had any historical or systemic origin up to that point.

Many tourists and newcomers to Japan rightfully have images such as this in mind when they come here. However, there is another history that makes up this country the deeper one digs.
Photo by Ivan Siarbolin on Pexels.com

Thus, I was convinced that my fellow diner had basically chosen this nationality out of thin air. The party in question was a touch drunk as well, so it could have possibly just been the booze talking. Or maybe I had misunderstood the thick regional dialect that they had exposed me to in the course of our conversation.

After all that, I may have gotten some answers as to where my dining partner came up with the idea that the Koreans were underworld kingpins upon reading Pachinko by Korean-American author, Min Jin Lee. In fact, if I were to be graced with her presence while writing this, she may indeed say that the former me was the embodiment of the Anglo-liberal attitudes towards the Korean diaspora that she had encountered growing up.

Pachinko is an epic historical novel spanning four generations. It’s protagonist is Sunja, the daughter of a crippled fisherman who lives in Yeongdo on the Korean coast. The course of her life, and of subsequent generations of her family, is influenced dramatically by an encounter she has with a charismatic, Osaka based Korean businessman cum yakuza, Koh Hansu. After being rescued by him from a group of disrespectful and aggressive Japanese teenagers, the two become lovers. After falling pregnant with his child and refusing to live out his suggested role of his ‘Korea wife’, she marries a travelling priest, Baek Isak, who is making his way to Japan.

It is there that she and her family settle and ultimately break out of the material deprivations of their earlier years. By 1989, her grandson, Solomon, is working for an international trading company and her son, Mozasu, is independently wealthy. Yet, the family remains confronted with many hardships borne of the attitudes and historical circumstances that can still be detected within certain areas of the Japanese zeitgeist regarding foreigners: restricted social mobility, career choices and living circumstances, government sanctioned repression, and being made the ‘other’. Through it all, one thread ties up the shared experience of the entire Baek family: the Japanese game of pachinko.

For those who do not know, pachinko is the Japanese equivalent of a Western slot machine with the aesthetics of a pinball machine. To compile a written explanation of the purpose of the game, it’s parameters and a specious description of the industry itself is to place an unnecessary barrier to understanding in front of the reader. Therefore, I have shared a video from the ‘Abroad in Japan’ video blog below to explain it more effectively:

While this video briefly touches on the vice element of the pachinko industry in a light-hearted way, it doesn’t highlight in detail how pachinko has the stigma of being connected with organized crime like so many other industries worldwide that deal in straight up cash in hand transactions. Due to the limited vocational options available to many Korean-Japanese, it has been an industry that has provided employment not merely in terms of working on the gaming floor, but also extending to the manufacture of the uniforms for the parlor employees up to the preparation of bento box lunches for said employees. Both Sunja’s sons and grandson work in this industry.

An entertainment district in Dotonbori, Osaka; a key setting of the novel. On the left side of this photo, you can see a yakiniku  (焼肉食べ放題)restaurant, which is one of the places Sunja and her sister in law, Kyunghee, work in the first part of Pachinko
Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on Pexels.com

I found that the novel was somewhat fatalistic in this sense in that both Noa and Mozasu were sons of different men: Noa being the progeny of the charismatic and ruthlessly pragmatic gangster, Koh Hansu, and Mozasu being the child of the upright, intellectual and selfless priest Isak Baek. However, if one were to know that they came from different fathers yet were not to said fathers’ identities, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that their lineages were completely opposite thanks to personalities that wildly differ from their individual fathers. Yet, they both end up working in Pachinko parlors; the so called chosen profession of the criminal.

While there is a touch of inevitability to the choices that the sons have to make and the lives they have to lead, the novel to me portrays the outsider status of some of it’s characters as a unique strength rather than something to be condescendingly pitied. The society that they live in seems to be constructed on a set of social assumptions that in many cases restrict people from being who they really want to be, or puts them into neatly defined social categories whose expectations they struggle against. This definitely gels with my preferences for literature that focuses on the unorthodox who use this aspect of their being to survive within a conformist world. One example from the novel that personifies this is the conscientious police officer, Haruki Totoyama, who marries a Japanese woman due to social convention while also having random sexual encounters with other men in a park. Another is Noa, who desperately wishes to be learned like his ‘father’ Isak and live out the Japanese dream of going to university then working in an established company. While these two pay varying prices for the hand life has dealt them and how they played this hand, there is a contrast between them and Mozasu. While the aforementioned two suffer because of who they are, Mozasu, the second son ultimately thrives because of his rejection of what others might smile upon or expect from him in a collectively sanctioned sense. He beats up his tormentors, is supremely confident to the point of telling his girlfriend Yumi’s English teacher out of the blue that he will marry her (without informing her of his intentions), and is determined to succeed on his own terms.

Having lived here for nearly ten years, my personal belief is that Japanese ethnic society can be very hierarchical and not conducive in allowing individualistic ‘others’, like the characters I have just described, to step out of their chosen lane. In some ways, this focus on maintaining group harmony through traditional modes of relationships does foster harmony across the broader spectrum. A good example of this would be to look at how Japanese schools, both elementary and secondary, organize their pedagogy and school events. While there is a lot of focus on rote learning and standardized testing which can stunt critical thinking skills (in my eyes at least), there is also a sense of collective purpose instilled in each homeroom that would have many Western teenagers rolling their eyes and looking for their smartphones. Students eat together, have cleaning duties assigned to them and are expected to work as a team on a day to day basis. This ethos applies whether it is producing their entry for the school chorus contest or making a human pyramid on school sports day.

With that being said, with a sense of individualism being quashed in the name of the greater good, those who stand out because of the values, interests or peculiarities they hold, or because of uncontrollable factors like sexual identity or ethnic and linguistic background can find themselves either scalded, excluded or blatantly harassed. Indeed, there is a Japanese proverb that sums up this mindset: 出る杭は打たれる (deru kui wa utareru/The nail that sticks out gets hammered down). Team this mindset up with the chauvinistic attitudes that existed during the period of military government, illustrated in the book by Isak’s imprisonment for performing Christian prayers during mandatory Shinto shrine ceremonies, you can understand the adversity facing the characters that I referenced above.

In the end, while Pachinko does magnificently detail the obstacles that Korean-Japanese and the more unconventional citizens of that nation face, it doesn’t strip them of their agency or individuality. Lee herself described the original edition of her novel as boring; mostly due to the fact that she treated the characters as victims, and not actual people. It was after living in Japan for a period and interviewing flesh and blood Korean-Japanese that she understood that the people she was writing about never viewed themselves as helpless. I feel that her coming to this realization resulted in a much better novel. While the unseen social currents do work against them, many characters such as Mozasu and Solomon do not allow this to define who they are or how they lead there lives.

I have read some Japanese blogs that have given air to opinions stating that ‘Pachinko’ is ‘anti Japanese’. Their gripes have mostly come down to their contention that Lee only interviewed aggrieved Korean-Japanese people. This is clearly untrue as she also went through a lot of wartime records and personal diaries in preparation. Moreover, I think anyone who has read the novel will understand that the Japanese characters involved are not necessarily inherently flawed because of their ethnicity. Indeed, many are also often buffeted by the circumstances they have found themselves in. This includes not only people such as Haruki (see above), but also characters like Mozasu’s girlfriend, Etusko. A divorcee, she is viewed as a pariah by not only her family, but also by a society conservative in it’s views on female agency for having pursued an extra marital affair in her younger years. Other characters such as Tamaguchi, the sweet potato farmer whose property hosts Sunja’s family during the bombings at the end of the war, are conversely viewed as completely reasonable and relatively egalitarian in their employment and treatment of the Korean characters once they get to know them. The underlying theme is essentially that people are born into a particular moment in history and do their utmost to make the best out of it.

This ultimately leads me back to the tête-à-tête at the dinner party that I referenced at the start of this review. While there are definitely many bad actors among us who use prejudice to further their own ends, there are many that hold ideas that seem to belong in the late 19th century yet can be decent people in other ways. Racism, discrimination and xenophobia are not positive attributes in any way, shape or form. However, in a world that is so keen to slap labels on people in a manner that assumes that one part of an identity means the adoption of so many other peripheral belief systems and behaviors, those possessing these attitudes have been viewed as almost possessing a birth defect that creates moral inferiority. When aggressively called out on attitudes that can be genuinely disgusting (and this often does need to happen), many of them can feel as though they have been slapped across the face with a frozen Alaskan salmon. This shock, and the genesis of their prejudices, is borne of ignorance. Ignorance is not stupidity. It is simply a lack of knowledge or, more crucially, relateable experience. The way forward is dialogue with the reachable, and push back against the calculating, odious and toxic no matter where they are in the world.

I most definitely would recommend Pachinko, but I ultimately may be blinkered by my own perspective in this assessment. While there is a whole cottage industry of J-vlogs out there spruiking their respective hosts’ ‘Japan cred’, my firm and determined intention is to not come across as knowing everything about my adopted home. My rule of thumb is that while most Westerners probably know more than a lot of Japanese people give them credit for, they probably know a lot less than they think they do. That being said, I may have somewhat of a lived experience of the setting of the book compared to the uninitiated. I should note that it is also limited to modern day Japan and that my experience as a white man may bias my own view of how Korean-Japanese are treated here (see above). However, I viewed my reading of this as being similar to my reading of Jung Chang’s ‘Wild Swans’ in some ways, despite one being fiction and the other a historical biopic. Even with my exposure to the settings involved, I took a lot of knowledge away from it that I didn’t have before. Regardless of their experience, I am sure that those who have lived outside Japan will be able to do so as well.

Further References:
△The Japan Times: ‘Pachinko’ author Min Jin Lee on how Japan’s ethnic Koreans keep beating the odds
△ Conversations Podcast (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): Min Jin Lee’s good fortune

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