Redrawing Physical Spaces

Review of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (US: Grand Central Publishing, 2017)

By Andrea Yew


It is often said that history is written by its victors, but what happens to those who are not as fortunate? Korean American writer Min Jin Lee’s second novel Pachinko is a courageous response to this question. Spanning over nearly a hundred years, Pachinko follows a Korean family through four generations. It is set against a rich historical background, from 1910 in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s annexation of Korea, to the division of Korea, and finally to post-war Korea. Given Korea’s history of subjugation, Lee’s novel is particularly important to a country that has had limited control over its politics and hence its cultural narrative. It is easy for the stories of a people to be lost amidst politics and war. Lee’s novel represents the reclamation of a distinctly Korean narrative. As critic John Berger puts it in his 1972 novel G, “Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.”

The first sentence of Lee's novel—“History has failed us, but no matter.”—is not only an acknowledgement of the loss of personal stories, but also a signal for change. It makes clear that the novel privileges the personal over the political. Although it is set against a tumultuous period in Korean history, Lee always centers the narrative on the characters. This is reflected in the novel’s structure as well. The novel is held together by a web of personal stories, beginning in 1910 with the marriage of a club-footed boy, Hoonie, to Yangjie, the youngest of four sisters whose family could no longer afford to feed them because of the looming war. The novel then follows their daughter, Sunja, upon whom the narrative pivots: following a scandalous affair with a married yakuza, Koh Hansu, Sunja becomes pregnant and is forced to leave Korea with a kindhearted minister, Baek Isak, who brings up the boy Noa as his own. The pivotal move to Osaka, Japan, is due to a personal scandal, not any historical event.

No doubt, the hardships of that historical period are evident in the novel. The Baeks struggle to put food on the table and to pay for their children’s education. However, the difficulties are always presented as personal circumstances to be overcome. When Isak is arrested for supposedly refusing to acknowledge allegiance to the Japanese emperor, Sunja worries about her future in a very practical fashion:

Sunja had to have a plan and money in case she had to return home to her mother with her sons. So Sunja had to find work.

Although Isak is wrongfully arrested and unfairly treated as a Korean immigrant in Japan, the novel chooses to focus on the impact it has on Sunja’s life and family. The matter-of-fact tone that refuses to dwell on injustices is characteristic of the novel. It is in this focus that signals Lee’s concern with the impact of political and historical circumstances on the lives of individuals rather than a simplistic portrayal of the injustices of the time. Instead of a rant against discrimination, Lee depicts imaginatively the power of prejudice to destroy lives. It also requires imagination to show that life is not all black and white. There are many shades in between. At the conclusion of the novel, Sunja, now a grandmother, looks back:

Without Hansu and Isak and Noa, there wouldn’t have been this pilgrimage to this land. Beyond the dailiness, there had been moments of shimmering beauty and some glory, too, even in this ajumma’s life. Even if no one knew, it was true.

In clear-eyed retrospect, Sunja has lived a life that is both ordinary and beautiful. Political and historical circumstances of that time are subsumed into a life well-lived. The final sentence, “Even if no one knew, it was true,” once again points to Lee’s preoccupation with representing personal stories rather than a collective one. Personal stories do not need to be collectively acknowledged, representation is enough. This is particularly significant given the difficulty of Lee’s task. As she states in the acknowledgments, “The Korean Japanese may have been historical victims, but when I met them in person, none of them were as simple as that.” In her novel Lee carefully avoids generalizations for to do so would be akin to whitewashing the personal stories. In doing so, she provides a sensitive glimpse into the lives of a community of people strewn across nations by war and politics, whose stories are as varied as their experiences.

The variety of experiences is as much generational as personal. Lee’s novel spans four generations, and with each generation, the experience of being Korean Japanese greatly differs. In the 1930s, stereotypes predominate. Isak Baek’s brother, Yoseb, expresses bitterly the prevailing Japanese sentiment when he says of Isak, “He was a Korean, after all, and no matter how appealing his personality, unfortunately he belonged to a cunning and wily tribe.” Yoseb and his generation live and suffer such polarizing prejudice. Koreans living then were denied medical care and housing because of their ethnicity. Two generations later, however, Sunja’s grandson, Solomon, thinks differently:

 Yes, some Japanese thought Koreans were scum, but some Koreans were scum…some Japanese were scum too. There was no need to keep rehashing the past.

Solomon prefers dropping the stereotypes of the past in favor of a more universalistic notion of people. His statement represents a change in the Korean Japanese community, avowing a desire not to be bound by history.

Lee artfully charts this shift by having Solomon echo his uncle Noa when the latter ends his relationship with his Japanese girlfriend Aikiko.

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, to be just himself, whatever that meant.

But Noa realizes tragically “that wasn’t possible.” Like Solomon, Noa was born in Japan. He represents the second generation of Korean Japanese immigrants. Coming later, Solomon achieves what Noa was not able to, the ability to view others as people rather than ethnicities. Lee is, however, careful to point out that Solomon is perhaps able to achieve this outlook owing to his privileged upbringing. Although Noa was privileged in his own way, he was still subject to racial stereotyping, practiced even by his girlfriend Aikiko.

She would always believe that he was someone else, that he wasn’t himself but some fanciful idea of a foreign person…

The description of himself as an “idea” rather than a person represents a continuation of racial stereotyping that the previous generation had experienced. More, the words suggest that Noa has internalized the stereotype. In contrast, Solomon has grown up with a different set of experiences and so has acquired a different outlook. He thinks that:

His uncle Noa, whom he’d never met, had apparently killed himself because he wanted to be Japanese and normal.

Although the thought seems insensitive at first glance, Lee suggests that this simplification of Noa’s death is also attributed to the fact that Solomon does not know Noa, the word “apparently” highlighting this lack of understanding. As such, Solomon, like all of Lee’s characters, is a character who speaks from his own perspective; he speaks as a product of a different set of circumstances from that of the previous generation. By so doing, Lee creates characters with authentic voices, characters who speak from their own individual experiences. This is particularly important as Lee does not privilege one view over another, but rather represents a changing outlook as a result of changing circumstances. It is also in creating authentic voices that Lee is able to weave a rich tapestry of stories, spanning across generations, which represent the experiences of the Korean Japanese community.

The idea of reclaiming narratives is also evident in the novel’s title Pachinko. At the beginning of the novel, pachinko, a kind of vertical pinball, is regarded as something shameful, associated with gangsters and the underworld. However, as the novel progresses, pachinko becomes the family’s salvation when it changes the family’s fortune. Mozasu, Sunja and Isak’s grown-up son, comes to own a pachinko palour.

Every morning, Mozasu and his men tinkered with the machines to fix the outcomes—there could only be a few winners and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones…. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.

Once again, historical circumstances are relegated to the backdrop of daily life. The passage acknowledges that life, like history, is a rigged game, crueler to some than others. However, it also represents a somber optimism, at once an acknowledgement of the cruelties and injustices of life but also the inherent hope that keeps history’s underdogs going.  Significantly, pachinko becomes a metaphor for resilience for Lee’s Korean Japanese family, when previously it was a metonym for shame. By transforming the meaning of pachinko, the family also changes, or at least challenges, the biased Japanese narrative about Koreans through hope and resilience. Pachinko may be “a foolish game,” but as a symbol of a reclaimed or alternative narrative, it speaks of the importance of telling one’s own story. The art of fiction writing can redraw physical spaces, creating critical room for previously excluded narratives. Perhaps, therein lies the true power of Pachinko.


Andrea Yew graduated from the University of Edinburgh and is currently an educator based in Singapore.  She is a participant in the Young Critics Mentorship Program. Her creative work has been published in Asingbol: An Archeology of the Singaporean Poetic Form by Squircle Line Press and Twin Cities, an anthology of twin cinemas from Hong Kong and Singapore. Her academic work can also be found in Southeast Asian Review of English.