Tuesday 29 May 2018

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

After returning home from our trip to Japan, I wasn't ready to let it go, so when I finished Memoirs of a Geisha, I turned straight to this glorious historical fiction set in Korea and Japan for solace. Not that Pachinko was a comforting read as such. There was tragedy, sadness, grief, loss and war. But there was also love, loyalty and strength of character.

Basically Pachinko is an epic multi-generational story. The consequences of a brief love affair by a young Korean girl with an older married man impacted several generations. The repercussions of the affair brought about great change and great joy as well as tremendous suffering and opportunity. 

Min Jin Lee explores the nature of belonging via all her characters. I hadn't realised how many Koreans had immigrated to Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 -1945 and how much discrimination they faced, and continue to face. After the war they were given the opportunity to move back to Korea, and some tried. But they often found that they had become so Japanese to their Korean neighbours that they were rejected. The political division into north and south Korea also prohibited the return of many former nationals. Yet they didn't belong in Japan either. 

To belong somewhere, is it country, language, culture, education, family, nature or nurture?

The Japanese call the Koreans who came to Japan during this time zainichi (foreign resident staying in Japan). They are a distinct minority group in Japan that are differentiated from even the Koreans who immigrated to Japan in the 1980's.

The Japanese, like most countries in the world, have not readily or gracefully accepted cultures and peoples who differ from themselves. Sunja's story highlighted all the discrimination, subtle and institutional, that this group of Koreans endured and the impact it had on individuals, families and the community as a whole.

I didn't like the cover at all when I began the book (I preferred the prettier pachinko-style smaller format and international covers) but by the end I became quite attached to the young woman on my cover. Her stoic stare gradually revealed the pain and determination to survive in an hostile environment. And I got to wondering who was this woman and what was her story.

As Lee found when she researched this book,
the Korean Japanese may have been historical victims, but when I met them in person, none of them were as simple as that. I was so humbled by the breadth and complexity of the people that I met in Japan that I put aside my old draft and started to write the book again.

It is this human complexity that she conveys so well in Pachinko.


  1. The connection I could make with your review was...the difference between fitting in and belonging. We force ourselves to fit in where we don’t belong. It’s the round peg in the square hole. I fit in here in The Netherlands....but deep down I don't belong. My roots lay elsewhere. Great review!

    1. I've been thinking about this comment for days now Nancy. Fitting in and belonging have been 2 of the main themes of my life (given how many books also have this theme, I would have to say a lot of people in this funny old world feel the same way). I would also add accommodation. I've spent a lot of my early life accommodating myself to the situation I was in.

      I've also discovered that a sense of belonging slowly evolves over a long period of time, except for those very lucky moments in life when you finally meet someone you belong with and you know it from the start.

      I belong with Mr Books - he is my home & I am his - but we're both beginning to realise that our country roots are stronger than our current love of city living.

    2. Accomodation is definitely on my list....especiallhy when you enter a new culture. NL has its traditions and unspoken social rules. Learning them while struggling with a new language was a challange. I think that is a reason I'm drawn to books written by people who for whatever reason...move to another country and the generation that follows....like Zadie Smith. I'm sure the city is beautiful but given the choice? I'd go to Blue Mountains or Tasmania! I see #20BooksOfSummer has started! I'll have a look at your list...and decide whether to participate this year.

  2. I've read several favorable reviews of this one and agree the cover on your copy isn't my fave of the 3. I do have this on my Kindle so hope to try it soon. This is what I'm reading right now: https://bibliophilebythesea.blogspot.com/2018/05/first-chapter-first-paragraph-tuesday_29.html

  3. I really want to read this, I've put it on my list of possible reads for my book group next year, so I don't know if I should wait or just go ahead and read it right away! I really liked Free Food For Millionaires and I've lived in Japan, so I really think I'd love this one.

    1. I think you will love this one too Karen. And now you've boosted my desire to read Free Food For Millionaire - thanks :-)


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