Pachinko, a popular pinball-esque game in Japan, takes on a much deeper meaning in Min Jin Lee’s novel. It is a metaphor best encapsulated by the quote below.
“Every morning, Mozasu and his men tinkered with the [Pachinko] 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.”
It is not only the story of Sunja’s family and their experiences living in Japan from 1910 to 1989, but also that of generations of Koreans whose families moved there during the occupation period and were subject to a rigged system from the get-go. Despite the hardships – discrimination, poverty, adversity, and challenges – they faced, the Koreans persevered in a nation that treated them like second-class citizens, with the hope that they might be the lucky ones.
Pachinko plays a big role in the story since, denied the opportunity to work in most traditional occupations, many Koreans turned to employment in the Pachinko business, where they often ended up excelling financially. However, although the game often made them rich, the negative associations with it made it so that they could never win them the respect of Japanese people.
As someone who had very limited knowledge of the Japanese occupation of Korea and the consequences on its people, I found the book shocking and deeply saddening. The author skillfully weaves historical information into the story, so while you follow the family saga, reading the novel also becomes a profoundly engrossing learning experience.
As with many immigrant stories, it tackles the issue of identity. Sunja’s children and even Mozasu’s son, Solomon, born in Japan, are not accepted as Japanese because of their Korean ethnicity. Perpetually remaining zainichi in the eyes of the Japanese, both sons struggle with their Korean identity. Noa sees his Korean lineage as a “dark, heavy rock within him” and wishes nothing but to be Japanese while Mozasu invests money in his son’s education so that he can rise above the challenges that being Korean may bring him. Although Solomon is born in Japan, he still has to obtain an alien registration card, which includes getting fingerprinted, to remain in his birth country.