Book 01: Pachinko, “a book about a family”

Wow! What a great start for the 2023 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge! I was waiting for some books at the library to become available either physically, electronically, or in audio, when Pachinko by Min Jin Lee appeared as a lucky loan. I loved, and highly recommend it.

This is a family saga telling the hardships they endured emigrating from Korea to Japan, spanning through most of the twentieth century and covering all the several wars and main events during that period: colonization of Korea by Japan, First and Second World Wars, Korean War, etc. The narrative flows like a thread with the filaments represented by each of the characters being born and dying at different points but continually being twisted together, running in parallel, and affecting each other. You can expect heartbreaking events, but the general attitude of the participants of this drama in the face of life is one of hard work, dignity, resignation and ultimately hope.

I didn’t know what the word “pachinko” meant before reading this book, and honestly until well after the middle of it, when the pachinko business is first mentioned. It serves as a metaphor for the immigration of Koreans to Japan, and its underlying message—the moral of the story—is that Koreans living in Japan wouldn’t be allowed to have the best and coveted jobs available, being driven to undesired and slightly illegal ones. Gambling is prohibited in Japan, but pachinko makes use of a loophole in the law to continue existing. The bets are not done with live cash, but with metal spheres. You can buy the spheres in the pachinko parlour of your choice (pretty much a casino), but they are only valid at that location. You can gain more of these spheres if you are lucky playing the game, but then you cannot convert them directly back to cash. You can exchange them for prizes though, which then in turn you can sell and get your cash back, hopefully making a profit. Well, this seems a complicated way of making money if you ask me. But the excitement of gambling makes this a thriving business in Japan, at the same time staying within the law.

In a comparison with the pachinko game, in a sense that was also what Koreans needed to do to continue living in Japan. In most cases they were not recognized Japanese citizens, and for this reason they couldn’t travel freely, for example, they weren’t allowed a passport among other things. If they wanted to visit their family back in Korea, they wouldn’t be allowed entrance back in Japan. Also, when coming of age, even if they were born in Japan and lived there their whole life, they needed to get registered and potentially could be deported on the very day of their fourteen birthday. They also lived there thanks to a loophole, and there are several passages in the book showing them being despised by native Japanese people, but also being helped or treated with respect by others. Everyone that is an immigrant can relate to that.

There is a TV series from Apple TV with high reviews in IMDb. I know the show has been there for a while, but I didn’t want to watch it before reading the book, and now I am looking forward to it. From the trailer only you can expect stunning photography, an emotional charged drama and meticulous historic research. Compliments for running it in their native languages, and of course, employing native actors.