Pachinko is a game of chance. Rigged each morning so that only certain machines will win, the public comes en masse to try to win big. Very few win it all.
It’s an apt metaphor for the family Min Jin Lee has created with her beautifully-crafted book, Pachinko. The story of a Korean family who moves to Japan, it primarily follows Sunja as she navigates being a poor Korean, a single mother, and an even poorer Korean expatriate. The book switches narration often between characters, but always returns to Sunja. She is a young Korean girl who falls pregnant by a man who is already married. When a missionary proposes to her in exchange for saving his life, the couple go to Japan to work in a church. Unfortunately, Japan is not welcoming to those it has colonized. Sunja and her husband face endless bigotry as they try to make a living, as do Sunja’s two sons and, eventually, their sons.
Throughout the novel is a running theme of female strength. Not in an overt way, but instead in praise of the women who quietly run their entire family. Sunja’s mother has a motto: “a woman’s lot is to suffer”. Continually, the women in Pachinko are the ones keeping everything together, keeping the family afloat. When her brother-in-law forbids it, Sunja and her sister-in-law create and run a successful business to keep the family from starving. When the family must seek shelter during World War II, the women work for their keep on a farm safe from the bombs.
Continuously, these women work for the bare minimum of livening, but they do it for their families. All in a country that, quite honestly, hates them. Sunja’s sons deal with bullying and discrimination at school, leading to another theme about identity. Noa, for example, spends most of his childhood wishing he was Japanese and feeling conflicted about his Korean ancestry.
Pachkino tells the story of one family, but it is a representation of each Korean family that was told Japan would bring them success only to be severely disappointed, and still clawed their way back up from the bottom. It is an underdog story, but the stakes are so much higher. Min Jin Lee has made a fantastic, moving, and important book.