This is a multi-generational saga about life for Koreans in Japan. It covers four generations of one family over much of the 20th century as various members strive to carve out a home and livelihood. Since ethnic Koreans are shut out from many occupations, several individuals become involved in the pachinko business. The pinball/slot-machine-like game, as both a recreational arcade game and a gambling device, is very popular in Japan but is often considered dirty; “pachinko gave off a strong odor of poverty and criminality.”
Pachinko unifies the novel and serves as a perfect metaphor for the whims of life: “life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control. [The game] looked fixed but also left room for randomness and hope.” In pachinko, the odds strongly favour the house but people keep playing because hope motivates people: “The stupid heart could not help but hope.” In pachinko and in life “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.” One mother regrets that she didn’t teach her children to hope, “to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win.”
Though there are a couple of exceptions, hope and resilience certainly keep the family members moving forward. It is the female characters who seem the most resilient, Sunja in particular. Sunja’s mother teaches her about the importance of perseverance: “’Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. . . no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman – just ourselves.’” It is Yangjin, Sunja, and Kyunghee who keep their families alive through the most difficult of times.
Of course, these women face challenges because of culture and tradition. The women are illiterate because education was reserved for male children in a family. When Sunja and Kyunghee devise a plan to make money to help their destitute family, Kyunghee must convince her husband to let her work outside the home, and he does not react well to the suggestion. A woman’s behaviour, especially sexual behaviour, can damage her family’s reputation; a young woman is seduced by a man twice her age but it is she and her family who suffer the consequences of a pregnancy outside of wedlock.
The book examines the Korean immigrant experience in Japan through the experiences of four generations of one family. What is emphasized is the exclusion and discrimination faced by Koreans. Because of discrimination, some characters try to pass as Japanese because to be discovered as ethnic Korean means rejection. One man, an ethnic Korean born in Japan, cuts off contact with his family and hides his identity; he says, “’No one knows I’m Korean. Not one person. . . . My wife doesn’t know. Her mother would never tolerate it. My own children don’t know, and I will not tell them. My boss would fire me. He doesn’t employ foreigners.’”
Another character summarizes the travel restrictions faced by Koreans: “Most Koreans in Japan couldn’t travel. If you wanted a Japanese passport, which would allow you to reenter without hassles, you had to become a Japanese citizen – which was almost impossible.” Koreans in Japan could get a Korean passport but they felt little affiliation to a country they had never visited. In 1979, one of the characters turns fourteen and he has to go through the humiliating experience of getting his alien registration card: “Koreans born in Japan after 1952 had to report to their local ward office on their fourteenth birthday to request permission to stay in Japan. Every three years, Solomon would have to do this again unless he left Japan for good.” The options for ethnic Koreans are limited, as one man clearly explains: “’Koreans like me [born and living in Japan] can’t leave. Where we gonna go? . . . In Seoul [South Korea], people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am. . . . All those people who went back to the North are starving to death or scared shitless.’” It seems that ethnic Koreans in Japan are perpetual outsiders.
The book begins with the statement that “History has failed us” but the book succeeds in filling in some history about which most Westerners probably know little. And though the Japanese treatment of Koreans is clearly described, the author does not portray all Japanese as bad; there are several positive Japanese characters and at the end, one of the youngest generation says, “Sure, there were assholes in Japan, but there were assholes everywhere, nee? . . . Kazu was a shit, but so what? He was one bad guy, and he was Japanese. . . . [My stepmother, my first love, and my father’s best friend] were Japanese, and they were very good.”
The book is narrated in third person omniscient point of view. One problem is that everyone’s point of view is given, even that of the most minor characters. For example, is it really necessary to be given the thoughts of a garden boy who appears only once in a book of almost 500 pages? The numerous shifts among characters are sometimes jarring.
The book is divided into three parts. The first is the strongest; the characterization is rich and detailed. The third part, however, feels rushed so that the reader’s emotional attachment to the fourth generation is definitely not as strong.
I love books that inform me about some part of history about which I previously knew little. This novel is not an exception. I understand why it is a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. It is a compelling story told in a compelling way.