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Book Reflections – Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I loved this book! My new Korean friend recomended I read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. It’s a dynastic story that spans nearly 100 years and follows five generations of a family from the south of Korea.

In 1932 under Japanese occupation the Korean people lived in abject poverty in Korea. The young widow, Yangjin lived in a fishing village in the south of Korea with her daughter Sunja. They ran a boarding house. Rent had increased on the boarding house but Yangjin could not charge the boarders more because they could not afford to pay more. The boarders still expected to be served good meals. Yangjin and Sunja worked harder to make ends meet. Sunja went to the market to buy provisions and one of the seaweed vendors said

… Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life – but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman – just ourselves.

Sunja was wooed by a Korean fish broker from Osaka, named Hansu. They talked together twice per week when she washed the dirty clothes and linen. He told her about living in Osaka

The Japanese were not to be vilified…if the Koreans could stop quarreling with each other, they could probably take over Japan and do much worse things to the Japanese instead.

People are rotten everywhere you go. They’re no good. You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let’s see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants.

During WWII when my grandfather was a teenager was forced to leave his studies in Poland and was taken to Germany to join a labour gang. He regretted being unable to complete his studies. All through my youth he encouraged me to study and study. He loved attending my graduation ceremony for my BSc with first class Honours. When I graduated from my PhD he swelled with pride and pleasure. Sanju was seduced as a teenager in Korea by a Korean fish broker, Hansu, who turned out to be a yakuza. She married a pastor named Isak who took her to live in Osaka. Eventually Hansu made contact with her in Osaka and helped to save her whole family including their son Noa during the bombings in WWII. Hansu encouraged Noa to study at university and his advice to Noa reminded me of my grandfather’s advice

Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge – it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.

I liked reading this description of the Pachinko parlor owner, Goro

Goro was a fat and glamorous Korean, notably popular with beautiful women… There was something plush and sensual about his thickly rounded arms and swollen belly; it might have been the smoothness of his clear, tawny skin, or the way he fit into a well-made suit, resembling a self-satisfied seal gliding across a city street.

Min Jin Lee depicts the racism that ethnic Koreans continue to endure living in Japan. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans moved to Japan during the occupation of Korea, some were seeking a better life rather endure than the poverty and cultural annihilation in Korea. Others were tricked or taken by force to work in Japan. They lived in ghettos and were treated badly, officially aliens they were fingerprinted and banned from taking public or private sector jobs. The country they left does not exist any longer. They are stateless zainichi; not accepted or welcome in Japan even if they and their parents were born there and not South or North Korean either.

This is a terrific book. I preferred the earlier sections that focussed on Sunja and I felt it lost some momentum when the focus shifted to her sons Noa and Mozasu then to his son Solomon. I still loved it and was pulled through the entire 500+ pages by the strong narrative.

Even though I’ve been to Japan, I have Japanese and Korean friends, I’ve read about the history of Japan and fiction by Japanese writers, I didn’t know the history of Koreans in Japan!

This review by Tash Aw in the Guardian newspaper is worth reading and so is this reader review and this reader review.


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This entry was posted on April 15, 2019 by in fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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