Thoughts on Pachinko

Thoughts on Pachinko

I’ve watched with great interest as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (NY Times Review) gathered steam in the literary world.  I managed to talk to her at a reading in Boston last year, and read her book over the summer.  In truth, her book couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time, as I had been trying to figure out how to conclude my current book project (Mediating Empire, under advance contract with Stanford University Press), a comparative study of Korean American and Korean Japanese (zainichi) literature that I’ve been working on for the past ten years.  It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve been able to dedicate the bulk of my energies to finishing it, and hope to get it out the door soon. 

Coincidentally, it was while I was researching zainichi literature in Tokyo on a Fulbright grant that I read her first book, Free Food for Millionaires.  I didn’t know it at the time, but according to interviews, she was also living in Tokyo, researching Pachinko

Pachinko is in some ways the perfect example of my book’s central argument–that there’s a transpacific conversation occurring between these two minor literatures that hasn’t been articulated or theorized sufficiently.

Bridging Asian and Asian American studies, Mediating Empire is a multilingual (Japanese, English, Korean) study of two diasporic literary traditions: Korean American and zainichi (Korean Japanese) fiction. Traditionally studied in isolation within their respective fields—Asian and Asian American studies—these bodies of fiction, I argue, engage in a transpacific conversation. Moreover, to adequately comprehend their relationship requires our building a theory of minor literatures and mediating sites—in this case, Japan and the United States. Attendant to my study is a necessary critique of both fields—the need for Asian American studies to expand beyond domestic politics and for Asian studies to engage with critical race studies.

Edit: I thought I’d post an excerpt from my in-progress book on Pachinko–some of which I wrote during a summer residency at the National Humanities Center.  Hopefully I can finish writing and get it out the door between juggling my duties in English and Digital Matters.

A sprawling Dickensian tome, Pachinko follows three generations of zainichi Koreans beginning in Jejudo (Jeju Island), Korea, during the colonial period and ending in contemporary Tokyo, Japan, with an offstage sojourn to New York City. The narrative arc of the novel begins with Sunja, a young illiterate woman, who encounters two young men inflected by western modernity—an infirmed Christian minister named Baek Isak and a sophisticated, dapper gangster named Koh Hansu, a binary contrast that would define her family in subsequent decades. That eventually leads to her bearing two sons, the brash Mozasu and intellectual Noa, who go on separate, winding paths to the same destination—the shameful pachinko gambling industry. It would be Mozasu’s son Solomon—Sunja’s grandson—who ultimately breaks the cycle of shame and tragedy by going abroad to the United States and returning to Japan after a brief foray into investment banking to take over the family pachinko business, absent guilt or embarrassment.

Lee’s novel has two parallel threads reflective of the same idea—a question of reconciling two opposing ideas. The first is highly personal, embodied in the lives of Sunja, Isak, and Hansu; Noa and Mozasu; Solomon and Phoebe, as they attempt to navigate their complicated, contradictory existences with starkly simplistic frameworks. The second is more broadly social and national in scope—determining how much of their lives should be affected by projected racialization and citizenship by national politics. In this respect, Lee’s novel does not tread new ground—Zainichi authors and intellectuals have wrestled with these ideas in their work long before Pachinko. What is interesting, however, is that added layer of complication that comes with Korean American discourse and racialization.

Despite its illicit reputation, over the years the Baek family cannot help but be drawn back, time and again, to the pachinko industry. There are clear overlapping themes in the idea of pachinko as a metaphor for the Zainichi. It is a means of fabricating a kind of structure and logic to the larger machinations of empire and war that have laid waste to their home lives. At different moments, characters attempt to project different frameworks—social standing, nationalism, market logic, Christianity, and global capital, but they ultimately fail; pachinko appears to be the one structure left standing: “His [Mozasu’s] Presbyterian minister father had believed in a divine design, and Mozasu believed that life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control. He understood why his customers wanted to play something that looked fixed but which also left room for randomness and hope” (Lee 296–97). The characters do not necessarily play pachinko, but their industry feeds the illusion of control and a grand design that explains randomness and chaos. That is, the Zainichi who succeed choose not to play the game, but participate in its design.

A primary concern of the novel is the problematizing of simple binaries—whether in relationships, social roles, race, theology, or nationalities. For example, Sunja’s mistakes in her relationship with Koh Hansu and her practicalities supersedes the rigid social norms of rural Korea. She works herself to the bone to ensure her family’s survival—and has little patience for high-minded ideals. Even as the Japanese discriminate against the Zainichi, the Koreans in Ikaino do the same to those who would dare to pollute their bloodlines by marrying Japanese.

“… Mrs. Kim next door told me about the quiet lady who lives at the end of the road who’s Japanese and married to the Korean who brews alcohol in his house. Their kids are half Japanese!” This had shocked Sunja when she’d first heard of it, though everything Mrs. Kim, the lady who raised pigs, told her was shocking. Yoseb didn’t want Kyunghee and Sunja to speak with Mrs. Kim, who also didn’t go to church on Sundays. They weren’t allowed to speak to the Japanese wife, either, because her husband was routinely sent to jail for his bootlegging. (Lee 129)

Even relegated to the ghetto, Sunja and her family cannot help but be held under the thrall of Korean social norms that enforce a strict social hierarchy. Mrs. Kim should be avoided because she doesn’t share their Christian faith; and the Japanese woman who lives in solidarity with her Korean husband in Ikaino should likewise be spurned because the husband bootlegs and their mixed-race children offends their sensibility. There is no intersectional logic or comprehending that it is that same logic leading to discrimination against the Zainichi.

Two suitors mark divergent paths. Entranced by Koh Hansu’s otherworldly charisma, Sunja becomes pregnant with his child, leading to Baek Isak, out of a sense of Christian generosity and mercy, marries her to spare her from disgrace. Suffering from tuberculosis, Isak is not long for this world, yet he adheres to an idealistic sense of justice, family, and the nation. In contrast, Hansu pledges no allegiances, be it in the realm of marriage or nationalism—there is only the market.

But here’s the truth: There’s no such thing as a benevolent leader. I protect you because you work for me. If you act like a fool and go against my interests, then I can’t protect you. As for these Korean groups, you have to remember that no matter what, the men who are in charge are just men—so they’re not much smarter than pigs. And we eat pigs. You lived with that farmer Tamaguchi who sold sweet potatoes for obscene prices to starving Japanese during a time of war. He violated wartime regulations, and I helped him, because he wanted money and I do, too. He probably thinks he’s a decent, respectable Japanese, or some kind of proud nationalist—don’t they all? He’s a terrible Japanese, but a smart businessman. I’m not a good Korean, and I’m not a Japanese. I’m very good at making money. This country would fall apart if everyone believed in some samurai crap. The Emperor does not give a fuck about anyone, either. So I’m not going to tell you not to go to any meetings or not to join any group. But know this: Those communists don’t care about you. They don’t care about anybody. You’re crazy if you think they care about Korea.” (Lee 233–34)

Consequently, Sunja wrestles with balancing opposing worldviews against the stark and simple need to survive.

Were you supposed to have only one person in your life? Her mother had her father and no one else. Was her person Hansu or Isak? Did Hansu love her or had he just wanted to use her? If love required sacrifice, then Isak had really loved her. Kyunghee had served her husband faithfully without complaint. There was no one as kindhearted and lovely as her sister-in-law—why couldn’t she have more than one man love her? Why did men get to leave when they didn’t get what they wanted? Or had Changho suffered enough waiting? Sunja wanted her sister-in-law to make Changho wait, but it wouldn’t have been Kyunghee if she had made him do so. Changho had loved someone who would not betray her husband, and perhaps that was why he had loved her. She could not violate who she was. (Lee 278)

Sunja’s children and grandchildren likewise suffer from varying degrees the same struggle, trying to navigate a discriminatory Japan as Zainichi, initially leading to only two options exemplified by Sunja’s sons. Mozasu, lacking an aptitude or ambition for education, has little option but to enter the pachinko business and embrace marginality, whereas his brother Noa leans on his intellect to earn a spot at the prestigious Waseda University to earn a degree in English literature so that he may one day become a teacher. Ironically, Mozasu’s pachinko business thrives, resulting in his building a small empire and lifting him and his family out of Ikaino and poverty. On the other hand, Noa’s noble aspirations come at a cost—he has internalized a strongly binary logic of purity and pollution, an amalgamation of his father’s religious legacy, Korean social norms, and colonial racialization. Beginning in primary school, Noa dreams of becoming fully Japanese, but labors through Waseda as Zainichi until he learns of the true nature of his parentage and how Koh Hansu, the Korean gangster, has funded his education. His pride and deep shame leads to his dropping out of college, adopting a Japanese name (tsumei), and building a secret second life as a pachinko bookkeeper. When Sunja finally locates him after many years of his hiding out, they have a quiet confrontation in which Noa bitterly rails against the impossibility of his duality and denounces his heritage.

“Yakuza are the filthiest people in Japan. They are thugs; they are common criminals. They frighten shopkeepers; they sell drugs; they control prostitution; and they hurt innocent people. All the worst Koreans are members of these gangs. I took money for my education from a yakuza, and you thought this was acceptable? I will never be able to wash this dirt from my name. You can’t be very bright,” he said. “How can you make something clean from something dirty? And now, you have made me dirty,” Noa said quietly, as if he was learning this as he was saying it to her. “All my life, I have had Japanese telling me that my blood is Korean—that Koreans are angry, violent, cunning, and deceitful criminals. All my life, I had to endure this. I tried to be as honest and humble as Baek Isak was; I never raised my voice. But this blood, my blood is Korean, and now I learn that my blood is yakuza blood. I can never change this, no matter what I do. It would have been better if I were never born. How could you have ruined my life? How could you be so imprudent? A foolish mother and a criminal father. I am cursed.” (Lee 315)

Noa’s early ambition was to engage in a personal Harlem Renaissance-era uplift project by observing the rules and being the best possible representative of his race, he had hoped to redeem the Zainichi. Yet when he learns of the means by which he was earning his education, he realizes the hopelessness of his project and flees to another life in which he carves out a small corner for himself. But when faced with the prospect of his being discovered by his wife and boss, who as a matter of policy does not employ foreigners, Noa’s despair over his inability to integrate his two halves leads to his committing suicide; his rigid adherence to a simplistic binary leaves him no room for the complexities of humanity.

There’s much more I’ve written, particularly with respect to the triangulating that occurs between American modernity and Korean American racial discourse, but I’ll reserve that for the book.