Reading Pachinko is like binge-watching every season of an HBO series. Instead of capturing a single time and place, Min Jin Lee’s heartbreaking historical novel spans the entire 20th century through four generations, three wars and two countries with a troubled past. A moving and powerful account of one of the world’s most persecuted immigrant communities—Koreans living in Japan—it may be remembered as one of the best books of the year.
But here’s a secret: Lee almost abandoned Pachinko after the first draft.
Twenty years ago, she quit her job as a corporate lawyer to become a writer. It didn’t go well. “I wrote a dreadful manuscript with a pretentious title that was never inflicted upon innocent readers,” Lee says. Her second attempt didn’t go much better, but her third attempt at fiction, Free Food for Millionaires, was published to universal acclaim in 2007.
And yet, Lee couldn’t stop thinking about her abandoned second novel, the one that would eventually become Pachinko. While Free Food for Millionaires focused on Korean Americans in New York, she still wanted to write about the Korean diaspora in Japan. “The fascinating history of the Korean Japanese,” Lee says, “is one of the clearest manifestations of legal, social and cultural exclusion in a modern, well-educated and developed democratic nation.”
The first draft of Pachinko was set in Tokyo during the 1980s. But when Lee returned to the manuscript, she realized that she had to go back much further.
In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. With the stroke of a pen, every citizen of Korea became a subject of Imperial Japan, and would remain so until Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II. During those 35 years, thousands of Koreans immigrated across the sea to Japan, many of them farmers unable to prove they owned their land.
It is these Korean-Japanese immigrants and their descendants—the Zainichi—that Lee wanted to explore in the resurrected novel that became Pachinko.
The word Zainichi is Japanese for “staying in Japan temporarily,” which is misleading, since most Korean Japanese are permanent residents and naturalized Japanese citizens. Sadly, Zainichi have suffered decades of oppression in Japan. During World War II, Korean men were forced to fight for Japan while Korean women were kidnapped as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. After the war and throughout the 20th century, Koreans were disenfranchised, excluded from Japanese society and denied equal rights. In fact, Japan didn’t stop fingerprinting Koreans during alien registration procedures until 1993.
“The Zainichi are by definition considered foreign, transient and ‘other’ by many Japanese people,” Lee says. “Moreover, some Korean Japanese, especially children who are traumatically bullied, are seen as other to themselves. I was profoundly disturbed by this idea of being seen as permanently ‘other’ at key stages of one’s psychological development.”
In 2007, just after the release of Free Food for Millionaires, Lee and her husband moved from New York to Tokyo.
“The move to Japan was a lucky coincidence for the book, but when I had to let go of the initial draft and start again—buddy, I was not a happy camper,” Lee says. “The field research forced me to throw out the initial manuscript and write a historical novel based primarily on one family.”
The result is Pachinko, a poignant, sprawling, multigenerational epic in the same vein as Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, full of births, deaths, marriages and betrayals. Written in light, fluid prose, it begins in the 1880s on the coast of Korea, where a boy with a cleft palate is born into a small fishing village. Shortly after Japan colonizes his homeland, he marries the daughter of a farmer with the help of a matchmaker. Their own daughter, Sunja, almost brings the family to ruin as a young adult, but a Protestant minister whisks her away to Japan in 1933, where she becomes the matriarch of an extended family.
In Osaka, Sunja and her children are subject to bigotry because of their Korean heritage. Through World War II and the fall of the Empire of Japan, Sunja raises two boys with the help of her sister-in-law. The firstborn studies European literature in college until he learns a shocking family secret. Heartbroken, he moves to Nagano and pretends to be Japanese, eventually joining his brother in the pachinko business, though not in the same parlor, or even the same city. Eventually, Sunja becomes the grandmother of a Tokyo banker who carries the story into the 1980s, a full century after the story began.
The novel was initially called Motherland, but Lee changed the title when she came to a realization: “Nearly every Korean-Japanese person I interviewed or researched was somehow related (either intimately or distantly) to the pachinko business, one of the very few businesses Koreans were allowed to work in or have an ownership interest.”
If you’ve ever watched “The Price Is Right,” you’re already familiar with pachinko. It’s essentially a vertical pinball machine, though it was stylized as “plinko” for the game show.
“The pachinko business—a multibillion-dollar industry with double the export revenues of the Japanese automobile industry—is often viewed with great suspicion and contempt by middle-class Japanese,” Lee says. “However, one out of every 11 Japanese adults plays pachinko regularly, and there is at least one pachinko parlor in every train station and shopping street in Japan. Pachinko is a game of chance and manipulation, and I was interested in this gambling business as a metaphor.”
Like a pachinko ball, Sunja careens through the 20th century as a daughter, a wife, a mother and finally a grandmother. “It took so much of my life to write this novel, and even though the work and the waiting was its own trial, I have to acknowledge that it was helpful to age along with the book because I had the opportunity to encounter and learn as many different perspectives as possible,” Lee says.
And while Pachinko takes place on the other side of the globe, it should be required reading for Americans in 2017.
“The recent presidential election has demonstrated a deeply divided nation, but what is even more troubling to me is how all the different groups cannot seem to comprehend the views of the others,” Lee says. “In an increasingly polarized world with great economic, educational and socio-cultural disparities, I want to believe that we can turn to narratives to empathize with all the parties who participate in both inclusion and exclusion.”
If you want a book that challenges and expands your perspective, turn to Pachinko. And don’t be intimidated by the page count or the grand scale of the story—in Lee’s deft hands, the pages pass as effortlessly as time.
This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.