I hate to admit that I read an R-rated book, but the first thing you have to know about “Pachinko” if you’re on my blog is that it is NOT for youth. This is not one I would put on my bookshelves for the long haul, and because of that, I didn’t know whether or not I’d give it a review at all. But the excuses for why I kept reading through the book is because it really was such an interesting look into a WWII racism-fueled relationship between the Japanese and Koreans. If you haven’t read “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” then plan to read these two titles back to back for a whole array of perspectives on an overlapping bit of history. If you care to have a little more chronological order, then read this one first as it starts and ends earlier. You almost forget that it’s fiction. Almost. And then there is that other layer of the book bearing the motto “a woman’s lot is to suffer.” It takes you through how different women (and men) deal with that suffering. Do they grin and bear it, rise to the occasion, or let it overwhelm them? It does all of this by basically following 4 generations of shameful acts on a Korean family that ended up living in Japan around the time WWII.

There are two things you will need to understand before this book is over: 1. go-saeng and 2. pachinko.

Go-saeng,” Yangjin said out loud. “A woman’s lot is to suffer.”
“Yes, go-saeng,” Kyunghee nodded, repeating the word for suffering.
All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer – suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother – die suffering. Go-saeng – the word made her sick. What else was there besides this? She had suffered to create a better life for Noa, and yet it was not enough. Should she have taught her son to suffer the humiliation that she’d drunk like water? In the end, he had refused to suffer the conditions of his birth. Did mothers fail by not telling their sons that suffering would come?

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

This book offers some very thought-provoking questions, like the one above, about the suffering that comes with this life.

I got way too far into the book before figuring out what a pachinko even is. At first, I was honestly envisioning a bowling alley, which just made no sense – why it would be frowned upon to work in a Japanese bowling alley. So don’t be like me and think that if you read this story. Instead, imagine a hundred slot machines and line them up in a small building or room. Also, take away the money that you would cash your coins in for gambling, and instead use your pachinko balls to trade in for special prizes or tokens. Gambling is illegal in Japan, but the loophole people found was to exchange their pachinko ball winnings for special tokens, and then sell those special tokens on the black market. And just like that, people have their gambling. Voila! Hence why its frowned upon. And yet some of the major characters of this book working at pachinko parlors are some of the most well-off characters! It’s these kind of backwards situations that carry the plot along – giving in to some “shameful” act and then living with any blessings, consequences, lies and scrutiny that follow.

Photo by Emile Guillemot on Unsplash

Physical deformities, illegitimate pregnancies, disagreeing with the government, preaching an unwanted gospel, internalized racism, gender equality, homosexuality, suicide, abortions, it’s like the Japanese-Korean “Inferno” diving through all the levels of things these people wanted to hide from a judgemental society. A society trying to figure out who they were and where everyone stands within a post-war mess that’s had multiple cultures all forced into this uncomfortable mixing of different kinds of people living together. So if you’re wondering what the historical relationship between Japan and Korea is, this might just be a good read for you.

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