Book Review

Min Jin Lee’s PACHINKO

Lee, Min Jin - Pachinko - COVERTitle: Pachinko
Author: George Saunders
Primary Format: eBook, courtesy of NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing
Secondary Format: hardback (purchased from BOTM)
Start Date: February 10, 2017
End Date: March 7, 2017
Rating: 3 ½ to 4 stars

Mozasu couldn’t imagine being so quiet all the time; he would miss the bustle of the pachinko parlor. He loved all the moving pieces of his large, noisy business. His 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.

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is a beautiful story of love and loss, spanning five generations.

It is the story of Sonja, a Korean girl left pregnant and alone, who flees to Japan with her new husband for a better life. In Japan, though, Koreans were met with distain from the locals. Not fully part of either country – neither able to become naturalized Japanese citizens nor able to go back to their home country – they lived a hard life with numerous trials and tribulations.

It was a poignant look at discrimination between two distinct cultures at a momentous time in history – covering the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910; World War II from 1939-1945, and the Korean War from 1950-1953 – and what that meant for the innocent bystanders.

I really liked this story. It was long (weighing in at 490 pages), but well worth it. I felt like I got to know each of the characters (especially Sonja and her sons). I enjoyed watching them mature and learning how to make their way in the world – even as they dealt with being outsiders in different ways.

“Pachinko” plays a large role in the book (hence the title), though it might not be immediately obvious. Or maybe it wasn’t immediately obvious to me. I mean, the word “pachinko” isn’t even mentioned until about halfway through the book. Which makes sense, because up until that point, the author is setting the stage for the characters, letting them grow and develop.

But I digress.

Pachinko is a story about love and loss. But, ultimately, it’s a story about hope.


And yet, we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones. How could you get angry at the ones who wanted to be in the game? Etsuko had failed in this important way – she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.

Thank you to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for a copy of this eBook in exchange for an honest review!

* * *

Post Script:

In “Acknowledgments,” after the conclusion, the author gave her thought process of how she came about writing this book.

As a senior in college in 1989, she attended a guest lecture series at Yale, where the speaker was giving a talk. She recounts her story below.

Lee, Min Jin - AUTHOR 1 coverOne afternoon, I attended what was then called a Master’s Tea, a guest lecture series at Yale. I’d never been to one before. An American missionary based in Japan was giving a talk about the “Zainichi,” a term used often to describe Korean Japanese people who were either migrants from the colonial era or their descendants. Some Koreans in Japan do not wish to be called Zainichi Korean because the term means literally “foreign resident staying in Japan,” which makes no sense since there are often third, fourth, and fifth surviving generations of Koreans in Japan. There are many ethnic Koreans who are now Japanese citizens, although this option to naturalize is not an easy one. There are also many who have intermarried with the Japanese or who have partially Korean heritage. Sadly, there is a long and troubled history of legal and social discrimination against the Koreans in Japan and those who have partial ethnic Korean backgrounds. There are some who never disclose their Korean heritage, although their ethnic identity may be traced to their identification papers and government records.…

I had the chance to interview dozens of Koreans in Japan and learned that I’d gotten the story wrong. The Korean Japanese may have been historical victims, but when I met them in person, none of them were as simple as that. I was so humbled by the breadth and complexity of the people I met in Japan.



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