Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Yappie starter pack: ramen, Harvard sweatshirt, EDM, red envelopes, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Pachinko. This book is very hyped by Asian Americans, and it’s easy to see why. The ingredients are all there: Japan, Korea, immigrants, generational drama. The first half of the book is an epic tragedy with arranged marriages, WWII, and poverty; the second half comprises of many short episodes focusing on specific characters. I found the first half a bit slow but I really enjoyed the second half, which – through the lens of different characters – explored a wide range of topics including even investment banking. By the end, I was able to see the magic that tied everything together across a century and four generations.

1) “‘What? I don’t understand you, you stupid Korean. Why can’t you speak Japanese? All of the Emperor’s loyal subjects are supposed to know how to speak Japanese! Aren’t you a loyal subject?'” – the short one

Birthplace has way too much weight in life.

2) “‘You’re a generous person, but it can be dangerous for us. If people think we have extra, our house will be robbed.'” – Yoseb

The risk of something bad happening is a huge obstacle to helping others. I guess that’s why there are middlemen charities that serve as quasi insurance (or one could argue charities have economies of scale).

3) “The officer believed this – the Japanese government was a fair and reasonable one.”

So many things in history – or the present – look ridiculous, but when we don’t understand how one individual brain works, how can we expect to understand how a group of brains work together?

4) “Every day, for every one boat that heads out to Korea filled with idiots wanting to go home, two boats filled with refugees come back because there’s nothing to eat there.”

The book follows a North Korean family, which adds an extra layer of intrigue to the story. Several times, the protagonists thought about going home to Korea, but the situation in North Korea was so bad that it was better for them to stay in Japan despite discrimination. I’m not sure if they could have gone to the south instead. I think they could have, but it didn’t make sense since the south wasn’t home, and they would have faced another form of discrimination for having lived in Japan.

5) “At lunchtime, Haruki sat at the end of the long table with two seat gaps around him like an invisible parenthesis while the other boys in their dark woolen uniforms stuck together like a tight row of black corn kernels.”

xxxx ( x ) xxxx

6) “Hansu never told him to study, but rather to learn, and it occurred to Noa that there was a marked difference.”

The ability to learn is the most important skill.

7) “He felt lucky to be at a university and not in most other settings, where the person in charge was always right.”

Maybe this was the case in mid-20th century Japan. Based on my experience, people question authority the least at schools. That said, this probably shows how lucky I’ve been more than anything.

8) “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.”

Pachinko is the perfect metaphor for Koreans who chose to stay in Japan.

9) “‘A woman’s lot is to suffer.'” – Yangjin

While this concept is nothing original, I noticed how the author repeatedly juxtaposed the female characters’ suffering with the male characters’ solution of choice: leaving – including taking their own lives.

10) “‘There’s nothing fucking worse than knowing that you’re just like everybody else. What a messed-up, lousy existence. And in this great country of Japan – the birthplace of all my fancy ancestors – everyone, everyone wants to be like everyone else. That’s why it is such a safe place to live, but it’s also a dinosaur village. It’s extinct, pal…. Japan is not fucked because it lost the war or did bad things. Japan is fucked because there is no more war, and in peacetime everyone actually wants to be mediocre and is terrified of being different. The other thing is that the elite Japanese want to be English and white. That’s pathetic, delusional, and merits another discussion entirely.'” – Kazu

After pages of subtle criticism of Japan, we have this scathing diatribe.

As my high school English teachers would say, show don’t tell. There’s a lot of telling in Pachinko, but it works. There are too many characters to adequately show who they are, so we get a lot of their thoughts explicitly. Especially in the second half, there isn’t much character development. Instead, the author gives snapshots of their lives that summarize their values. There’s definitely an opportunity for a sequel focusing on the post-war characters, but I’d rather this book stay its own independent story. It’s more than good enough.

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