Book Review: Pachinko
"History has failed us, but no matter."
These are the words that open the novel Pachinko by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee, and they perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the epic multi-generational immigrant stories told within its pages. In Lee's own explanation, these words are her 'thesis statement;' the ideas behind it are the main reasons why the book exists. For the author, history has indeed failed us — the ordinary poor people, the immigrants, those who have been left undocumented — and left us to fend for ourselves. Through fictional tales based on historical accounts, Pachinko chronicles the stories of the immigrants who, despite being largely ignored, have succeeded in staking their claims on the world through sheer intelligence and adaptability.
A Multi-Generational Immigrant Epic
Specifically, the stories span from Korea in the 1880s to Japan and America in the late 1900s, a century-long series of interconnected tales involving four different generations of immigrants.
Adam Morgan of the Chicago Review of Books was right on the money when he wrote that Pachinko "could not have been published at a more relevant time in America." Although written back in 2017, Morgan's description remains true today. As modern-day America struggles with bigoted demons of its own, Pachinko is a thesis that is both harshly truthful and impossible to put down.
As a student of history, Lee sees the game of pachinko as the perfect metaphor for the pursuit of fortune, the failings, and the struggles of the people in the book. Stories of marriage, death, birth, and betrayal, provide an entertaining peek into the class-based, racial, sexual, religious, and political divisions that have defined immigrant life in the previous and current centuries. As NPR notes in its review of the novel, the game of pachinko is one of Japan's national obsessions, which is something that is as true in the last century as it is today. In fact, Asian online gaming magazine Expat Bets’ guide to Japan reports that pachinko is regarded more as a recreational activity instead of a casino game in the country, which accounts for its continued mainstream popularity. Old and young locals as well as tourists continue to flock to the many pachinko parlors that are spread throughout Tokyo's Shibuya District. Pachinko is so prevalent in the country's zeitgeist that modern gaming company Sega just recently merged its pachinko and game development branches for the purposes of improving their domestic research and development. Likewise, Konami recently resurrected the renowned horror game Silent Hill as a pachinko machine to appeal to a greater number of audiences.
Apart from being the perfect metaphor for the stories in the book, pachinko is instantly recognizable both to the old and the young, an unbroken connection spanning three different countries and four different generations.
If you liked this review, or if you're looking for more books about Asia and the Asian-American experience, you might also enjoy our list of books on Fall Reading About Japan.