Words by Temi Otedola
Original Thumbnail Art by Antonia Weishaupt
The JTO Book Club is back for its March edition! If it’s your first time reading a Book Club post you can catch up here:
December 2018 Edition: Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (here)
January 2019 Edition: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (here)
February 2019 Edition: Homegoing by Yaa Gyaasi
Welcome to the March edition to the JTO Book Club! For those of you who are new to this series, the JTO Book Club is a monthly blog post that reads then analyses a book voted by you via Instagram. I’m really passionate about sharing and celebrating my favourite reads so please make sure to leave a comment at the bottom of this blog post and join our book-loving online community.
Judging A Book By Its Cover…
(This section documents my conjectures of the book or author prior to reading, I will also include any background information I think you should have before my personal analysis)
Admittedly I had never heard of Pachinko until it was recommended in the comment section of a previous JTO Book Club post. Solely considering the title of the book, I learnt that Pachinko was a mechanical arcade game popularly used as a form of gambling in Japan, although I had no idea how it would relate to Pachinko’s narrative. Pachinko’s cover design gave me the impression it might be a hopeful book, but I still couldn’t guess where the characters would be situated in terms of time frame and location.
Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko tells the tale of a Korean family navigating life through various generations and historical events. Pachinko’s timeline stretches all the way from the 1880s to the 1970s, starting with Hoonie, a lodging house owner in the fishing village of Yeongdo, Korea. Hoonie is locally characterised by his cleft lip and twisted foot, and the reader learns of the prejudice and taboo that followed the disabled or “othered” parts of society at the time. However, it is Hoonie’s daughter, Sunja, who we follow for the duration of the book. We meet her as a young girl, the pride and joy of her father, and watch her become a mother, wife, businesswoman and grandmother. Sunja becomes the focal character for the duration of Pachinko and my emotional attachment to this book largely derived from Sunja’s story.
A principal theme of Pachinko is the historical and social ties between Korea and Japan. Although Sunja’s family is Korean, she and her descendants spend most of their lives situated in Japan. Prior to reading Pachinko, I rather ignorantly didn’t even know that there had been ongoing strife between the two nations. Although the book touches on the historical relationship between Korea and Japan, it does an even better job of presenting the everyday racism felt by Koreans in Japan and even within their own country. Pachinko’s characters live through Japan’s rule in Korea and World War II, so we get to see how the larger political structures affected the social structures between the two nationalities. The reader quickly learns of the common stereotypes used to distinguish Korean behaviour, often linked to uncleanliness and cultural inferiority. It was so bad that Koreans in the Japanese city of Osaka were confined to an exclusively Korean ghetto called Ikaino where Sunja and her husband, Baek Isak, moved to in hope of a better life in Japan. Ikaino is the only place Koreans were allowed to live in Osaka and despite the fact that the Baek family were wealthy in Korea, within Japan they were forced to live in squalor. This perpetual pull between what it meant to be a Korean in Japan and Lee’s questioning of national pride was truly compelling.
These sentiments of racism touched on in Pachinko unsurprisingly led to doubts of cultural identity amongst the characters. We only have to look at Sunja’s sons, Noa and Mozasu, to consider how cultural identity and particularly its loss can affect our idea of self. Noa and Mazasu are actually half-siblings by blood. Noa’s biological father is Koh Hansu, a rich and powerful Korean who Noa first believes is his benefactor. Conversely, Mozasu’s father was Sunja’s husband Baek Isak, the Protestant minister who died following a stint in a Japanese jail after a member of his church had been caught praying when they were supposed to be worshipping the emperor. So already we see the moral mirror that is formed between these two fathers and thus, their two offspring. When Noa finds out that his biological father, Hansu, is tied to the yakuza (Japanese mafia) he rejects his family including Sunja, drops out of Waseda University as his tuition was being paid for by Hansu, and moves to north Japan to start a new life. However, Noa’s troubles had only just begun. In order to work for a racist Pachinko owner, Noa begins living as a Japanese man, using the name Nobuo. He later marries a Japanese woman and has four children, seemingly fitting into a respectable Japanese life;however, he is still stifled by his lie and confronted by his fake sense of self. Noa ultimately commits suicide and I am immediately confronted by how harmful identity issues can be to our idea of self. There is also the issue of “generational disconnect” as we see the descendants of Sunja being Koreans that have never even seen Korea and becoming increasingly isolated from their cultural identities. This generational disconnect is often the existence of emigrating and diaspora cultures, a feeling many of us coming from West African nations can also relate to.
I felt like I needed to end this blog post returning to the female characters Lee constructed. Sunja largely carries Pachinko’s narrative so a female vitality seems to take over the spirit of the book. With this vitality, we see the determination and resilience of women under almost any circumstance. The quote I chose as my takeaway for this book (see below) really encapsulates this, and we see that female hardship often crosses cultural and generational lines. Pachinko shows women as providers (Yangin), women as friends (Sunja and Kyunghee), and women as imperfect as their male counterparts (Hana). However, the greatest feminine emblem I took from Pachinko was motherhood, its strain and entirety of emotion. When Noa dies, Sunja forever lives with a part of her missing. Sunja ultimately blames herself and her past with Koh Hansu, and yet she wouldn’t have married Baek Isak and given birth to Mozasu without him… and so motherhood does not seem so disconnected to the game of Pachinko as I first thought, a game that appears fixed, constant, but leaves space for randomness, loss, and hope.
Go ahead and share your thoughts, we’re all listening.
Temi’s Takeaway Quote:
“Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.”
– Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
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G I V E A W A Y
Follow the below steps to win a copy of Pachinko:
– Follow @jtofashion on Instagram (here).
– Like my latest Instagram photo.
– Comment below on this blog post stating: your thoughts on Pachinko or what your favourite book is and why…
– Send me a DM stating that you have finished the following steps.
– I will post an Instagram Photo tagging the 3 winners so keep an eye out!
For postal reasons, the books can only be sent to addresses within the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States.