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“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a novel spanning four generations and eight decades of an ethnic Korean family in Japan. Korea was colonized by Japan for decades.
The novel begins in 1910, the year Japan annexed Korea. “Pachinko” tells of the struggles of a Korean girl, Sunja, who works tirelessly in her parents’ boarding house for fisherman. She is not beautiful, but she is sweet and wholesome looking. She falls in love with a rich Korean businessman who lives in Japan but travels often to Korea. Her naivete leads to pregnancy, forcing leave Korea for Japan to protect her family from disgrace. A young minister offers to marry Sunja and bring her to Japan to start a new life.
The constant themes of her story are surviving through hard work, the clashing of Japanese and Korean societies and religions, and trying to live honorably amid endemic racism.
Korea continues to slide into more poverty as the Depression continues and Japan invades and takes over the country. Many Koreans move to Japan looking for jobs. They find menial jobs there, but they also find themselves considered the dregs of society.
In school the Japanese children ignore or taunt the Korean children. Some companies openly say they will not hire Koreans. And Koreans do not live in wealthy Japanese communities no matter their wealth. Even after a Korean family has been in Japan for three or four generations, each child still had to register with the government every three years. If they travel on their Korean passport they may not be allowed back into Japan. It is also very difficult to get Japanese citizenship.
The author was born in South Korea, educated and lived in America where she met her half-Japanese husband. The story is poignant and moving and beautifully written. The Korean family of this novel endures some terrible times as they head into World War II. They also experience some hard-won triumphs.