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Words of a Bibliophile

"It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." —Bee Gees

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

I had heard before about the people called the zainichi (ethnic Koreans in Japan), but I'd never read any books about them. This historical novel brings the spotlight to the lives of these Koreans who live in Japan and their struggles with identity, discrimination, racism and a sense of belongingor not belonging.

The main character Sunja and her family move to Japan before the Korean War, which prevents them from coming back. But it's hard to simply make a living due to the limited occupations available to them, so many Koreans turn to work in pachinko or arcade game parlors. Before reading this book I had no idea that the pachinko business (and also yakiniku) in Japan is dominated by Koreans because it's considered a second-rate employment which many Japanese won't touch. It's also difficult for these people to become Japanese citizens although subsequent generations are born in Japan, while returning to the now divided Korea is also not a simple matter as for many of them Japan is the only home they've ever known.

The story is compelling and I became genuinely invested in the principal characters. However, the writing is pretty weak and stilted with too much telling. As the story progresses through generations it spends too much time on the plot lines of minor characters when I'd rather hear more about Sunja and her family. Luckily the ending pulls things back into focus and provides what I felt to be an appropriate conclusion for such a complex topic.

Despite its flaws this book sheds light on an important issue, one that probably not too many people are aware of but deserves a wider audience. I think The Calligrapher's Daughter would be an interesting companion read for this, as it focuses on Koreans who stayed and survived the Korean War.