“Pachinko” and the Search for Love
In her book All About Love: New Visions, activist and author Bell Hooks recalls coming across construction walls on Yale’s campus emblazoned with the words “the search for love continues even in the face of great odds.” Amidst great upheaval in her personal life, she said, walking past this graffiti brought her solace. In the rest of the book, she composes a definition for the nebulous abstraction of love, arguing that the word has been cheapened by overuse, distorted by social and cultural expectations, and that it should be looked at as a practice instead of a stagnant state of being.
It is easy to imagine the characters within Pachinko repeating the same mantra that Bell Hooks observed as they carve out visions for their future, encumbered by the tethers of discrimination, the hardship of subverting societal expectations, and exploitation by other people for personal gain. Yet they remain resolute in their pursuit of security, love, and happiness.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee spans centuries and generations, detailing the lives of Hoonie and Yangjin, their daughter Sunja, who moves to Japan, her sons Noa and Mozasu, and her grandson Solomon, along with a host of peripheral characters. Against the backdrop of Japanese-occupied Korea, World War II, and the latter half of the twentieth century, the characters grapple with intolerance in their communities and fissures in their interpersonal relationships. In their attempts to proceed with their lives, the scope of options available to them are narrowed by both individual malevolence, pride, greed of other characters, and both overt and concealed systemic discrimination.
Pachinko’s pragmatism separates it from the novels in my previous columns and to other historical fiction. Instead of chronicling discrete acts of resistance with tangible changes, Pachinko showcases how multiple generations of a family attempt to carve out silos of happiness within imperfect systems and amongst calamities and financial hardship. Instead of the zeal for justice involved in the resistance movements and the collective desire to topple oppressive regimes and fundamentally alter societal attitudes present within other stories, the stories of the characters within Pachinko brim with perseverance on individual and familial levels—Yangjin’s hopes for Sunja’s future, Sunja and Kyunghee selling candy and kimchi to pay for Noa’s education, Mozasu finding his strengths.
This focus on everyday actions and the characters’ attempts at self determination is imbued with both pessimism and optimism. On one hand, the multigenerational nature of the story reveals how time often fails to completely eradicate patterns of discrimination—Sunja’s harassment due to her Korean heritage mirrors her grandson Solomon’s difficulties in the workplace. On the other hand, the characters’ perseverance and grit despite their limited scope of possibilities provides credence to the graffiti that Bell Hooks wrote about. Despite her narrowed agency due to societal norms, and despite the often repeated saying “a woman’s lot is to suffer,” Sunja’s inventiveness and resolve to improve her life does not diminish. Rather, she endeavors to find happiness and share love, “even in the face of great odds.”
In interviews, Lee extols historical fiction for its ability to inspire empathy for individuals in different situations. In Pachinko, she accomplishes this on two levels. She introduces us to the hardships faced by the zainichi, or ethnic Koreans in Japan throughout the twentieth century and she also catalogs the resentments that can form within familial bonds as individuals make tough decisions due to systemic injustice, financial woes, and other hardships constraining their decision making processes. Through fiction, we are privy to a character’s backstory, thought processes, and underlying desires. Through fiction, not only do we learn about external circumstances and power differentials that shape the paths of groups of people, we learn about an individual’s internal calculus and instantaneous decision-making in ways that they often cannot communicate to even their family members.
Pachinko not only provides insight into questions of belonging in twentieth century Japan, it depicts how the specificities of these constraints shaped identities and relationships. It reveals the hopes that parents have for their children’s futures and the concerns that children have about their parents’ approval. These hopes are not for their children to endorse their actions without reproach or follow in their footsteps completely; rather, we hope they can acknowledge the complexities of our experiences and our identities, our own searches for love in the face of great odds. We hope they understand.