Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — a novel of identity

Min Jin Lee

I read this 2017 novel for a book group. A nice thing about such groups is exposure to rewarding reads you’d never otherwise pick up.

Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. Sunja is born there around 1916. Her mother subsists running a humble boarding house. Teenaged Sunja is pursued, and impregnated, by businessman Koh Hansu. She vaguely expects marriage; but surprise surprise, he already has a wife back in Japan.

Then an ethereal young Korean Christian minister, Isak, rescues Sunja by marrying her. They relocate to Japan, where he has a posting waiting, and live with his brother and sister-in-law. The child is named Noa; later Isak and Sunja have their own son, Mozasu. (Their names are derived from Noah and Moses.) Both eventually wind up running pachinko parlors; pachinko is a pinball-like game very popular in Japan.

But the book’s main focus is on Korean identity in a Japanese culture that despises Koreans. They are stereotyped negatively and suffer systematic discrimination (despite the impossibility of identifying Koreans by appearance). Japan’s forcing many thousands of Korean women into brothels for soldiers during WWII is well known. Japan (unlike Germany) has been recalcitrant on repentance for this and other crimes.

The novel barely mentions those “comfort women,” but describes much other mistreatment suffered by Koreans. Isak is jailed, suspected of insufficient loyalty to the Emperor, and dies from his horrible ordeal.

Koreans living in Japan remain distinctly second-class citizens — if allowed citizenship at all, after generations of residence. Mozasu’s son, in 1989, works there for an investment bank, until he’s screwed over because he’s Korean.

But what really prompts me to write is Noa’s story. (BIG SPOILER ALERT) He didn’t know Koh Hansu was his real father. Koh reappears, now quite wealthy, as Noa’s benefactor, financing his much coveted university education. Noa and his mother Sunja are resistent, but accept Koh’s largesse. But then Noa’s girlfriend meets Koh, sees the resemblance, and taunts Noa with the obvious. Also that Koh must be a yakuza— a gangster.*

These revelations crush Noa. Cursing what his mother did, he runs away to start a new life, cutting all ties to his family, and starting his own new one, with a wife and children (and passing as Japanese). He sends Koh money to repay what he’d received. He also sends Sunja money but never divulges contact information. For sixteen years.

Finally Koh locates Noa, now 45, and Sunja goes to him, in his office. The reunion is difficult but doesn’t go too badly. Noa promises to come visit her. Then he shoots himself.

He had thought he’d escaped his parentage, but now must have realized he could not. And he could not live with that.

Koh was indeed a gangster. A nasty piece of work, as revealed in only a few glimpses. But as far as Sunja’s family knew, he was just a “businessman.” Noa’s girlfriend could not have known the truth about Koh, nor could Noa, it was just an unsubstantiated suspicion. Perhaps Noa should have probed further before shooting himself.

Or perhaps that’s nitpicking. The real issue here is the heart of human identity. Noah felt himself irremediably contaminated. He had bad blood.

This idea of “bad blood” reverberates throughout human history. The sins of the father visited upon the sons. How many people have indeed been punished for crimes or derelictions (real or just imagined) by forebears?

It’s the heart of racism. The notion that all members of some group are birds of a feather, sharing some (stereotyped) characteristics. As vividly depicted in this book, where the antipathy of Japanese toward “those people” (Koreans) is a constant.

Here’s some science. Biology is not destiny. Even where genes are indicative of certain behavioral traits (and there are such), genes never determine how any individual will behave in any situation. At most, they may delineate proclivities, but an individual’s actual behavior results from too many variables to be predicted by genes or anything else. And it’s certainly untrue that any human subgroup shares biologically determined behavioral traits (different from other subgroups).

Of course there are human behaviors, genetically evolved, which we share as a species. But they don’t differ among subgroups. And even if there were such subgroup-specific genes, their effect would be overwhelmed by all the other factors influencing a given individual’s personal behavior.

That’s not to deny cultural differences. Cultural groups do have their own characteristics, that’s the definition of culture. But it’s not genetic. Remove an individual at birth from their specific culture, and there’s no innate biological reason for replicating behavior particular to that culture.

So Noa’s human identity was not dictated by his father’s gangsterhood. His blood was no more bad than anyone else’s. It was up to him to shape his own life. And, even if there were gangster genes inherited from his father (a dubious idea), those genes would not anyway determine his own character, which would still be his to create.

You can be what you choose to be.

*An echo of Great Expectations? Noa studies literature — he loves Dickens!

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One Response to “Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — a novel of identity”

  1. aglow Says:

    Wow. I had read (listened to) this novel. Learned a lot about the Korean-Japanese relationships.
    After your review, I began to think that Isak and Sunja could be … Isaac and Sarah?
    I was a bit turned off by the Christian undercurrent in this book, albeit in the context of Asia.
    Very surprised at FB reaction. (Not even my anti-45 comments and participation in several groups with names which include our fearless leader’s name, have been censored). And tons of openly racist or explicitly anti-Semitic posts have not been removed despite our groups’ requests).Go figure.
    …Maybe Pachinko is a metaphor for life, which is mostly chance, except when it is rigged?

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