The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] History failed us, but no matter: Koreans in Japan in 'Pachinko'

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Feb. 20, 2018 - 17:39

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Korean-American writer Min Jin Lee’s mesmerizing novel “Pachinko” takes us back to the times of Japanese rule of Korea, when hundreds of thousands of Koreans moved to Osaka in search of a better life. Since all Koreans had Japanese names at the time, they naively thought they could easily assimilate into Japanese society. But they were wrong. They were kept under constant surveillance by Japanese police and were the last hired and first fired in the job market.

When liberation came to Korea in 1945, the situation became even worse for Korean residents in Japan; suddenly they found themselves turned into foreigners overnight. They had to register as aliens and renew their permit to stay in Japan every three years. Some returned to Korea, but many could not leave Japan because they had no home in Korea and their children’s native language was Japanese. Since they were not given citizenship, however, they could never become Korean Japanese. No matter how long you lived in Japan, even if you were a third-generation immigrant, you still had to remain Korean, an eternal foreigner residing in Japan.

To make matters worse, Koreans in Japan could not get decent jobs because the Japanese were reluctant to hire Koreans who were called by the derogatory term, “Zainichi,” meaning “foreign residents.” Pachinko, the Japanese national pastime, was one of the only means through which Koreans could climb up the social ladder and gain financial security. Thus, a number of Koreans in Japan began working at pachinko parlors and later became managers or owners of these parlors.

“Pachinko” is a gripping saga that portrays four generations of a Korean family who moved to Osaka during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The story begins with powerful symbolism: a young girl from a poor but proud family named Yangjin marries a man with a harelip called Hoonie. Perhaps the harelip is a symbol of Korea that is riddled with disadvantages, metaphorically speaking: its unfavorable geopolitical location between China and Japan, its inability of articulating in the international community and its inherited incompetence in diplomacy. Besides, a harelip is also an appropriate symbol because they say that the shape of the Korean Peninsula resembles a rabbit.

Another appropriate symbol is pachinko. Playing pachinko games, you face an uncertain future. You can either make a fortune or lose everything you have. In that sense, pachinko resembles the fate of Koreans in Japan. The author writes, “Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.” Nevertheless, the life of Koreans in Japan was not rosy in the 20th century. Like pachinko, it was full of expectations initially, but risky and precarious at the same time, and finally, ended in disillusionment. It was a sort of gambling after all, and the machines could be tampered with.

Luckily, Yangjin and Hoonie give birth to daughter Soonja, who later immigrates to Osaka, Japan. Soonja’s two sons, Noah and Mojasu, who were born in Japan, find that it is almost impossible to get a decent job due to their nationality and finally end up running pachinko parlors. Noah wants to assimilate into Japanese society but soon realizes it is impossible. He attends Waseda University and pretends he is Japanese and marries a Japanese woman. However, realizing he has lived “a gesture life,” as Chang-rae Lee puts it, Noah commits suicide.

Mojasu, who is an established pachinko manager, wants his son Solomon to experience a bigger world. He enrolls his son in an international school in Japan and then later sends him to Columbia University in the US. To his disappointment, Solomon returns to Japan only to be used by his Japanese supervisor at work and then get fired. Solomon declares that he would inherit the family business, pachinko. It is like the “Godfather” saga -- only without the power.

Of course, “Pachinko” deals with what happened in the past. Things have changed now. We now have Korean-Japanese writers who have won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize and even a Korean-Japanese president of Seigakuin University. Today, Korea and Japan can be good friends, learning lessons from their turbulent history. It is disheartening, however, to watch the recent clashes and deteriorations of friendships between the two countries, instigated by politicians for political gain. Politicians never assume responsibility for what happens to their people as a result of their incompetence or political conspiracy. Where are the incompetent Korea politicians who were responsible for losing their country to Japan and consequently dispersing their people to Japan, China or Russia? They all ran away, not taking the responsibility at all.

“Pachinko” is a powerful indictment of history and politicians who are responsible for it. The riveting novel begins with the stout announcement, “History fails us, but no matter.” We can also say, “Politicians fail us, but no matter.” We will continue to survive and thrive despite our failed history and irresponsible politicians.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and distinguished visiting professor at George Washington University. He can be reached at –Ed.