The house always wins
Pachinko is a Japanese game which resembles a pinball machine. Anyone who visits modern day Tokyo (once COVID restrictions allow) will stumble across numerous Pachinko parlours, drawn towards their smoke filled interiors with the sounds of video games chiming. The average foreigner is likely to assume such places to be relatively harmless, perhaps a hark back to the video games arcades that were found in Australia in the 80s and 90s that have since been largely retired. As such, we are often quick to imagine that such places are harmless dens of fun, however there is a sinister background to such places where those looking for the escapism of gambling are welcomed.
Exploring the often hidden plight of Korean people who emigrated to Japan, Pachinko follows multiple generations of a family who moved to Osaka, a large city south of Tokyo, prior to the Second World War. The story begins by painting a somewhat idyllic, yet realistic picture of Korea under the colonising rule of Japan. As the setting moves across the ocean, it is difficult not to acknowledge that Korean people were treated as second class citizens, or worse.
This oppression raises many questions for the Christian protagonists who seek to follow Christ’s example of faith, generosity and integrity in desperate times. The author raises and explores many political and ethical dilemmas that hold commonalities with figures from the bible, such as how to continue to serve the Lord under the rule of an Empire that demands to hold priority. It also explores personal crises, as one of the main characters very early on discovers that she is with child out of wedlock.
The book is peppered with the continued challenges that face the family over generations. The author explores the many ways that individuals seek to avoid or break free from prejudices, attempting to play by a set of invisible and unspoken societal rules. It is revealed throughout the book the way in which this struggle of life for many foreigners in Japan was rigged, much like the game Pachinko itself. Though players may be deluded into supposing that they may be able to win if they follow the rules, the stark reality is that the wins are few and far between, and always orchestrated and controlled by the house.
In her acknowledgements, the author describes the motivation behind the story, recalling a lecture she heard from an American missionary who served in Japan in the 1980s. The lecturer recalled an incident where a Korean boy had terrible messages written in his year book. Tragically, the messages were discovered by his parents after he took his own life. This book serves as a reminder of what can happen when people are treated as an “other”, their humanity removed. Given recent events in the US and Australia, prompting the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, these lessons are important to revisit today as they ever were. Min Jin Lee delivers these remonstrations with her direct, yet engaging writing style.
Not for the faint hearted, Pachinko is a lengthy and at times heartbreaking read at around 500 pages.
Pachinko is available in most bookstores and as an ebook or audiobook.
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