“Pachinko” book review


The narrow streets of Osaka’s Korea town, Tsuruhashi

This book is right “in my wheelhouse” in many ways, so of course, I liked it. I enjoy historical fiction, the story takes place in Osaka, where I live, and expatriates play a role in some of the stories.  Author Min Jin Lee is Korean-born but raised from age 7 in New York. Her book brings attention to the discrimination Korean immigrants faced and are facing, in Japan, still today.  It follows four generations of a Korean family, starting in a fishing village in Busan in 1912 and ending in Yokohama in the late 1980s.

Many Koreans immigrated to Japan from when Japan annexed Korea in 1910 through to the Korean War in 1953. Over 2 million Koreans came to Japan, but most repatriated to their ancestral homes following the end of World War II. They were treated very badly in Japan, not being able to find jobs or good housing. The book really gives you the sense of how tough they had it, always on the brink of starvation and struggling to get ahead. Adding to their misery, life in Korea at the time was probably worse, so they were stuck in Japan. The Korean people had been through a lot in the 20th century, and even today, the misery continues for the North Korean people.

yaki-niku (grilled meat) restaurant in Tsuruhashi

Today there are about 800,000 Korean residents in Ikuno-ku, a ward in the southeast of Osaka. It is the area in Japan with the most Korean immigrants and their descendants.   As you can see in my top photo, it is a rather poor area, with narrow streets, older buildings, etc. It reminded me a bit like a typical Southeast Asian city like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, but of course, somewhat cleaner and more organized, because this is Japan. We went to dinner a couple of weeks ago at a well-known Korean restaurant (second photo). We heard people in the streets speaking Korean. It is a really cool area to walk around and explore.


The main avenue in Tsuruhashi


The title of the book, Pachinko, is a Japanese gambling game, something like a slot machine. They are quite popular in Japan, but like casinos, they have a reputation of being associated with organized crime. It was one of the few industries that Koreans could find employment. Several characters in Lee’s story become rich through owning pachinko parlors.

The book mentioned the burakumin (hamlet, or village people), which is a lower caste of people from the feudal era in Japan. I had never heard of this group, but apparently, they are still around today. I need to learn more about them.

In summary, Pachinko is a good story and brings attention to the Korean community in Japan. Lee has a good understanding of Japan, having lived here, and knows the Koreans here. I highly recommend the book.


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