About The Author
Min Jin Lee is an author and journalist. Her debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, was named as one of the Top 10 Novels of the Year by the Times and USA Today. She lives in New York with her family. Through eight decades and four generations, her new novel, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival. Opening in Busan, Korea in 1911, it follows the fate of Sunja, only child of club-footed, cleft-lipped man who marries a fifteen-year-old beauty. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife. Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja's salvation is just the beginning of her story. Through her extended family, Lee explores the fate of Koreans living - but barely tolerated - in a country where foreigners are not welcome and opportunites are limited.
Exclusively for Foyles we talked to Min Jin Lee about the paucity of books and films describing the Korean-Japanese community, the importance of pachinko - the adult gambling game - to Japanese culture and its economy and why being mediocre is not the worst thing a person can be.
Author photo © Elene Seibert
Questions & Answers
Where did you get the idea for the story?
In 1989, I was at university, and I read History. One day, I skipped class and attended a lecture featuring an American missionary who worked with the Korean-Japanese population in Japan. The missionary discussed the very troubled history of Koreans in Japan, which I’d known nothing about. He said that in the community that he served, there was a 13 year-old Korean-Japanese boy who had been bullied relentlessly because of his ethnic status. He climbed up to his apartment building roof and jumped to his death. The boy and his parents were born in Japan. I never forgot this story.
Why do you think there are not more books telling the stories of Koreans in Japan? Or perhaps there are and they have not been translated into English?
There is awkwardness, ambivalence, controversy, and or shame in discussing the Korean-Japanese history in Japan. Due to the discrimination that the Korean-Japanese continue to face today, many Korean-Japanese will not discuss their ethnic background openly. In Japan, it is considered rude to ask a direct question about one’s ethnicity. The comparison in the West would be like asking a person’s religion, socio-economic background or sexual orientation, especially if there is a history of or present-day discrimination against the group to which he or she belongs. There are films and books about the Korean-Japanese community in Japanese. However, they are virtually unknown in the West. I do not know of a single work of fiction devoted to the Korean-Japanese written originally in English. I know of one Korean-Japanese novelist (Miri Yu) whose works are available in translation.
Why did you choose to call your book Pachinko? The game obviously plays an important role in the novel and to Koreans in Japan, but were you also making a more general statement about luck and perhaps fate?
Pachinko is an adult gambling game involving a vertical pinball machine. The game became very popular after World War II. As of 2014, pachinko generates annual revenues of about 19 trillion yen, which is about $190 billion U.S. at the current exchange rate, or about twice the export revenues of the Japanese car industry. About one out of every seven Japanese adults plays pachinko regularly. Although ethnic Japanese started the pachinko business, in its near-century presence in Japan, a great number of ethnic Koreans have operated pachinko parlors and have been involved in every aspect of the business. Despite the strict regulatory involvement of the police and government authorities in the past twenty-five plus years, the Japanese continue to view the pachinko industry and the people involved with suspicion and hostility. Nearly every Korean-Japanese person I met in Japan had some historical or social connection, however close or far, with the pachinko business — one of the very few businesses in which Koreans could find employment and have a stake. For me, the pachinko business and the game itself serve as metaphors for the history of Koreans in Japan — a people caught in seemingly random global conflicts — as they win, lose, and struggle for their place and for their lives.
Your characters are all-too-human and make all-too-human mistakes. How hard did you find it not to judge them?
When I research my novels, I interview my subjects extensively, much like the way a long-form journalist works, which allows me to spend time with people who are like my characters. With the passage of time and with greater personal intimacy, I find that I care deeply for my interview subjects, who stand in for some of my characters. In that way, I find that I am not objective like a journalist. Consequently, I find it impossible to judge my characters in a neutral way. However, I think my primary task as a fiction writer is to be very truthful about the emotional lives of people. Fiction can allow greater truth because the characters are not human, and therefore there is less need to hide. Readers are generous, and I think if readers get accurate context and motivation through plot, point of view and characterization, they accept and appreciate the narrative outcomes.
Did you identify more with any one character and if so, why?
Of all my characters, I found Hansu compelling in a way that surprised me. He is a gangster and a violent criminal, but he is also a philosopher who is determined to survive and win a very unfair game, and I found his behaviour and outlook fascinating. Hansu’s love and need for Sunja is foundational to this book. He loves her and needs her because he longs for home and for the person he once was. Love, stripped down to its essence, is like that, I think.
The Koreans’ sense of displacement extends for many generations. Would it have made a difference had they been more welcome in Japan?
Welcoming strangers and successful integration can make an extraordinary difference in the lives of individuals and communities. I doubt there’s a sociologist, anthropologist or psychologist who would disagree. Segregation, legal and social discrimination and economic disparity can impair normal human development. Factors like poverty, early childhood suffering, family breakdown and war can devastate anyone and any nation. That said, I was astonished by the people, who survived such conditions, and how they fared in the face of their persistent rejection. Above all, I was impressed by the quality of their love for their families, communities and the nation where they lived.
Your own family moved from South Korea to the US in 1976. Does it, will it ever, feel like home to you?
The United States is home to me. It is not perfect in the West, but the West is often more generous in their immigration and social policies than many home countries of immigrants. Very often, foreigners criticize the unfair policies of Western nations, but their nations of origin often have extraordinarily unwelcoming policies toward refugees from nearby countries. This is a vexing conundrum. I recognize that all things are not equal and there are myriad factors in each nation’s immigration policies; however, in my family’s experience, we have been welcomed in the United States, and we are naturalized American citizens.
Do you agree with Kazu that being ‘mediocre’ is the worst thing a person can be?
I disagree with Kazu. All of us are mediocre at some things and exceptional in others. Kazu stands for a kind of person who sees the world in a binary way, and for him, mediocrity is terrifying. Being binary can be helpful in making simple decisions, because you exclude other factors; however, being binary is basically delusional or short-sighted at best because real life cannot be explained as choice A or B. In addition, most everyone starts out at something being fairly awful then perhaps luckily arrives at mediocrity; after a decade or so, with great perseverance, he or she becomes rather good at something. Sometimes, I find that very successful people forget that they were born in a wonderful family or a stable nation or were born with the good luck of having desirable height, beauty or good memory. I think the idea of choice is very important, but I think it is cruel to think that one can choose every aspect of one’s destiny.
What research did you have to do for the book and how far did it determine the fate of your characters – or was the broad sweep of their lives already in place from the outset?
I started out reading the relevant works of anthropologists, historians, sociologists and legal scholars, then I wrote a manuscript. However, when I lived in Japan from 2007-2011, I was able to interview dozens of Korean-Japanese people. My interviews made me realize that my initial manuscript was flawed because I had focused on the facts rather than the stories of the people. I rewrote another full manuscript, and I know this book would not have been in existence unless I had interviewed and travelled so extensively in Japan.
I was struck by how many of the dilemmas your characters face as ‘aliens’ are still relevant today to many ethnic groups around the world: how far to preserve their manner of dress, what they eat, their style of speech, and so on, in order to be accepted by the host country. Does this make you feel pessimistic, or do you think there are still ways to achieve some kind of integration without severing ties with one’s roots?
I’m not a pessimistic person. That said, I think what you are pointing out is historically and factually correct. At present, there are 65 million refugees in the world. Although human beings now live in perhaps the best time in evolutionary history in terms of technological advances and life expectancy, most people in developed countries do not feel that it is the best of times. In a scientific sense, things are great; however, things are truly not great for all. Technology has caused great disruptions as well as great advances for society. We also live with increasing political and economic disparity. Economists and political scientists argue with strong evidence that foreigners can do great things for nations; however, integration, as we all know, is uncomfortable for everyone. As human beings, we like those who are like us and fear those who are not like us — this is evolutionary behaviour. Nevertheless, I believe that we are also curious, sentient, complex moral beings who have evolved beyond self-interest and tribalism. I know we’re not going to win over everyone on this point; however, I think more of us want to try to understand, imagine and share so all of us can flourish.