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'Pachinko' Is A Family Saga Of Exile, Discrimination ... And Japanese Pinball

Pinball is big business in Japan. Known as pachinko, the multibillion-dollar industry is dominated by Korean Japanese, an immigrant community that has been unwelcome and ill-treated for generations.

Min Jin Lee's new novel Pachinko is about much more than the game. It's about the story of one family's struggle to fit into a society that treats them with contempt.

Lee got the idea for her book when she was still a college student. It was 1989 and she went to a lecture by an American missionary who had been working with the Korean Japanese in Japan. He told a story about a 13-year-old boy who committed suicide. After his death the boy's parents found his school yearbook.

"And in this yearbook several of his classmates had written things like: Go back to your country," Lee says. "They had written the words: die, die, die. The parents were born in Japan, the boy was born in Japan. ... That story just really could not be more fixed in my brain."

Lee, a Korean-American, was determined to tell the history of Koreans in Japan. She lived there for a while and interviewed many Korean Japanese to get a sense of what life was like for them. She decided to tell their history through a multigenerational family story.

"I was very interested in history but I also thought, you know, history is not that interesting sometimes and it can feel a bit medicinal," she says. "I wanted ... to give these people flesh and blood in the same way that people that I know have contradictions and betrayals and deaths and marriages and the kind of texture of life."

The story begins in the early 20th century when Korea is already under Japanese rule. A young girl named Sunja is growing up in a small fishing village on a tiny Korean Island. She falls in love with a good looking, older man from the mainland.

A woman gambles in a Japanese pachinko parlor circa 1955.
Three Lions / Getty Images
Getty Images
A woman gambles in a Japanese pachinko parlor circa 1955.

When she becomes pregnant he tells her he is already married. Sunja is saved from disgrace by a Christian minister staying at her family's boarding house who offers to marry her and take her to Japan.

"She's a child, she's 16," Lee says. "When she goes to Japan she simply has no idea what's going to wait for her. And to be frank, most Koreans really didn't know that this was going to happen. They didn't know that the history would turn out this way."

The impoverished Koreans who left their occupied homeland didn't find life much easier in Japan. Sunja has two sons and her husband takes care of them both. But when he is arrested for preaching Christianity, her life becomes even more difficult. She and her children survive World War II but then the Korean War breaks out.

With the war and partition of Korea, it becomes almost impossible for Sunja to return to her homeland. Twenty years later she still yearns for what she has lost.

After the war the pachinko parlors start popping up all over in Japan. Both of Sunja's sons find work in the noisy pin ball dens which are often run by Korean Japanese.

Min Jin Lee is also the author of the novel <em>Free Food for Millionaires.</em>
Elena Seibert / Grand Central Publishing
Grand Central Publishing
Min Jin Lee is also the author of the novel Free Food for Millionaires.

"The Korean Japanese could not find legal employment for ... seven or eight decades," Lee explains. "Even now they have great difficulty finding jobs in certain sectors. So, in pachinko they were able to find a kind of employment haven."

Though they may have found employment, and in many cases, financial success, that didn't necessarily translate into respect. Despite its popularity, the Japanese look down on pachinko parlors as gambling dens with connections to criminals. Even so, one of Sunja's sons thrives in the business. But her firstborn, Noa, never comes to terms with the circumstances of his life.

"Noa really is symbolic," Lee says. "He is an emblem of so many people that I met who wanted very desperately to just belong. And they would do everything they possibly could within legal channels to be considered a respectable human being."

As a naturalized American who feels she belongs in this country, Lee says it is hard for her to understand that generations of Koreans have never been fully accepted in Japan. But many of the Korean Japanese she interviewed dismissed her concerns. They have adapted to living in Japan even if their presence there is still not fully embraced.

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Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.