I’m the cult of personality/I exploit you still you love me/I tell you one and one makes three. Living Colour, “Cult of Personality”

I recently read the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I had been aware of this book since its publication in 2017, and it came back to my attention at precisely the moment when I was ready for a big, sprawling novel. I wanted to take a break from heavy non-fiction and lose myself in places and characters. Pachinko perfectly fit the bill. The novel travels from Korea to Japan across several decades of the twentieth century. It’s a story of family bonds and obligations, colonization and war, cruelty and perseverance, but primarily it’s a story of women and what they do to ensure their families survive the most dire circumstances.

I lived in Japan from 1979 to 1983, and parts of the novel brought back memories. I remember, for instance, going to the prefecture office to register as a resident alien and having my fingerprints taken. I also knew a man of Chinese ethnicity who had been born and educated in Japan, and who spoke and wrote Japanese as well as any native, and who, for all intents and purposes was Japanese, but told me how none of that mattered because in the eyes of the Japanese he could never be Japanese. Much of Pachinko deals with the effects of such exclusion. Japan colonized the Korean peninsula around 1910, and proceeded to do what colonizers do, be they Roman, French, English, German or American, which is extract wealth from those they colonize. The wealth can be human labor, land or water, minerals or oil. Korea was no different. The Japanese authorities used their power to levy taxes, appropriate land, and exploit Korean labor.

Koreans who migrated to Japan for a better existence faced extreme hardship, particularly during the second world war. Food, housing, and jobs were all scarce. Koreans were barely tolerated in Japanese society, exiled in ghettos and consigned to the dirtiest, most difficult and demeaning jobs, and faced intense discrimination. Many Japanese regarded Koreans as lazy, criminal, violent, loud and disease-ridden. This tale of Korean migrants in Japan would ring true for Mexicans or Salvadorans newly arrived in the United States, Afghan refugees in Pakistan or Iran, or Syrians in Germany or Greece. It’s the story of the unwanted and uninvited. Wars, political instability, climate disruption, and natural disasters have always forced people to migrate, and it’s this aspect which made Pachinko so poignant and relative to our time. In the past two decades millions of people have fled life-threatening danger, often exchanging one hell for another. They migrate despite risk and hardship, and endure abuse, exploitation and discrimination because the alternative is worse. What Min Jin Lee does so capably is humanize these unwanted people, she gives them names and histories, fills them with hopes and dreams for their children.

The female characters in Pachinko suffer. They deny themselves so those who depend on them can survive. They make the most difficult decisions and consequential compromises, work themselves to exhaustion. Afghan women who have or will flee their war-ravaged country will do the same. For America the war in Afghanistan may finally be over, but for many Afghans, in particular Afghan women, suffering and privation will continue. With Pachinko, Min Jin Lee reminds us that migrants and refugees suffer long after the last shot is fired, the last bomb dropped, or the last of the floodwaters recede.

Photo by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash

Brian Tanguay writes about politics, culture, and books. Co-founder of the California Review of Books and the long running blog, Shouts from the Balcony.