Koreans in Japan

Pachinko     Min Jin Lee     (2017)

“Pachinko” is a popular Japanese slot-machine game. You may wonder, until well past the halfway point of this novel’s 485 pages, what pachinko has to do with a saga about four generations of a Korean family in the twentieth century. Have patience.

First you have to be well steeped in the story of Sunja, a poor teenager who is seduced by Hansu, an older Korean gangster, in her village in what is now South Korea. By chance, Isak, a Korean Christian minister, passes through the village. He rescues Sunja from the ignominy of an unwed pregnancy by marrying her and taking her to Japan, where he will work as a missionary. The year is 1933.

Historical events of the turbulent twentieth century constantly buffet Sunja, Isak, and their extended family and friends in Japan, where the bulk of the story plays out. Japan’s expansionist wars of the 1930s and 1940s fuel nativist sentiments in the Japanese  populace. Korean immigrants, who are “zainichi” (foreign residents), are relegated to the most menial jobs and are paid less than Japanese for the same work. Korean children born in Japan do not become citizens—they’re essentially countryless. As one character pronounces: “’This country [Japan] isn’t going to change. Koreans like me can’t leave. Where we gonna go? But the Koreans back home aren’t changing, either. In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.’“ (383)

Once Korea is partitioned into North and South in 1948, the situation gets even murkier: “After the [Korean] peninsula was divided, the Koreans in Japan ended up choosing sides, often more than once, affecting their residency status. It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor.” (441)

A few ethnic Koreans living in Japan figure out that they can become entrepreneurs in the pachinko business, and a well-run pachinko parlor can turn a nice profit. Proceeds from pachinko parlors, plus help from that gangster Hansu, pave the bumpy road out of poverty for some characters in the novel. Other characters hide their Korean ethnicity, dressing like the Japanese, learning to speak Japanese without an accent, taking a Japanese spouse. This subterfuge is possible because the physical characteristics of Japanese people and Korean people are often very similar.

The straightforward, direct sentence style in Pachinko suits the themes of the novel, and the Korean and Japanese words in the text give the flavor of the setting without weighing down the narrative. I caught the simple ones, like “kimchi” (the Korean dish of fermented cabbage and radish) and “hanko” (a hand stamp of one’s name, used throughout East Asia). The meanings of other words were obvious from their context, but I had to look up a few as I read.

It would have been easy for novelist Lee to paint the Japanese as always the bad guys and the Koreans as always the good guys, but she does not adopt this dichotomy. Although she lays out the Japanese discrimination against Koreans clearly, her long list of characters includes both Koreans and Japanese who are deceitful and honest, talented and mediocre, wise and foolish, lazy and hardworking, compassionate and heartless, selfish and generous, prejudiced and open-minded. She pulls into her story subplots that touch on issues such as the status of minority Christians in Japan and the evolving attitude toward the place of women in the family and in the workplace over the course of the twentieth century. 

Above all, though, this is a universal story about the immigrant experience—about taking a job that’s far beneath your skill level because you don’t know the language, about being segregated into a slum area, about being subject to complicated rules that you don’t understand, about living constantly with fear. Immigrants enter a game of chance, stacked against them, much like pachinko players.

In her Acknowledgements, Lee tells us that it took her nearly thirty years to write this impressive novel. It was well worth the time.

Family Sagas: Three Reviews

Review #1

Commonwealth     Ann Patchett (2016)

I can accord all the usual accolades to Patchett, who deftly spins a saga covering fifty years of a family that she admits is somewhat like her own—it doesn’t matter exactly how much. Commonwealth is a set of interconnected novelettes about the affairs, divorces, and remarriages of the older generation and the resultant dysfunctions visited upon them and their children in California and Virginia. The characters are wonderfully crafted, the scene-setting is vivid, and the pacing is energetic. But there’s a serious flaw in this book that I simply cannot get past (spoiler coming). One character, who has a clearly known allergy, dies from anaphylaxis. Patchett repeatedly presents Benedryl tablets as the antidote that the character should have ingested, possibly because these tablets have other roles in her story. In fact, the death could have been prevented only if epinephrine (in an EpiPen) had been administered quickly. This is not a footnote in the novel but rather a defining event. Is Commonwealth still worth reading? Yup. But I’ve warned you.

Review #2

The Turner House     Angela Flournoy (2015)

For a comprehensive examination of the decline of the great city of Detroit, read the classic nonfiction text, The Origins of the Urban Crisis:  Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugrue. For an intimate portrayal of the effects of that crisis, read The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. I’m pretty familiar with Detroit. Flournoy has captured the city in its gritty bleakness of the early 2000s as well as, through flashbacks, in its manufacturing glory of the mid-twentieth century. Her angle in is the varying fortunes of the African American Turner family, with thirteen children who were born in the better days and are aging in the dying urban landscape. Although the cast of characters is huge, Flournoy keeps the plot manageable by developing primarily the stories of the oldest and youngest of this clan. The house that the Turners grew up in is depicted lovingly, as an organism in decline. The Turners are African Americans, but The Turner House is about working class Detroiters of any race or ethnicity who are trying to maintain family bonds through tough times.

Review #3

The House at the Edge of Night     Catherine Banner (2016)

Like Shakespeare’s island in The Tempest, Catherine Banner’s island of Castellamare is a tiny Mediterranean refuge for shipwrecked souls, a place of implausible coincidences and occasional magic. Banner follows a family on Castellamare throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, starting each section with a local legend that sets the tone for her archetypal, folkloric characters. The titular House at the Edge of Night is a bar and gathering place for the island community. Readers watch as the succeeding generations of Amadeo Esposito’s family take on the management of the bar, through periods of prosperity and depression, war in the surrounding world, and conflict in the village. Although the novel has a dreamlike, wistful quality, Banner treats serious issues such as clan loyalty, sibling discord, political clashes, and the rival demands of career and family. 

Proulx and the Forest

Barkskins     Annie Proulx     (2016)

In the year 1693, we meet the original “barkskins” of Annie Proulx’s gigantic novel.  René Sel and Charles Duquet are poor young Frenchmen who take their chances in agreeing to cross the Atlantic and serve for three years as loggers in return for a promise of land of their own. Arriving in the maritime regions of New France (now Canada), René and Charles are stunned by the brutal weather, the vicious mosquitoes, and the virgin forests of unimaginable magnitude.


The two axe-wielders take divergent paths in the wilderness. René Sel sticks with his backbreaking job, reluctantly marries a native Mi’kmaq woman, and dooms his descendants to lives of hard labor in the forests to which they are constantly drawn. The Sel family gets stuck in a racial borderland between European and indigenous cultures and never thrives.

Charles Duquet, however, quickly abandons the tree felling and makes his fortune, first in furs and then in lumber, changing his name to Duke along the way. Charles is the consummate shark, founding a dynasty and a business empire.

Over the three hundred years that Proulx follows these two fictional families, both the Dukes and the Sels exploit the forests—the Dukes through land deals and the Sels by actually chopping down tree after tree after tree. The branches of their families occasionally brush against each other. (The characters are so numerous that I needed to flip frequently to the genealogical charts at the back of the book.) Sometimes Proulx pauses and develops a character in depth. At other times she tosses out names and moves on with her plot.

In the end, the main character of Barkskins is the forest—that vast forest that stretches across much of the North American continent at the beginning of the book. Although the species vary as the barkskins and lumber barons move westward, clearing the land, I think Proulx sees all the trees of North America as part of one mystical body. She’s at her most eloquent in describing this character.

When the surveyors in her story get to what will become the state of Michigan, they find sugar maple, beech, yellow birch, oak, hickory, pine, hemlock, spruce, and fir in forests so dense that the paths of the Native Americans are almost impossible to follow. The huge diameters of the trees are a challenge to the technology of the period. I pored over the descriptions of my home state’s trees, in awe of Proulx’s rich language.

She is, in effect, writing a eulogy for the North American forest, which has become a victim of human depredation, part of a global destruction of the environment. As Proulx takes us through the centuries, we see the respect that native hunter-gatherer societies had for the natural world give way to the Europeans’ demands for tillable land and space for cities. Feeding and housing hordes of immigrants increasingly take priority. The forest sighs, weeps, groans, and dies.

The human toll exacted by the felling of those hundreds of millions of trees is not ignored by Proulx. Gruesome deaths, either directly or indirectly related to the timber industry, abound. I found these deaths difficult to stomach; picture the possibilities with axes, lumber mill saws, huge jams of logs rolling through river rapids, and the menacing branches of toppling trees.

This is a glorious but tragic novel, a moral statement about the failure of humans to be stewards of our planet’s abundance. Yes, Proulx’s ending is weak, her narrative seeming to dwindle like the forest itself. In 1693 no one could imagine that the North American forest would ever end. The tragedy that Proulx documents is not one cataclysmic event that's easily recognized. Rather, it’s the loss of one tree after another, until the forest is gone.

Conroy, a Poetic Prince

The Prince of Tides      Pat Conroy  (1986)

When Pat Conroy died in March 2016, I ran across many heartfelt tributes to his writing. I felt guilty. How had I missed reading an author so beloved by so many readers?

With a few clicks, I figured it out. Conroy wrote about the American South and about the experience of being a male Southerner who was subjected to brutality in both family and school environments. I find much fiction about the South painfully depressing. In high school, when Carson McCullers was assigned, I ate up The Heart is a Lonely Hunter but then had nightmares for weeks. Heretical as it sounds, I’ve never been enthralled by William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor.

I decided, however, to give the South another chance by reading Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. It took me several days, since this is a long—and longwinded—novel. I kept thinking how some of the lengthy dialogues could have been edited down considerably without diluting the power of the story. The narrative is complex, certainly, and I was willing to follow it to the end, but I was tempted to skip entire sections just to get on with the plot.

Briefly, that plot follows about forty years in the lives of the three Wingo siblings, who were born in the South Carolina sea islands during World War II. Their father is a successful shrimper who wastes all his earnings on get-rich-quick schemes. He flies into rages and beats his wife and children. That’s the least of the horrors that the Wingo kids endure. Slowly, very slowly, the reader gets the full picture as Tom Wingo, the first-person narrator, explains the family history to a psychiatrist who’s treating his suicidal sister, Savannah, in New York City in the early 1980s.

Despite the hundreds of scenes in this novel that feature Tom Wingo, I didn’t ever grasp his personality in full. Tom is a jokey guy, often spouting self-deprecating retorts and constantly whining about male Southerners with a grim fatalism. He reads widely and finds fulfillment in coaching adolescents in sports. But when he opens his mouth, ridiculous statements spew out.  I never figured out Tom’s mother, either. Is her repeated repression of trauma a form of abuse or of self-preservation or both? Does she exploit or regret her renowned beauty? Isn’t Conroy’s portrait of her as a young mother inconsistent with his portrait of her as an older woman? And Tom describes his brother, Luke, as a hero who’s much larger than life, which is perhaps Conroy’s way of showing how much Tom worshiped Luke.

All that aside, I found much to admire in The Prince of Tides. Conroy’s vocabulary is enormous, and his words are deployed to great effect in evoking the fragile glories of the semitropical saltwater marshes of the South Carolina coast. He tosses off striking metaphors with ease and moves actions forward with powerful verbs. He doesn’t use an ordinary noun when a fanciful one can be found; a song becomes a “canticle,” which will be the exactly right term for that sentence. The smells of the Low Country fishing industry often have metallic descriptors that succeed in recreating the place. The flora and fauna thriving in the thick, humid atmosphere are portrayed with particularity and reverence.

Conroy gives his character Savannah Wingo the vocation of poet, and he seems to envy the way Savannah can transform the stories of her troubled youth into paeans for a disappearing way of life. You can read The Prince of Tides if you want a sprawling Southern melodrama. I read The Prince of Tides for the poetry of the language.