There is a tax on success

by Min Jin Lee

This is an epic family saga spanning two countries and most of the twentieth century. It took some time to lure me in, but once in I really loved it.

Pachinko starts in Korea in 1910 – the year when Japan invaded and occupied the country. Lee briefly sketches the family background of the woman who is to become the heart of the book: Sunja. She is the only surviving child of a couple who run a small boardinghouse in a fishing village near Busan. Their tenants are mostly fishermen and their income is small, but their reputation is strong enough that even as times get tough in Korea, they manage to get by.

Sunja is poor, uneducated and plain-looking, and as such she doesn’t expect to marry, but circumstances conspire to match her with an educated man who wants to take her with him to Japan to build a new life, so in 1933 they emigrate. But in Osaka she discovers that there is a form of poverty that is far worse than the way she was raised – because it is based on and maintained by racism. No Japanese company will hire Koreans except for the lowest of menial tasks.

“The winter following Japan’s invasion of Manchuria was a difficult one. Biting winds sheared through the small boardinghouse, and the women stuffed cotton in between the fabric layers of their garments. This thing called the Depression was found everywhere in the world, the lodgers said frequently during meals, repeating what they’d overheard from the men at the market who could read newspapers. Poor Americans were as hungry as the poor Russians and the poor Chinese. In the name of the Emperor, even ordinary Japanese went without. No doubt, the canny and the hardy survived that winter, but the shameful reports – of children going to bed and not waking up, girls selling their innocence for a bowl of wheat noodles, and the elderly stealing away quietly to die so the young could eat – were far too plentiful.”

Sunja and her family must overcome their own pride and fight widespread prejudice in their fight to survive. Even their children and grandchildren are treated as unwelcome foreigners, forced to register as aliens in Japan even though they were born there. Different family members handle this in different ways, with some struggling harder than others against the stereotype of criminality that Koreans are labelled with.

And this is where the game of pachinko comes in. It’s a sort of pinball game, hugely popular in Japan, partly because it sidesteps laws against gambling. A lot of Koreans were able to get jobs in pachinko parlours when they couldn’t get work elsewhere. It was not considered respectable, but didn’t necessarily equal criminal, though the parlours were often owned by shady criminal characters, such as yakuza. In the book key characters get work in pachinko and finally manage to drag their families out of poverty.

Of course, pachinko also works as a metaphor for the fate of the characters, and for Koreans in Japan more widely. It’s a common game that everyone knows is part of life in Japan, but it’s generally looked down on and talked about disparagingly. Like all forms of gambling, it can lead to big swings in fortune but, though it’s largely unpredictable, it’s important to remember that the house always wins.

“’Okay, tough guy,’ Kazu said, ‘Listen, there is a tax, you know, on success…If you do well at anything, you gotta pay up to all the people who did worse. On the other hand, if you do badly, life makes you pay a shit tax too. Everybody pays something.’ Kazu looked at him soberly. ‘Of course, the worst one is the tax on the mediocre. Now that one’s a bitch…Pay attention: The ones who pay the shit tax are mostly people who were born in the wrong place and the wrong time and are hanging on to the planet by their broken fingernails. They don’t even know the rules of the game. You can’t even get mad at ‘em when they lose. Life just fucks and fucks and fucks bastards like that.”

The early chapters of the novel are quickly sketched, almost folktale-like in style, and I worried that this would mean that characters always remained distant and unknowable. But Lee manages to somehow keep a little of that tone throughout while adding in the vital small details and psychological insights to round out the characters from Sunja onwards.

The author’s acknowledgement includes some fascinating background to the novel. Lee had been interested in this topic for more than a decade before writing Pachinko. A Korean-American who was born in Seoul, raised in New York and then moved to Tokyo later in adult life, she first heard about Zainichi (the term often used to describe ethnic Koreans in Japan) as a student at Yale and over the years wrote many short stories and multiple drafts of a novel about them. While living in Japan she spent four years interviewing ethnic and partial-ethnic Koreans there and realised that she had been telling their story from the wrong perspective, and started afresh.

I think this research shows. Not in a bad way – there are no infodumps and the novel at no point feels deliberately educational. But Lee uses the saga structure to depict a lot of different lives from the same starting point, with very different personalities, experiences and value sets.

At one point towards the end of the book, a young man and his girlfriend visit his extended family in Yokohama. She is Korean-American and can speak English and Korean. He is Korean-Japanese and can speak English and Japanese. So she speaks Korean with his family, he speaks Japanese with his family, and the couple speak English to each other. It’s a beautiful example of how millions of households operate throughout the world and yet something so rarely depicted in fiction. I’m not myself an immigrant or the child of immigrants (though my family history is somewhat hard to trace beyond the early 20th century, so who knows?) so I am sure I missed a lot of other small details about life as an immigrant that I just wouldn’t recognise.

Published 2017 by Grand Central Publishing.

Source: Amazon.