Regarding Pachinko, from a Korean American Perspective

Solomon (Jin Ha) in Pachinko. Apple TV.
In this post, Adhy Kim highlights Pachinko’s Korean American roots.

Back in 2017 when I first learned about the release of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, I was surprised that a large American publishing house had decided that the subject of Zainichi Koreans would merit mainstream interest. Five years later, I am not nearly as surprised to see that the novel has been adapted into a television series. Cultural content by Korean Americans has reached a level of visibility that I would have found hard to believe ten years ago. Pachinko’s success is an intriguing sign of an American multiculturalist literary establishment canny enough to know that stories about ethnic discrimination would interest English-language readers even if the minority group in question lies outside the United States. It should be acknowledged, of course, that the history of Zainichi Koreans is deeply entwined with the United States; for example, Zainichi Korean communities are grappling with a divided Korean peninsula still technically at war – a war in which the U.S. plays a large part.

“Lee’s writing of Pachinko strikes me as something of an exercise in speculation.”

As a Korean American studying literary connections between Japan, Korea, and the United States, I wonder what led Min Jin Lee, a Korean American, to devote much of her literary career to narrativizing Zainichi Korean lives. Lee’s writing of Pachinko strikes me as something of an exercise in speculation. It is as if she were asking: What if my Korean grandparents had moved to Japan as migrant laborers during the colonial period? What if they had stayed there after Japan was defeated in the war? What if they were denied citizenship by the country they had lived in for the past thirty years? What if my parents had been stateless or at best “permanent residents”? What if, instead of growing up in America and speaking English and being stereotyped as a “model minority,” I had grown up in Japan and spoke Japanese and was stereotyped as a criminal or lowlife? It is this speculative aura surrounding Korean postcoloniality that makes Pachinko an interesting story to consider – and it will be interesting to see how Korean American directors Justin Chon and Kogonada bring this imagined “alternative family history” to life as well.

“At the end of the day, many of these characters leave me with the impression that they are merely the alter egos of Korean Americans…”

In the novel, we see how different migration trajectories result in different subjectivities. As the young Zainichi Korean character Solomon realizes about his Korean American girlfriend Phoebe, “They were both ethnically Korean and had grown up outside Korea, but they weren’t the same” (442). The granularities of identity are continuously parsed out while also held at arm’s length, never allowed to totalize someone. It is this very cautiousness and slipperiness that could be said to be the novel’s strength and weakness. At the end of the day, many of these characters leave me with the impression that they are merely the alter egos of Korean Americans, assembled into Lee’s narrative as an apolitical immigrant multitude with the qualities to carve out some kind of “home” in either Japan or the United States. It is difficult to say whether the novel’s overarching “immigrant” ethos does justice to the complexities of Zainichi Korean experience. In the context of American culture, too, something about the Asian American valorization of diasporic struggle and post-nationalist belonging gives me pause when the colonial structures undergirding racism and nationalism (in both Japan and the U.S.) are left unquestioned.

The success of Pachinko makes me hope that interest in Zainichi Korean narratives by Zainichi Korean authors will gain traction among English-language readers and viewers. Lee’s novel shares many structural similarities, for example, with Yang Sok-il’s Blood and Bones (chi to hone), a harrowing semi-autobiographical novel also spanning much of the twentieth century. Unlike Pachinko, Yang’s novel gets at the gritty underbelly of Zainichi Korean life in Osaka and refuses the trajectory of upward mobility. We should of course celebrate the fact that through Pachinko, Zainichi Korean characters will appear in front of English-speaking audiences to an extent unimaginable one or two decades ago. But more stories – and definitely more politically charged ones – should be shared as well.

Adhy Kim is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He broadly studies how Asia and the United States are co-constituted through the forces of militarism and empire. His research focuses on cultural productions from Japan, Korea, and their diasporas.