The shame of Pachinko

When I was reading Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, it was such a totally absorbing book that as I went about my own domestic tasks every day, I could picture these poor women in 1920s Korea, running their households with nothing, and trying to make every little grain of barley matter. In the later parts of the novel, all the detailed descriptions of Japanese society and customs made me miss my father’s voice so much, and made me wonder about his own failure to truly discover, or at any rate reveal, anything about Japan in his own long life of cultural anthropology and Japanese studies.

Every detail of the book evokes the place so clearly, and carries such a bitter tone at the rejection of the eternal gaijin that all westerners are, and apparently even people born in Japan and living there all their lives can be. When he went to Nagoya University as a visiting professor of cultural anthropology in 2002, my father probably worked with Masachika Ukiba, the professor who was quoted in the New York Times in relation to Pachinko, talking about his work researching the  Korean diaspora. I’d have thought it is a topic that another outsider is much better placed to explore than the topics my father took on; he wanted to know the inner workings of Shinto rituals in remote mountainous communities. He was always telling me about the frustration of being unable to be on the inside, no matter how good his Japanese was, or how nicely he could read and write the Kanji. He explained all the structures and hierarchies to me, took us around all the temples as little girls, showed me the different noodles and soups, and the food hall in Mitsukoshi. Now that he is dead, I want to ask him more questions about the relationship between Shinto, female virtue and indeed foreigners. The book certainly captured the feeling of Japan, their curiosity about social status and hierarchy, as well as the amazing variety of food.

It was cleverly written, so very descriptive and so cutting in its treatment of plot surprises, artful in its use of the omniscient narrator, and in its highlighting of the way families modify the details of the past to their descendants: the daughter thinks her mother had three miscarriages before she was born, when in fact she had three babies who died in infancy.

I thought on occasions the  method of dealing with the appearance and disappearance of characters when it suited the narrative arc was a little clumsy, but I suppose it brings to life (or death) the central theme of shame. That someone should be ashamed of who they are, ashamed of events they had no control over. The characters who accept the limitations of their situation, and try to turn it to their advantage, are the only ones whose lives are objectively successful. Those who strive to escape the limitations of their personality or society seem to abjectly fail. It’s a book in which the female characters drive the plot, but also remain in the background, as indeed they always have in Japan. When I went there on a business trip to the Japanese office of an American bank, my female Japanese colleagues seemed amazed that two women would take a business trip without a male manager. One of them told me how much it matters to them, to see women who don’t have to apologise for wanting a career, and who want to succeed. I think she was vaguely disappointed when she came to London several years later, to find me complaining about the frustrations of combining motherhood with work, and rushing off to make sure I could say goodnight to my son.

I didn’t particularly like the way that any female character who has strayed from the path of virtue is punished, but I suppose that’s also a reflection of how highly both Christian and other religions value female purity. The character of Hana was particularly troubling, in that it seems as if the author is saying any action that is shameful in the eyes of society will lead to downfall and demise.

My father had mentioned something when I went on the big trip to Japan in 2002 about the dark history of Korea and Japan, and the fact that Japanese look down on Koreans, but it’s quite incredible that they really did fingerprint people who were born and lived all their lives in Japan, simply because they effectively deemed their blood to be untrustworthy.

I found the depiction of Noa, the eldest son, seemed slightly hollow. Even right at the end, his true personality seemed to be bludgeoned onto me by description, without me really feeling I had discovered him for myself. The other characters seemed more alive, particularly Solomon, the most westernised Korean Japanese character. Ironically, it is Noa who is the most Japanese of all of them, with his rigid judgement of a fact that his mother cannot change, which is his own blood, and his judgement of everything she has tried to do for him. Perhaps we all live in fear of that, of our children judging us and finding us wanting.

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