It’s National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, which, as it turns out is not devoted to reminding Americans regarding the importance of careful interpretation of radar data (see “The Man Who Tried to Stop Pearl Harbor”).
In keeping with the Japanese theme, today I will write about a popular-in-America novel: Pachinko. The book answers the question “What happens in a victimhood culture when it runs out of victims to feel sorry for?” with “We find victims within other societies.”
The book concerns the suffering of Koreans living in Japan during and after World War II. Let’s look at some samples…
For my Facebook friends of mediocre means who criticize Donald Trump for partying with various females:
You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let’s see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants.”
The action starts with a 16-year-old who gets pregnant after having sex with a high-income married guy. There were no child support guidelines back in 1930s Korea:
“I am carrying your child.” He opened his eyes and paused. “Are you certain?” “Yes, I think so.” “Well.” He smiled. She smiled in return, feeling proud of what they had done together. “Sunja—” “Oppa?” She studied his serious face. “I have a wife and three children. In Osaka.” Sunja opened her mouth, then closed it. She could not imagine him being with someone else. “I will take good care of you, but I cannot marry you. My marriage is already registered in Japan. There are work implications,” he said, frowning. “I will do whatever I can to make sure we are together. I had been planning on finding a good house for you.”
Single motherhood was not a respectable lifestyle:
If he did not marry her, she was a common slut who would be disgraced forever. The child would be another no-name bastard. Her mother’s boardinghouse would be contaminated by her shame. There was a baby inside her belly, and this child would not have a real father like the one she’d had.
“It’s a difficult thing to be an unmarried woman, but to bear a child without a husband— The neighbors will never approve. And what will happen to this baby who has no name? He cannot be registered under our family name.”
A sickly Christian minister agrees to marry her and patch up the situation. They move to Osaka and that’s where a multi-generational cycle of ethnic minority victimhood begins.
They got off at Ikaino, the ghetto where the Koreans lived. When they reached Yoseb’s home, it looked vastly different from the nice houses she’d passed by on the trolley ride from the station. The animal stench was stronger than the smell of food cooking or even the odors of the outhouses. Sunja wanted to cover her nose and mouth, but kept from doing so. Ikaino was a misbegotten village of sorts, comprised of mismatched, shabby houses. The shacks were uniform in their poorly built manner and flimsy materials. Here and there, a stoop had been washed or a pair of windows polished, but the majority of the facades were in disrepair. Matted newspapers and tar paper covered the windows from inside, and wooden shims were used to seal up the cracks.
Rents are actually kind of low compared to modern-day Manhattan:
“It can’t be that expensive to live here,” Isak said. He had planned on renting a house for Sunja, himself, and the baby. “Tenants pay more than half their earnings on rent. The food prices are much higher than back home.”
Times were tough on both sides of the Sea of Japan after World War II:
“Every day, for every one boat that heads out to Korea filled with idiots wanting to go home, two boats filled with refugees come back because there’s nothing to eat there. The guys who come straight from Korea are even more desperate than you. They’ll work for week-old bread. Women will whore after two days of hunger, or one if they have children to feed. You’re living for a dream of a home that no longer exists.”
There was nothing great about being part of the Korean community within Osaka, so it made sense to move to LA:
A girl normally hard to win over, Yumi admired her teacher, whom all the students called Pastor John. To her, John represented a Korean being from a better world where Koreans weren’t whores, drunks, or thieves. Yumi’s mother, a prostitute and alcoholic, had slept with men for money or drinks, and her father, a pimp and a violent drunk, had been imprisoned often for his criminality. Yumi felt that her three elder half sisters were as sexually indiscriminate and common as barn animals. Her younger brother had died as a child, and soon after, at fourteen years old, Yumi ran away from home with her younger sister and somehow supported them with small jobs in textile factories until the younger sister died.
To her, being Korean was just another horrible encumbrance, much like being poor or having a shameful family you could not cast off. Why would she ever live there? But she could not imagine clinging to Japan, which was like a beloved stepmother who refused to love you, so Yumi dreamed of Los Angeles.
The Pachinko parlor is always fun, though…
It was fair to say that almost everyone at the parlor wanted to make some extra money by gambling. However, the players also came to escape the eerily quiet streets where few said hello, to keep away from the loveless homes where wives slept with children instead of husbands, and to avoid the overheated rush-hour train cars where it was okay to push but not okay to talk to strangers.
The reason that a book about Koreans in Japan is titled “Pachinko” is that ethnic Koreans supposedly dominated this industry.
Divorce and custody laws were not reliably favorable to the mom in 1970s Japan:
The spring before her thirty-sixth birthday, when she was still married and living in Hokkaido, Etsuko had seduced another one of her high school boyfriends. She had been having a series of affairs for almost three years with various men from her adolescence. What amazed her was how difficult it was the first time but how effortless it was to have all the others that followed. Married men wanted invitations from married women. It was no trouble to phone a man she had slept with twenty years ago and invite him to her house for lunch when her children were at school.
[the cuckolded husband] threw her out, and she made her way to her sister’s house. Later, the lawyer said it would be pointless for her to try to get custody of the children since she had no job and no skills. He coughed in what seemed like politeness or discomfort and said it would also be pointless because of what she had done. Etsuko nodded and decided to give up her children, thinking that she would not trouble them anymore.
Children of divorce were not expected to thrive:
This was how life had turned out. Her oldest, Tatsuo, was twenty-five years old, and it was taking him eight years to graduate from a fourth-rate college. Her second son, Tari, a withdrawn nineteen-year-old, had failed his college entrance exams and was working as a ticket collector at a movie theater. She had no right to expect her children to hold the aspirations of other middle-class people—to graduate from Tokyo University, to get a desk job at the Industrial Bank of Japan, to marry into a nice family. She had made them into village outcasts, and there was no way for them to be acceptable anymore.
The divorcée daughter graduates from teenage prostitute to adult prostitute, but the pachinko executive’s son remains in love with her. He goes off to college the U.S. Many of the complex plot points are resolved when a character commits suicide out of shame, e.g., learning that his real father is a gangster.
In the Acknowledgments, the author explains some of her process:
Sadly, there is a long and troubled history of legal and social discrimination against the Koreans in Japan and those who have partial ethnic Korean backgrounds. There are some who never disclose their Korean heritage, although their ethnic identity may be traced to their identification papers and government records.
Then in 2007, my husband got a job offer in Tokyo, and we moved there in August. On the ground, I had the chance to interview dozens of Koreans in Japan and learned that I’d gotten the story wrong. The Korean Japanese may have been historical victims, but when I met them in person, none of them were as simple as that. I was so humbled by the breadth and complexity of the people I met in Japan that I put aside my old draft and started to write the book again in 2008, and I continued to write it and revise it until its publication.
If you’re curious about Asia, the book is interesting. For me, though, the most interesting part of the book is how Americans have embraced it.
More: Read Pachinko. Full post, including comments