the story behind the book | kate tuttle

Korean immigrants struggle in hostile Japan

David Wilson for the boston globe

Min Jin Lee’s second novel, “Pachinko,” begins with a line that can read like pure fatalism: “History has failed us, but no matter.” As the book unspools over four generations of a Korean family that migrates to Japan, it begins to feel more like a kind of determination to survive, even in a country and culture hostile to them.

“Most people don’t really want to hire Korean Japanese,” Lee said. “Men couldn’t become police officers or teachers or postal workers — ordinary middle-class jobs people aspired to have — let alone enter the white-collar world,” she added. Prejudice against Koreans is common in Japan, Lee said, but it’s a story that’s not well-known outside of Asia.

For Korean-born Lee, who moved to the United States at seven, it wasn’t an easy story to tell. “I had an entire manuscript in 2007,” she said, but upon moving to Japan and meeting Korean Japanese people, she realized she needed to rewrite the novel and include their voices. The key, Lee said, was women her grandmother’s age, people who were often illiterate, who “went to this other country where everyone thought you were garbage. You had to live in ghettos. You might have a pig living in your house. Sometimes you were making moonshine to make money.”


She rewrote the book, naming it for the vertical pinball machine that many Americans think of as a children’s game. In Japan, it is a $230 billion industry, Lee explained, and one that’s dominated by ethnic Koreans, who found a niche in an economy that discriminated against them.

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“Pachinko, like all gambling, is rigged,” Lee said. “The house always wins. It’s a central metaphor of life. It’s rigged, but you keep playing.”

Lee will read 7 p.m. April 29 at La Rana Rossa, 154 Green St., Jamaica Plain.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at [email protected].