The World Is an Unfair Place: An Interview With Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko is a multi-generational look at the little-known plight of Koreans living in Japan.
Min Jin Lee
Grand Central Publishing
February 2017

Anyone familiar with Japan will know that Pachinko — the title of a new novel by Korean American author Min Jin Lee — is a type of adult gambling game, a unique cross between video lottery terminals and pinball. The garish, high-tech machines are ubiquitous throughout the country; as an industry it dwarfs the Japanese auto sector.

For Lee, it’s also a reflection of life.

“You really can’t walk down the street or enter a single train station or go anywhere in Japan without seeing a pachinko parlour,” she explains. “And yet the middle class view this adult gambling game with enormous suspicion and a kind of contempt. When I interviewed all these pachinko parlour owners about how they messed around with the pins every single day to affect the payout, it occurred to me that pachinko is a rigged game. It isn’t gambling, it’s rigged. The house is going to win. And yet people still play! I think — and this is my little cynicism — that the world is an unfair place and yet we continue to play, and we continue to show up. We have to.”

Life is rigged against some more than others, and Koreans living in Japan have historically faced daunting odds. Lee tackles the historical oppression of Koreans in Japan by chronicling the fictional history of one family from its struggles in Japanese-occupied Korea at the beginning of the 20th century, through to a poignant conclusion in 1989 Tokyo.

Lee first started thinking about the book in 1989, when she attended a college lecture by an American missionary who’d worked with Koreans in Japan. As a history major, she knew plenty about Japan’s colonization and occupation of Korea in the first half of the century, but she was shocked to discover how little she knew about the plight of Koreans living in Japan. From discrimination in employment to lack of civil and political rights, to institutionally-supported bullying and harassment, the experience of the roughly 600,000 Koreans living in Japan attains a degree of suffering many are unfamiliar with.

“The missionary mentioned a story… he said that he worked with this one family which had a little boy who was 13 years old, and he had gone to the top of a department building and he had jumped off to his death. Which was really shocking. His parents were obviously very very troubled by this, and they went through his things. They found his middle school yearbook, in which his classmates who were also 13-years-old had said things like ‘You smell like garlic and we hate you’ and they said the words ‘Die! Die! Die!’ That story just really stayed with me.”

The sad episode makes its way into Pachinko, where one of the characters — Haruki, a police officer — is the one who must grapple with the tragedy of a young boy’s suicide. But for Lee it also inspired a desire to learn more about the experience of Koreans living in Japan, and the difficulties they encountered.

“I mean there was no way to learn about this at the time. It wasn’t taught anywhere,” she explains. She graduated college and went to law school, going on to practice as an attorney for two years. “But I really couldn’t get that story out of my head, and so I started doing more research, and then I decided I would write a novel, about the Korean Japanese community.”

Shifting from a successful career as an attorney to a struggling career as a writer wasn’t easy. She began working on what would later become Pachinko, but eventually shifted her attention to another novel, which she completed but was unable to get published. In 2007 she finally published her first novel, Free Food for Millionaires, about the experience of Korean Americans.

But the story of the young boy’s tragic death in Japan continued to haunt her. “The idea that someone could hate you so much, and that the people who could hate you are children! And that hatred can become manifest in a wish to die if you internalize that hatred — that really stayed with me. That [feeling] I think is in this book in other ways.”

Discrimination Resonates

In the ensuing years, Lee expanded her research on the Korean Japanese experience. She lived in Japan from 2007 to 2011 and conducted dozens of interviews. Meeting Koreans in Japan, going to their homes and workplaces and hearing their family stories, proved an important complement to the research she had been doing.

“It was really, really eye-opening because I realized that all the academic work that I had done for research, all that was accurate, but it didn’t really have a sense of truth about how people live their lives when things go wrong in the world. I think that when you have bad governments or really difficult situations which are so completely out of your control, when your country’s divided [like Korea’s split into North and South]… if that kind of situation happens, what do you do? And most of the time, what I learned is that people just try to get water and shelter and food and take care of their families and maybe if they’re lucky they try to educate their children.”

What also struck Lee, as she struggled to educate herself on the experience of the Korean Japanese community, was how unfamiliar other Koreans were with the issue.

“Most Koreans I know who are Korean American are unfamiliar with it. I think people are constantly surprised by it.”

Yet the experience of discrimination among minority immigrant communities, she says, resonates with many Americans.

“At the same time I’ve been having a lot of responses from people who read Pachinko and they tell me ‘Oh you know this is how Jewish people feel, this is how black people feel, this is how people from Armenia feel.’ There are so many groups around the world that have felt excluded and marginalized because of their birth despite all their attempts to assimilate and be a proper whatever.”

Lee, who describes her husband as half-Japanese and her son as a quarter Japanese, emphasizes that the book is not anti-Japanese, but that it does aim to tackle the homogenizing force of what she describes as monoraciality.

“I really love Japan and I liked living there very much, and there are so many terrific things about Japan. However, I do think what’s amazing is that Japan really prides itself on being monoracial. It doesn’t have the same kind of idea as in the UK or Canada or the United States, in which the idea of diversity is a strength. It’s not a weakness. So even today there’s an enormous amount of political rhetoric by the current [Japanese] administration to make sure that foreigners — and Koreans, no matter how many generations [they lived in Japan], are considered foreigners — are not included in the discussions. There is, I think, almost no effort really to talk about what happened in the past. It’s considered something really shameful, and that’s true.”

“It’s tragic, because pretty much if you meet any Korean Japanese person, they’re trying so hard to assimilate and trying to be decent Japanese. They want very much to be proper Japanese people because essentially they have no contact with Korea. They don’t know how to speak Korean, some of them have never been to Korea, and [Japan is] all they know. Everything is tied to the land of Japan.”

Koreans in Japan face a double-edged form of discrimination, notes Lee — they experience discrimination from the Japanese and Korean state alike. She depicts this in the novel too when, after the end of the Second World War, Japanese Koreans struggle with the decision about whether to go back to Korea. Some do return to their ancestral homeland, but others are deterred by experiences of discrimination against those who had lived in Japan.

“[T]hey’ll kill you in the North, and they’ll starve you in the South,” Hansu, a Korean, warns his employee Kim who’s considering going back after the war. “They all hate Koreans who’ve been living in Japan.”

Lee’s characters aren’t exaggerating. After the war, Japanese authorities encouraged the American occupation forces to deport all the Koreans. Former South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, meanwhile, told Koreans living there to stay in Japan and not to return. Lee observes that there’s a complex dimension to immigration politics whereby countries will often point to instances of discrimination by other countries while perpetuating the same attitudes within their own borders.

“[There’s a] hypocrisy that so many people commit when they complain about trying to get rights from the host country – the alleged host country – because their own country of origin often has terrible immigration or cultural policies against outsiders,” she says, observing that the sentiment expressed in her novel continues to this day. “So the Koreans in Korea right now are very hostile to Korean Japanese people. Sometimes even to Korean Americans!”

Storytelling Against Racism

Lee feels that at its core, racism boils down to a fear of the other, whether the other happens to be a different gender, nationality, or ethnicity. She feels that research and data are important tools in fighting the spread of racism and discrimination, but admits that a lot of people simply aren’t willing to accept the facts around the benefits of diversity, when those facts conflict with their deep-seated fears of the other.

It’s here that Lee believes the power of the storyteller comes in — the ability to touch readers on a deeper level and humanize the ‘other’ in a way that is needed in today’s world more than ever. For her, this is one of the most compelling aspects of literature.

“These problems are so big for all of us, and I guess each person approaches it from whatever he or she knows how to do. I think the humanization aspect of storytelling has been very persuasive for me. English is not my first language, so when I came to America and I started to read about Anna Karenina of Russia, Anna became human to me. If I had only had the experience of Vladimir Putin, that would be a different experience of what I would think about Russia! Or if I think about Jane Eyre… people in the West have become human to me because I was able to read this literature.

“Right now I live in Harlem, and when I read authors like James Baldwin, it’s a very very different Harlem when I think about James Baldwin and his Harlem, or Langston Hughes and his Harlem, versus the Harlem that I live in today. It’s almost like having a sixth sense because there’s a narrative in addition to the scientific information, that’s more palpable to us.”

In addition to the politics of race and nationalism, there’s a very strong gender dimension to Pachinko. Sunja, the character whose life spans the bulk of the book, is a woman whose varied struggles over the years reflect many of those faced by Korean women in Japan, from misogyny within the family and breadwinning husbands who resist their wives’ efforts to earn money, to sexual harassment and assault. One tragic young female character runs away from home, becomes a sex worker and eventually dies of HIV-related illness.

Lee identifies proudly as a feminist and admits she grappled with presenting a literary depiction of the Korean adage that women’s lot is to suffer.

“They’re either oppressed through poverty or they’re oppressed because of their race. We don’t have the history of poor men. What happens to your gender, or the idea of your gender, if you are an oppressed male? That’s very interesting to me… I think that when men are saying certain things, it’s a reflection of the fact that they might feel that their masculinity is being threatened. I mean today women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia. Even today! But then again there are women that I know in New York City who have five thousand times more rights than some men. So I do think that we have to have a global understanding of feminism.”

One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Haruki. He appears as a young boy who’s bullied in school and is taken under the wing of Mozasu, a hot-tempered Korean child who’s also bullied and who befriends the young Japanese boy. Haruki grows up to be a police officer… and a closeted gay man. Unlike the Koreans in the novel, he doesn’t have to grapple with his ethnic background. But he does find himself alienated and struggling because of his sexuality. What inspired Lee to include this compelling character?

“Because it was very important to me to be fair. I think that so many people in Japan suffer as a result of the harmony that they have in society… It’s an extraordinary thing in Japan to see the kind of harmony and thoughtfulness about the way society can work. However, it can be very very oppressive if you’re not the mode that is acceptable to the majority. If you are different, if you are LGBT, if you are disabled, if you are an ‘other’ from the majority, if you are a mother let’s say and you want to work, or if you’re infertile… there are so many different classes of people that are not accepted by the majority! And they live in shame and they live in exclusion. That was so sad.”

“So it was very important to me to include them in this book. Because it isn’t so binary, where you have ‘oh the Japanese are evil’ and ‘the Koreans are victims.”

“It’s not like everybody’s perfect just because you’re in an oppressed class.”

Writing Korean Japanese Lives

Lee has been surprised by the positive reaction the book has garnered. What surprises her, she says, is that people connect to it. She understands the political urgency of works that deal with refugees and immigration, but her surprise stems from the fact that the plight of the Korean Japanese has been deliberately downplayed and ignored for so long.

“I think that there’s only one book in fiction written by a Korean Japanese person that’s been translated into English, Gold Rush by Yu Miri. There’s an excerpt of a memoir — an excerpt, not the whole book — that’s been translated into English called Zainichi by Kang Sang-Jun. There are maybe forty to fifty volumes of academic work, which are just amazing, about the Korean Japanese. But it’s impossible to find fiction and memoirs! I thought to myself, it’s because nobody cares… So it’s amazing to see this response.”

Of all the characters in the book, her favourites are two of the men: Hansu and Noa. Hansu is a smooth-talking yakuza, or gangster, of Korean origin who has been adopted into his wife’s Japanese crime family. His morality is ambiguous, driving him to terrible acts of cruelty yet also generous support of other Korean immigrants. Noa is his illegitimate son, who grows up to reject and despise his Korean background, seeking to assimilate as a Japanese.

“I love Hansu because he’s so real. He has such vitality. He has such confidence. Even though he’s wrong, and he’s immoral, there’s an honesty about his wish to survive. I found that really telling. In the opposite way, I loved Noa too, because he was so principled, even though he was so inhumane in the end. I thought the thing that drove him to be acceptable and clean and pure and Japanese ultimately destroyed him. That was really interesting to me too, because I think all of us have that part of us that wishes to be accepted by being really really good at something.”

Struggling for Self-Worth as a Writer

Developing a writing career hasn’t been easy for Lee. She quit her law career in 1995 and didn’t succeed in publishing her first novel until 2007. Nor could she afford to pursue graduate work in creative writing, like some aspiring American writers do. Instead, she attended writers’ talks and took occasional inexpensive classes, cobbling together her own learning program, and struggling to get into print at the same time.

“It’s tough… I literally have a binder full of rejections from journals. The very very best journals in the world have rejected me. But you know everybody pays their dues. I didn’t have early success, but I don’t know. Maybe I’d be a jerk if I did.”

Lee’s strength has always been her perseverance, she says. Growing up, she says her two sisters were always quicker and sharper than her, and consistently beat her at games and other activities. Her father reassured her, telling her they were the rabbits or hares in the family, and she was the tortoise.

“I guess I still really see myself as this kind of tortoise,” she laughs. “I’m kind of plodding and I’m kind of slow but I’m very steady and I just keep going. I don’t see myself as this kind of quick person. But … I do finish what I start.”

The hardest part of those years of struggling to get into print, she says, was justifying herself to others, and the humiliation she felt in the face of her increasingly successful friends and peers.

“I wanted to be good at this, but writing a novel isn’t something that you can learn in a class. It’s something you just have to do. Writing manuscripts takes time. Writing manuscripts that are worth reading takes even more time. So for me, this is how long it took. The parts that were really difficult were having to explain why I didn’t have anything to show. Because people are very kind and they would ask ‘Oh, what do you do?’ And you kind of mumble, ‘I’m a writer.’ But are you a writer if you haven’t published? I would argue now vehemently — of course you are! You’re writing! You’re a writer if you’re writing. But I think that that’s really hard to say with a straight face to a lot of people, especially a lot of successful people in New York.”

“Sometimes I would go somewhere as a guest and somebody would say ‘Oh, what do you do?’ I would say, ‘Oh, well I’m working on a book…’ They’d go ‘Oh, okay.’ And they would literally turn around and talk to somebody else. Then you would just go to the bathroom and cry. I mean what else could you do?”

What inspired a successful lawyer to abandon her career and throw herself into the unpredictable pursuit of a writer’s life? One of the factors that forced Lee to review her priorities was a serious liver disease that she’d suffered from since high school. Although she’s now healthy thanks to treatment, the potentially fatal illness loomed large throughout her 20s and 30s.

“Illness is very clarifying,” she says. “When I was working as an attorney I was working these very unreasonable hours. I thought to myself, if I were to die in my twenties or thirties, if I can’t get a liver transplant, then how do I want to say I spent my time? I think it was very easy for me to say, I can live with a lot less.”

“I know people have said this before elsewhere, and I believe it so very much, which is that I think it’s important to choose the important over the urgent. So whenever I have any kind of trial, I just ask myself, what’s really important? What feels really urgent? Sometimes paying that bill feels really urgent. You should pay your bills! But there are also things that are really important. You could choose to live your life in a certain way which honours your values and sometimes that will affect the way that you spend your money or the way that you spend your time. Aas I get older, it’s really time that’s the most important thing. Spending my time in a way that aligns with my sense of values.”

Writing Is a Tough Road to Travel

While she’s happy with her own choices, Lee is quick to point out the writing life is not for everyone, either.

“I have to be honest about this, I wouldn’t tell a lot of kids to go and be writers. It’s a tough, tough business. It’s not a business. It’s more like a tough road. It’s a really tough road.”

It’s even tougher for Asian American writers, she notes.

“I think it’s not an accident that you don’t have that many Asian American women writers who are breaking out. I don’t think it’s an accident that you don’t have that many Asian American writers, either women or men. I don’t think that immigrants are encouraged to become artists. That’s very gendered and racialized and ethnicized. It’s not even just money, because in east Asia and southeast Asia and south Asia, our cultures aren’t encouraging women to speak about their stories. So it’s taken me a long time to say, ‘Okay, well this is what I’ve seen and I think it’s so worthwhile that I’m going to try to get it in print.’ I mean that’s an act of audacity, for somebody from my background!”

“I think what’s really sad is this idea of tokenization,” she says. “I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been on a lot of lists in the US, for most anticipated novel or whatever, and I notice that very often there’s [only] one Asian. I know for a fact that there are three or four [novels by Asians] that month that came out that are pretty good. I wonder, was there some decision, like ‘Well we can have one, but we can’t have three’? Is that a media decision? Is that a publishing decision? I don’t know. Or is it even a reader decision? Maybe people don’t want that many. I think people have to consider it or at least have to start talking about it. But it makes everybody really uncomfortable.”

For those aspiring writers who do commit themselves, Lee offers a bit of advice: focus on telling a story that matters to you, not on marketing yourself.

“Always remember the work. When I meet young writers, very often they’ll ask me ‘How do I get an agent?’ and ‘How do I break into the business?’ I’ll say, ‘Well, are you reading? What are you reading? Who do you like? Who do you want to write like? What kind of stories do you want to have on your desk that you feel so compelled by that you return to it again and again even if it makes no sense?'”

“Very often I hear writers tell me ‘Oh, I’m going to work on this subject.’ It’s a subject that’s sexy and interesting, and I’ll say ‘Well, how does it relate to you?’ Very often there isn’t a connection. So in a way we’ve become a bit too oriented on crowd-sourcing, on being market-oriented. Maybe that works, but maybe it doesn’t. Because in order to make anything really good you have to rewrite it a few times. In order for you to continue with it, it must be something that resonates with you almost body and soul. Because it really makes no sense to suffer so much for any other reason.”

Lee intends to turn her work on the Korean experience into a trilogy. Her first book, Free Food for Millionaires, focused on the experience of Koreans in America, and her second book Pachinko focuses on Koreans in Japan. Her third, she says, will be titled American Hagwon.

“Hagwon is a Korean word for cram school… American Hagwon is about the role for Koreans in education around the world. It’s almost a toxic idol… Education is a beautiful, liberating thing, but I think that tying in education and status and the need to do well at every cost, is toxic.”

“That’ll be my trilogy of Korea, and then next I’m going to start writing about wizards or something,” she laughs.