Writers & Company

Min Jin Lee on the untold story of Koreans in Japan

Eleanor Wachtel spoke with the Korean-American writer about her second novel, Pachinko, which was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award.
Pachinko is Korean-American author Min Jin Lee's second novel. (Elena Seibert/minjinlee.com)

This interview originally aired on Oct. 29, 2017.

Pachinko is a cross between pinball and a slot machine. In Japan, the game is a $200-billion business. It's also the title of Korean-American writer Min Jin Lee's second novel, which was named a finalist for the National Book Award in 2017.

Following a single family over several generations, Pachinko explores the experience of Koreans in Japan, most of whom were born and grew up there, but are still classified as "resident aliens." The novel's critical acclaim follows the success of Min Jin Lee's previous book, Free Food for Millionaires — a sharp-sighted tale of Korean-American immigrants. It was a bestseller, a New York Times editors' choice and named one of the top 10 novels of the year by the Times of London. 

Min Jin Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1968. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was seven. She grew up in a blue-collar neighbourhood in Queens, N.Y.

The author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from New York. 

The failures of history

"One thing that struck me in my study of history is how people are excluded. I don't mean just racial minorities or women. Pretty much all poor people who don't have documents are excluded from history and its records.  People who were illiterate usually didn't leave any primary documents. I was interested in how we think about people because the history that we have is limited to an elite body.

"In my experience of trying to interview people from all different backgrounds, especially the very, very poor and the illiterate, I notice that their attitude is, 'We know that we weren't included in the party. However, we are fine. We're still going to keep on going. It doesn't matter. We're just going to adapt.' That is the primary idea of this book. History has failed pretty much everybody. And yet no matter, we persist." 

Exploring Korea's painful past

"In the 21st century and in the latter part of the 20th century, we think of South Korea and North Korea. But for 5,000 years, there was just Korea. When it was just Korea, it essentially became a colony of Japan. Japan, which is a wonderful country, has very few natural resources. So when Japan wanted to expand, Korea became its breadbasket.

"They took a lot of things from Korea and the experience of most Koreans of that era is one of general humiliation because they had their property, language and a lot of their authority taken away. The experience of the people who lived under the occupation was very difficult because they lost their national identity. A lot of people don't like to talk about it. It's a period of history that's very complicated for the modern Korean to tackle because it's one of humiliation."

The experience of the people who lived under the occupation was very difficult because they lost their national identity.

Expanding Western education

"We have huge holes in our education in the West. I think that we have little knowledge of Asian history. If you ask a well-educated, modern Western person about World War II, most will think that the theatre of war was only in Europe. But it's known that the Pacific War was going on concurrently, and we don't know anything about it.

"The 20th century Cold War proxy wars all took place in Asia. Yet again, we know hardly anything about it. This is a failure of the educational system. But people decide what is worth studying. We are going to have to know much more about Asia and the Middle East than we want to, or think that we need to know in the West."

Recognizing the Korean Japanese experience 

"If I force myself to wonder what made me think about and work on this book for almost 30 years, it's this sense that the Korean-Japanese experience was never my experience. I moved to Queens, New York when I was seven and a half. I went to middle school in a foreign country, but I had so many different kinds of Americans push me along and encourage me. 

"I was very odd. I didn't talk very well, we were poor and we didn't have any connections, but people showed up and pushed me along. I knew that there was something wrong if a country not only rejected you, but also your parents and your grandparents. This is what happened to the Korean-Japanese. Even today, they're not considered citizens."

Min Jin Lee's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: "Arirang," performed by Wu Man, Luis Conte and Daniel Ho. 


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