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Pachinko: a game, a book and a metaphor

Illustration by the author

$200 Billion

That’s how big Japan’s Pachinko industry is.

And if you’ve never been to Japan or read Min Jin Lee’s ‘Pachinko’, you are probably wondering– what the heck is Pachinko?

To answer that question we need to go back to 1924 when the Corinthian Bagatelle, a billiards-derived indoor table game was brought to Japan from Chicago. It became popular in candy stores to lure little children into spending more time (= more $$$) at the shops while they played with the arcade game. At it’s simplest, Pachinko is a pinball game named after the pachi-pachi sound made by the ball bearings.

In 1930, the first Pachinko parlour was set up in Nagoya. Within six months, the number of Pachinko parlours found across Japan soared. Though the industry was hit during the years of the second world war, it recovered soon after and continued to expand at a dizzying pace. By 1953, the number of registered Pachinko parlours had increased to over three hundred thousand, attracting a loyal customer base that comprised mainly of adults.

Ask anyone who’s been to a Pachinko parlour and they’ll tell you that you can hear it before you can see it. It’s deafeningly loud with rolling balls and the occasional noise of victory when a ball falls into a winning pocket.

In exchange for cash, players get a number of metal balls which are launched into the machine by pulling a lever. The ball then travels vertically, facing a number of obstacles until it reaches the bottom of the machine screen. If one of the launched balls falls into a winning pocket, the player receives more balls which can then be exchanged for some sort of a prize

Back in the day, the balls could be exchanged for money. But as per Japanese law, money can’t be paid out directly for the balls as that would amount to gambling. So people cashed out on a loophole in the system. They carried out the exchange in an establishment located nearby but separated from the pachinko parlour and well, that’s allowed. Yeah, it’s kinda crazy — go figure.

In the fictional novel Pachinko which was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction, author Min Jin Lee compares the lives of its central characters to a Pachinko game. You see, a Pachinko game isn’t purely based on skill. The odds can be manipulated by someone other than the player– the owner of the Pachinko parlour in this instance. This initial tampering will influence the eventual trajectory of the ball and thereby determine the fate of the player. Pulling the lever is a choice. The force exerted to pull the lever is a choice. But what follows is entirely out of one’s control. It’s a gamble.

Not unlike life.

Photo by the author

Pachinko is a sweeping saga, a multigenerational tale of Koreans in Japan in the span of a century. It sheds light on a topic that is seldom spoken about– the lives of Koreans under Japanese occupation and the subsequent racial discrimination and hardships faced by the community. The central character Sunja’s life is forever changed when she is impregnated by a man she has come to love, only to realise that he already has a wife and children back in Japan. This man, Koh Hansu, continues to be a lingering shadow throughout the course of the novel, influencing not only her life but the life of her children in ways she can’t comprehend.

The lives of Koreans living under Japanese occupation and that of the “Zainichi,“ (a term for Koreans who migrated to Japan) is a story of heartbreaking hardships and shocking brutality. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and remained under its control till 1945. Japan embarked on an imperialist policy of erasing Korean culture, subjugating its people and forcing them to a life of discrimination, shaming them for being Koreans.

Thousands of Korean men were brought into Japan to serve in the army. Many Korean women were forced into lives of “comfort women” or sexual slaves for military brothels. Shinto shrines became places of forced worship. Those refusing to comply, like Hu, a character in the novel, were ruthlessly punished. Cultural prejudice that framed Koreans as lazy, unclean and uncouth was rampant and this prevented them from finding employment and leading a life of dignity.

After the second world war and the defeat of Japan, Koreans in Japan weren’t recognised as citizens. They had to take on Japanese names and hide their identities in fear of being deported.

“Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”

- Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

This explains why thousands of Koreans were outraged during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games when NBC commentator Joshua Cooper Ramo said that Korea owed it’s the socio-economic transformation to “cultural, technological and economic example” of Japan. Several Koreans deemed it to be a deeply insensitive remark, utterly lacking in the recognition of the wounds inflicted on Koreans during the years of the invasion and its aftermath.

“History has failed us. But no matter.”

Interestingly, Pachinko begins with Min Jin Lee’s thesis statement, “History has failed us. But no matter.” She bemoans the loss of the stories of ordinary people. In the records of the victories and losses of a nation, the lives of common people are forgotten. Mothers, fathers, sisters, daughters, friends– people are reduced to mere statistics. their stories are swept into the forgotten crevices of history.

Though Pachinko is a fictional novel, Lee does try to make amends. She throws the spotlight on a slew of minor characters. In an interview, Lee says she loves minor characters and admits she feels like a minor character herself. Despite the hyper-individualistic society we live in, I have felt the same way. And no, it’s not pitiful. No matter how many self-help books tell you — “You are the hero of your own story!” an individual’s life is not a story of a single person. We are continuously being shaped by the people we have known and those we will never get to know. They continue to linger — in our DNA, in the pages we read and the food we eat.

We are, but a part of the whole — a single ball in the game of Pachinko.

It is difficult to miss the comparison between the lives of the characters and the trajectory of Pachinko balls. The routes they travel are shaped by events that were set into motion often by a single, insignificant act. Will and Chance have an equal role to play. It’s difficult to win in a system that’s rigged against us. But how do we know if it’s a rigged system, just pure bad luck or a lack of will that’s preventing us from falling into the winning pocket? It’s an answer we keep looking for, as individuals, as communities and as societies. And the way we answer this question sometimes plays a far greater role than the other elements mentioned in the question.

Questionable illustration by the author

Sunja’s family experiences unending difficulties and endures them with great resilience. If life is a Pachinko game, they keep on playing. Not because they are having fun, but because quitting was never an option. The losses they face secretly strengthen the hope, that things might get better and perhaps, they might even “win.”

Later into the novel, Pachinko becomes a means of survival and prosperity. The Korean Japanese people pioneered the rise of the Pachinko industry in which today employs more people than the top ten car manufacturers in Japan. Many involved in the trade were able to make millions, a lot of which was sent to North Korea during the 1990s. The industry has historically been considered to be “dirty” and is looked down upon, partly due to its association with the Yakuza (criminal organisation). However, there has been severe police crackdowns and the cultural image is shifting.

Sunja’s sons, Noa and Mozasu, both find employment in Pachinko parlours before their lives take tragically different turns. Though both are able to overcome financial troubles, social prejudice and discrimination grip them to the point of suffocation. Some make it through, some don’t. But those who do, are often left to wonder if it all could have been some other way. Could it have turned out differently? Could they have chosen a different path, or was it never a choice for them to make?

If you ever have the chance to visit a Pachinko Parlour, ask yourself these question as the ball bearings fall down their path and a few fall into the lap of victory. Could this have turned out any other way? Could you have made a difference?

Pachinko weaves together the old adage– Life’s a gamble. You win, you lose. The trajectory is at best, random. More often than not, it is shaped by unseen forces and compelling causes. Despite knowing that, you keep coming back. Because it’s addicting.

You return in the hopes of winning.


“The stupid heart could not help but hope.”

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