“Pachinko,” Korean heritage, and sidestepping the real Japan

Last spring I saw Korean-Japanese filmmaker Yang Yonghi’s latest documentary, Soup and Ideology, at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. During the post-screening Q&A, Yang expressed frustration over her belief that Japan has not really produced any great films about the Korean experience in Japan. Of course, there have been movies made in Japan by Japanese and Korean directors that depict this experience at a certain level, and all her movies, which include one narrative fiction work, are about the Korean experience in Japan, specifically her family’s, but she was talking about something larger, more sweeping, and mentioned Pachinko, the international bestseller by Korean-American novelist Min Jin Lee, which, at the time of the press conference, had just begun streaming as an 8-part TV series adaptation on Apple TV+. The bulk of the plot takes place in Japan among the resident Korean community, commonly known as zainichi, but since it is a South Korean-Canadian co-production, apparently much of it was not filmed in Japan, though the credits do include many Japanese names. Yang’s point, however, is not that Japan should have been more involved in the making of Pachinko, but that Japan, by now, should have produced something as monumental as Pachinko on its own. After all, the novel and the series are worldwide hits, meaning not only that the subject matter has a broad appeal, but that the readers and viewers who enjoyed the story now have a particular image of Japan as it was conveyed by Lee. Though the image is not a flattering one, I don’t think that was Yang’s concern. Her implication was that the Korean experience in Japan is central to Japan’s history and even its identity, and that leaving that story for others to tell is a lost opportunity. Of course, it’s also easy to infer from Yang’s tone that she herself would have loved to tackle something as wide-ranging as Pachinko since she herself is a Korean-Japanese filmmaker, but she has addressed that theme in all her work and likely knows she could never raise the kind of money or interest in Japan necessary for such a production, because that’s the way the industry—and, by implication, the culture—works. 

I recently finished watching the first season and came away thinking that it did, in fact, miss something essential about Japan. I did not read the novel, and from what I gather the scenarists changed some things and added some others, though the basic multi-generational plot about an extended family of Koreans who originally came to Japan in the 1920s and 1930s is the same. Initially, I had little interest in the series simply because multi-generational family epics are not my thing, especially as TV series, but my partner, who did read the novel in Japanese translation, wanted me to watch it so that we could discuss it. 

Her reasons are practical. Masako’s father was Korean, though she didn’t know he was until after he died when she was just 8. At that age she had no real concept of Korea. Her mother was not married to her father. She had been employed by him as a housekeeper. He was a widower with two teenage sons who was often on the road for work. By the time Masako was born her mother was living in his house full-time. Her father was much older than her mother, who rarely talked about him after he died of cancer shortly before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Over the next turbulent year or so, Masako’s two half-brothers would move out and she and her mother would be forced to leave the house. From then until Masako was 15 and moved away from her mother to live on her own, the two existed in a state of abject precariousness, always one step ahead of the landlord and beholden to whichever man her mother, who had never even finished elementary school, was taking up with at the time for the sake of financial security, which was almost always a mirage. 

Masako’s life before her father died was comparatively stable, or as stable as it could be for a small child who was legally illegitimate and living with a father in late middle age and two much older brothers, not to mention a mother who didn’t always seem to know what was going on. Consequently, she has always romanticized that time of her life and in recent decades tried to find out who her father was and how and when he came to Japan. This effort has become a project, since she hopes to write it all down in English, which is where I come in. Unfortunately, she hasn’t had much luck since she can’t prove to the authorities that her father was actually her father and, thus, can’t get access to relevant records the government may have on file. When her mother registered Masako’s birth by herself, she couldn’t name him as Masako’s father because he wasn’t a Japanese national. Had she or her father registered Masako as his daughter, she would have effectively been Korean in accordance with the laws at the time, which determined nationality through paternity, though Masako’s mother didn’t seem to know this. It was the city hall officials who decided the matter. So while Masako was later able to find out where her father came from in Korea and even secured a copy of his Korean family register, she has been unable to go any further. Masako’s mother, who now lives with reduced cognitive capacity in a facility, has never had much information to give. She may not even have known he was Korean until she actually went to city hall. After all, his late wife was a Japanese national—but, per the law cited above, not his sons, though they were born in Japan—and he lived as a Japanese man. He did not manifest any noticeable Korean traits, such as a penchant for Korean food or a tendency to slip into Korean speech. But the fact remained: He was, legally, Korean, not Japanese. 

So Pachinko meant something to Masako, because, though it was fiction, it was based on dozens of stories that Lee, while living in Japan some years ago, had elicited from zainichi Koreans whose relationship with Japan was contemporaneous with her father’s. Masako thought that the story of Pachinko itself could at least give her some clues as to how her father ended up in Japan. I’m not sure how much satisfaction she’s gotten out of either the book or the TV series, but it has sparked a lot of thought that’s led to a closer study of available literature and media, not to mention a more nuanced understanding of the zainichi experience, which she has always been interested in. Pachinko‘s historical novel approach demands an adherence to actual events while using those events to reveal the characters’ motives and personalities, and so Masako can only make the most generalized connections between what happens in the story and what her father may have gone through. But if imagination is all she’s got to go on, she’s willing to let it go wherever it takes her. 

For my part, the TV series was perhaps too imaginative, and not only in terms of turning its Japan setting into a historical construct rather than a real place, which has much to do with the fact that the producers had to recreate historical landscapes that no longer exist. In that regard, the production design is excellent, but the characters don’t always fit into the scenes comfortably. Lee has said that her biggest influence as a writer is probably Dickens, and she’s adept at weaving various character-driven storylines together into a coherent tapestry, but, at least on the screen, the situations and especially the conversations are geared toward exposition of a family saga that covers more than half a century. The density of the plotting crowds out quotidian details, thus reducing each character to a generality or device to get the story where it’s going in due time. Necessarily, perhaps, the early scenes about the main protagonist, Sunja (Kim Minha), are the best, since they deal with elementary conflicts. Sunja’s parents are very poor and run a boarding house for itinerant fishermen on an island off the coast of Busan, and her father dies when she is young. Poverty is all Sunja knows, but her love for her parents is strong and inform her outlook in such a way that she develops a carapace of leathery self-preservation and even pride. This quality is apparent to Hansu (Lee Min-ho), a Korean who made his fortune in Japan during the 1920s working for underworld elements and who manages the Busan market fairly but with an iron fist. They fall in love and Sunja ends up pregnant, thus putting in motion the whole story, which sees Sunja marrying a Korean Christian pastor and following him to Osaka in the years leading up to the war, while Hansu, who is already married and has a family, watches her and his son secretly from a distance.

The TV series features parallel plotlines in different time periods. One follows Sunja as a teenager and young woman, while the second line focuses mainly on Sunja’s grandson, Solomon (Jin Ha), a go-getting U.S.-educated businessman who is trying to close a property deal that will make his company a lot of money in bubble-era Tokyo. According to Masako, the book is more or less one chronologically developed story, but it’s easy to see why the producers opted for this parallel structure. It shows, simultaneously, where the extended family came from and where it ended up but allows plenty of space for individual stories to develop linearly and thus hold the viewer’s interest. Reportedly, the series will comprise four seasons, and that extra space also allows the writers to explore avenues of history that the book did not, such as the massacre of Korean residents in Japan following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which is covered in one entire episode in the first season as a means of explaining Hansu’s background. 

The prewar storyline is better than the 1989 one, but both keep the purely Japanese characters at arms length. In the prewar segments, the Japanese characters are marginalized and portrayed as being uniformly racist toward the Koreans as Japan and its colonies rush headlong into war. There’s no doubt, historically, that the Korean subjects of the emperor were treated as second-class citizens and worse, but the kind of cartoon evil that the series trades in makes the whole production feel generic. In contrast, the actual suffering of the Koreans is handled with some complexity, thanks mainly to Sunja’s distinctive personality. In the 1989 segments, the Japanese characters are just as two-dimensional, obsessed with money and status and their newfound identity as the leaders of the international business world. That the story predicts they will fall from their summit in the early 90s is awkwardly presented, but its purpose is to show those zainichi Koreans and Korean-Japanese who have dedicated their lives to fitting into Japanese society, like Solomon, that Japanese society will never let them. 

Solomon’s tripartite self-image, as a Korean, as a Japanese, and as an American immigrant, dominates the conflict in the 1989 storyline, overshadowing what to me is the more interesting tale, that of the elderly Sunja, now played by Oscar-winning Korean actor Youn Yuh-jung, who after grudgingly adjusting to life in Japan yearns to return to Korea. Maybe it’s because Youn is much more convincing as a conflicted character than Jin Ha is, but the Solomon storyline so far feels insufficiently worked out. When he fails to talk an elderly zainichi Korean woman into selling her plot of land for a big development project, it’s an almost too perfect encapsulation of the Korean predicament in Japan: How can he ask a nominal compatriot to give in to her Japanese overlords after all these years of being treated badly, even if they are offering her a billion yen in return. The symbolism is way too heavy-handed and drives the story into the ground. Even more annoying is the token white guy, played by Jimmi Simpson, who works for the same Japanese conglomerate as Solomon does and plays both sides of the cultural divide, sucking up to his Japanese superiors with his dodgy pronunciation while badmouthing them to Solomon in English behind closed doors. As an American who’s made his home in Japan, I would say it’s the first time I’ve been offended by a stereotype I previously considered deserved. (Moreover, the character chain smokes as if he were a 12-year-old.)

For the most part, Pachinko‘s portrayal of 1989 Japan, a place I lived in, seems cribbed from lurid American magazine articles about Japan published during the bubble period. Unlike a lot of “prestige TV,” the series seems locked into an older model of prime time network serial soap operas, like Dallas or Dynasty, with their casts carefully cultivated to represent the range of human virtue and perfidy and no room left for the kind of character development and intriguing story arcs afforded by shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos. Consequently, Japan is simply the country where the story takes place and, to me at least, is recognizable but false. Even those scenes where it seems a real Japan location was used don’t vibrate the way a lived-in place would. If I were to be told that those scenes had been recreated on a sound stage, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Perhaps I expect too much. I think this lack of organic authenticity is a function of the saga format, where all dramatic elements are placed in service to the onward rush of the story. As I said, there are still three more seasons, and some elements, such as the creation of the central family’s successful pachinko business, have yet to be explored in any depth. And while I find the melodramatic subplot about Solomon’s lifelong crush on Hana (Mari Yamamoto), the wayward and probably bipolar daughter of his father’s Japanese mistress, over-determined—she’s dying of AIDS—I know that there’s more to Solomon’s conflicted Korean-Japanese self-image than what’s been revealed in the first season. 

And yet, in line with Masako’s wish, the series has provided plenty of fodder for discussion between us, and through those discussions I think we both have come to appreciate Masako’s own heritage more fully, even if she still has loads of questions about her father’s provenance and, perhaps more significantly, her half-brothers’ fate. After they all left the house where they lived together, Masako didn’t keep in touch with her brothers. Her life was too chaotic after that, but some years ago she started wondering what happened to them and imagined they might very well have left Japan—for the U.S., South America, or even North Korea, since many zainichi Koreans did. After years of searching she finally found out and the truth was sadder. Both had died, seemingly in impoverished circumstances, but she needs to find out more. Though Pachinko is about a Korean family that did fairly well in Japan, she nevertheless feels it’s an appropriate starting point for finding out more about her father and her brothers, who were lost to history. She hopes she can at least bring back their memory for what’s left of her own. 

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