Pachinko Machine – what does Pachinko mean? #MinJinLee

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What exactly is a Pachinko Machine in Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko? 

In Min Jin Lee’s latest book, there is a very interesting metaphor being used in the title. Her book is called Pachinko and describes Korean immigrants experiences and lives in Japan. But wait, you say – what exactly is a Pachinko machine? Add what does Pachinko mean in English?

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Well, Pachinko is a Japanese word that refers to a machine which is like a Japanese slot machine but a little bit different.

With a slot machine, you pull the handle and wait for the pictures to line up. If the pictures match, you can win big (especially the hard-to-get pictures).

But with a Pachinko machine, you pull back a spring loaded handle and launch the ball (much smaller than western pinball games) into a metal track.

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The ball then flys to the top of the playing field and begins to fall.

Pachinko Machine Balls
Pachinko Machine Balls. By MichaelMaggsOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The playing field is full of brass pins, several small cups (about the width of the small ball), and a hole at the bottom.

If the ball fall into one of the cups, the player gets a payout – a number of other small balls drop into the tray in the front of the machine.

If the ball fall into the hole at the bottom (which it will if it doesn’t fall into one of the cups), then that ball is gone.

The goal of the game is to collect as many balls as possible. These balls can be exchanged for non-cash prizes within the Pachinko parlor. Then these non-cash prizes can be exchanged for cash outside the premises of the Pachinko machine parlor.

Pachinko Machine in 1951
Pachinko Machine in 1951. By 朝日新聞社 – 『アサヒグラフ』 1951年9月19日号, Public Domain, Link

Although gambling is illegal in Japan, exchanging for non-cash prizes within the premises and exchanging for cash outside keeps the game in a legal gray zone.

So, why does Min Jin Lee use Pachinko as the title for her book?

Pachinko machines are essentially a vertical slot machine where winning is not related to the player’s skill. Instead, after launching the ball, winning or losing depends entirely mostly on luck.

Min Jin Lee uses this as a metaphor for what happens to the Korean family in the story.

Pachinko machines are a constant take on chance against overwhelming and unknown odds. So too for generations of the Korean family coming to terms with their exile in Japan, caught between the physical difficulty of exile and the internal feelings of loss.

Pachinko Machine Gambling Hall
Pachinko Machine Gambling Hall. CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

In particular, throughout the novel Min Jin Lee shows how fate (or even patience) can snap, thus showing the bareness of its aftermath.

(Check out the hottest Korean fiction – The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon here!)

Sunja (the main character of the novel) has two sons, however the fate of each son is piercingly divergent.

Noa buries himself deep in imagining himself as a Japanese, attempting to rid of the feelings of loss.

On the other hand, Mozasu embraces what life he has by lowering his sights and trying to pull himself up.

The result of this is thick with compromise and tragedy.

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As Mozasu’s wife says, “Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

Mozasu in turn replies, “Adapt. Wasn’t it as simple as that?”

I hope this clears things up in regards to what a Pachinko machine is, and how Min Jin Lee uses it as a metaphor in her latest novel Pachinko.

If you have any other questions, let me below in the comment section.

A.J. McMahon
(P.S. Got any other books you want me to read or review? Then…)

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