The radical empathy of Min Jin Lee

The Pachinko author on Zainichi, the role of women in historical fiction and how trauma is passed down through generations

The Korean-Japanese professor Kang Sang Jung wrote that Zainichi, or the Korean-Japanese, were “nothing short of the ‘dregs of history’” in popular Japanese consciousness. Korean-American author Min Jin Lee is trying to change that.

In Pachinko, her second novel about Korean identity, she charts the experience of four generations of one Korean Zainichi family—starting in 1911 under Japanese colonial rule in Korea, through migration to Osaka in 1933, up until 1989 at the tail end of Japan’s economic boom.

At the end of the Second World War, when Japan’s colonial empire in Asia collapsed, it is estimated that around 2.4 million Koreans resided in Japan. Today they comprise the country’s largest number of immigrants and foreigners at around 1% of the population.

Yet, until the early 1990s they were a stateless people. Now, they can apply to become ‘special permanent residents’ of Japan, but unlike ethnic Japanese nationals, they cannot get a job in the public service, vote in elections, or receive health insurance or pensions from the government.

The story starts and ends with Sunja, an illiterate, widowed peasant born on the island of Yeongdo, just off the coast of Busan in what is today South Korea. Lee says that the story was originally centred around Sunja’s son, Solomon, a third-generation Zainichi investment banker.

But when Lee visited open-air markets in Korea and Japan, she experienced “meeting women who were so interesting and heroic and so incredibly ignored. And the more I talked to them, the more I realised—I don’t know if I could do what you do, this is so hard.

“It’s backbreaking, it’s humiliating. Anyone can touch you or throw money at you, and you still have to put up with it.”

She confesses it was hard to research the character of Sunja, as history provides few documents and photographs of these illiterate and poor women. “Even in the 21st century there are more women like this than not,” she says. “Why don’t we know anything about them?”

She says the decision for Sunja to be the protagonist was also aimed at giving the reader more context about the psychological underpinning of the unique suffering of second and third generation Zainichi.

“Their melancholy is less expressed. [The first generation of immigrants] would have a kind of immediate response to an injustice they personally felt.”

Lee believes that the trauma is carried on to subsequent generations, suffering second-hand from the hardships of their ancestors.

“You just can’t metabolise it or process it in the same way. [Second generation immigrants] are constantly in a liminal state where they have no place to put the centre of their identity.”

Lee’s use of simple prose throughout the book was an intentional choice, so that a book about the immigrant experience could be read by someone with a 10th grade education or with English as a second language. She also adds that when crafting a book with a political message, you have to be careful:

“Agendas don’t create good art. So part of it is you have to tell a story that’s interesting and fun to read, absorbing.

“It’s got to be immersive, and then if you can get your message in there too, great. Very often I started out with the message and then there came a point where I realised I needed to understand the craft of fiction.”

Lee recommends patience, craft and reading as much good literature as possible. She rattles off her favourite novels – Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, House of Mirth, Madame Bovary and Sister Carrie – all greats of the 19th century humanistic literature canon.

“You read these books and you think, ‘They understand plot and characterisation, and they have a moral justice and a message.’ You read Anna Karenina and he [Tolstoy] has a kind of love for humanity and I think that’s really important too.

“You can always tell writers who are talented and gifted but they don’t have a lot of love. It’s hard to read their work.”

And how do you get to that place of love? “It’s really hard to love unless you feel loved. Love for me is the quality of attentiveness,” Lee says.

She mentions that literature can provide the space for this kind of radical empathy. The social realist background of historical works, the drama, the array of characters and the world-making allow us true, Aristotlean catharis.

“The only way to experience radical empathy is through true catharsis – tragedy, recognition, reversal and then catharis.”

She quotes American author and literary critic Henry James, when she tells me, a writer should try to be “a person on whom nothing is lost”.