IIt has captivated critics and attracted large audiences in the UK and US, but the television adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s best-selling novel Pachinko It has hardly deserved a mention in any of the countries that inspired it.
The eight-part drama, currently streaming on Apple TV+, evokes the universal experience of migrants, but it’s also an uncomfortable reminder of the bitter historical legacy of Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.
The story of a family that leaves Busan in South Korea for Osaka’s Koreatown in the early 20th century, Pachinko’s narrative is based on the real-life experiences of the zainichithe name of the people of Korean descent who form one of the largest ethnic minorities in Japan.
Kang Mijija’s family moved to Japan after the second world war, and found a country that offered opportunities, but at a price. As immigrants from the Korean peninsula, free from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II, they were easy targets for locals who despised their new neighbors.
“People threw water and even stones at my aunts,” Kang, a second-generation Zainichi, told The Guardian at a cafe in Tsuruhashi, an Osaka neighborhood with a large ethnic Korean community. “That was a really difficult moment. We now live in a gray area…those extremes are gone, but there is still systemic discrimination and hate speech.”
Kang’s parents were first generation. zainichi – from Japan Korean diaspora of 430,000 membersmany of them descendants of people forcibly brought to Japan as laborers before and during the second world war.
Just like Pachinko, named after the pinball type game machine that has provided a livelihood for many ethnic Koreans – appeared last month, audiences in Japan were faced with another chapter in their country’s troubled relationship with its neighbor.
shusenjōa documentary by director Miki Dezaki, examines the controversy over the “comfort women”: some tens of thousands of women and girls, mainly from the Korean Peninsula, who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
Dezaki, who recently took his documentary to Japan and the United States, had to fight a legal challenge from right-wing commentators who claimed that they had not given their consent to appear in the film. “The right-wing nationalist view of the comfort women issue is now the dominant narrative in Japan,” she says.
Under its longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, Japan set out to dismantling his “masochism” about warcalling into question accepted narratives about the Japanese military’s role in recruiting comfort women and using zainichi as forced labour.
“This accelerated the general atmosphere of intolerance in Japanese society,” says Satoko Oka Norimatsu, co-coordinator of the International Network of Museums for Peace. “The Japanese do not believe that racism exists in Japan, and they do not like to face the fact that they are active perpetrators of racism against the population. zainichi.”
Dezaki noted how little coverage his legal victory had attracted, even in Japan’s liberal media. “Unless the Japanese media, especially the TV media, covers my movie or Pachinko, there will be no balance,” he said.
The balance has tipped in favor of conservative and revisionist interpretations of history. Japan has pushed offers for Unesco world heritage status for sites that used Korean workers. Under government pressure, school textbooks due to be introduced next year omit the word “forced” to describe wartime workers and fail to mention the role of the armed forces in recruiting comfort women.
While the legal crackdown on hate speech has weakened far-right groups like zaitokukaiwhich calls for the removal of so-called “privileges” for ethnic Koreans, there are no penalties for violators, and much of the abuse has migrated online.
Few believe in movies, along with a recent exhibition on freedom of expression in Tokyo that included a statue symbolizing comfort women – will be enough to curb right-wing narratives about the zainichi and Japan’s conduct in wartime.
“I don’t think the far right is going to shut up anytime soon,” says Bang Chungja, a second-generation member. zainichi Korean who belongs to an Osaka-based network that demands compensation and an official apology for victims of wartime sexual slavery. “Japan should recognize the truth of history… The Japanese also suffered terribly in the war, but they were not the only victims.”
The Japanese consulate in Lyon reportedly attempted to prevent Shusenjo from being displayed at the city’s Institut d’Estudes Politiques, while Japanese officials have backed campaigns for the removal of comfort women statues in the US. and Germany.
“It’s good that people who saw the movie are interested in the comfort women issue, but their sympathizers are losing the battle in Japan,” says Tomomi Yamaguchi, an associate professor of anthropology at Montana State University.
“The Japanese government and the mainstream media have taken the position that Japan is not responsible for sexual slavery. [during the war]. While younger people may be interested in Korean pop culture, mainstream Japanese society is trapped in a revisionist version of history.”
However, Kang was cautiously optimistic that Pachinko and Shusenjo could raise awareness of the Korean experience in Japan. “I think Min Jin Lee intended to tell our story to the whole world, and it’s good that people are learning about zainichi.”