Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 13, 2022

The Pachinko Parlour (2018), by Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

In my idle moments, I’ve been watching Series III of the Danish TV program Borgen. In Series III (2013) the central character, the former PM Birgitte Nyborg who lost office at the end of Series II, forms a new party in response to her old party’s drift to the right and its stance on immigration. Alongside this storyline, there is a strand about the relationship between politics and the media, and in this series there is a Bright Young Thing who has been parachuted in to TV1 to lift ratings.  Amongst other ‘innovations’ he directs the Head of News to change the news narrative to something ‘positive’, offering viewers a glimpse of ‘I’d like to be that person in the news’ rather than ‘I’d hate to be that person in the news’.

I admit it, I felt a faint (but fleeting) moment of connection with this inane directive.  It came to mind when, for #WITmonth I was reading a novella newly available in English: The Pachinko Parlour, by the French-Korean author Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.  And I thought, why is it, that the novels set in Japan that come my way all feature repressed, alienated characters in melancholy claustrophobic settings? Why have these books never made me feel, I’d like to go to Japan?

Pachinko machine (Wikipedia)

The Pachinko Parlour is beautifully written, rendered in English with spare delicacy by the translator.  Set in Tokyo in a humid summer, the novella brings the reader to a crowded city of oppressive heat, where clothes cling to the body and all energy seems to be drained away.  The pachinko parlour of the title is a symbol of the aimlessness of life and the cynicism of the authorities, who’ve turned a blind eye to it.  Gambling for money is illegal in Japan, but the Koreans who’ve clustered together (in what amounts to a ghetto in Tokyo) play these one-armed bandits that deliver small balls for a win, which are then exchanged for money outside the pachinko parlour.  Like pachinko, the game of life for some in Tokyo is low stakes, low strategy.

The Pachinko Parlour is narrated by a blow-in called Claire, the 29-year-old Swiss granddaughter of a couple who fled the Korean War to Japan.  She is visiting from Switzerland where she lives with her mother. From her room, all she can see is the passing feet of the salarymen, a metaphor for the way life is passing her by.

The purpose of her trip is to escort her grandparents on their first-ever return visit to their homeland. The boyfriend Mathieu was supposed to come along, but he has PhD commitments so she’s on her own. Other complications are that the grandmother appears to be regressing to childhood and the grandfather, now in his nineties, is still working all hours at their Pachinko Parlour. It all seems ill-advised.  Why would these very elderly grandparents submit to visiting a place of bad memories with a granddaughter they barely know?

The novella is full of enigmatic elements like this, raising questions which are not answered.

These grandparents have lived in Tokyo since the Korean War, but have never integrated into the host society.  The grandmother, in particular, refuses to speak Japanese, and is said to have cut out part of her tongue during the WW2  Japanese Occupation of Korea rather than speak their language. Claire, under the misapprehension in Switzerland that learning Japanese would be useful in her relationship with her grandparents, has studied it at university and her Korean is only rudimentary.  Clearly, the communication difficulties they have now go back a long way since the reader can assume that—whether the grandmother ever talked about the Occupation or not—the communication (letters? phone calls? Skype?) that she (in Tokyo) had with her daughter and granddaughter (in Switzerland), must have been in the Korean language. Why didn’t Claire understand this before her visit? And anyway, why is it Claire who doesn’t speak Korean making this visit, and not her mother, who does?

Whose desire is it, that Claire should spend her 30th birthday, marooned with people she barely knows and can’t communicate with?

What narrative tension there is in the novel, derives from the reluctance of these grandparents to make any preparations for the trip to Korea, the implication being that they have accepted their situation.  They don’t really want to go and may have been pressured into it.

Claire (instead of doing whatever GenY tourists do in Tokyo), spends her days lying around in the heat, playing games on her phone, and intermittently teaching French to 10-year-old Mieko.  Mieko lives in a hotel abandoned when it went bankrupt; her living arrangements are odd, to say the least:

I follow Madame Ogawa back towards the entrance.

‘Mieko’s room is downstairs,’ she says, indicating a door half-hidden by a coat rack.  The door opens onto a concrete staircase. ‘Be careful,’ she says.  ‘The light switch is at the bottom of the stairs.’

Her voice echoes slightly, as if in a cave.  I feel my way down until the concrete gives way to a springier surface underfoot.  The humidity rises.  A neon light flickers on to reveal an open pit surrounded by a walkway with a waist-high glass barrier.  The floor of the pit slopes gently down to a drainage hole.  In one corner sits a single bed.

At this point in the narrative, this image triggers a scene from those awful crime shows where girls have been locked underground by a serial killer, but no, this nightmarish space is the bedroom of Madame Ogawa’s 10-year-old daughter.

Madame Ogawa places her hands on the guard rail.

‘The swimming pool.  It’s never been used, even when the hotel was open.  Mould.  It’s clean now, since we had it drained.  Mieko sleeps here, for the time being.’

I lean over the barrier to get a better look.  Arranged around the bed, a desk and a chest of drawers, a yoga mat and a hoop reflected to infinity in mirrors of either side of the pool.  Plastic blocks are arranged at the foot of the steps leading down into the pool.  I can’t help thinking of the arcade game Tetris, with the geometrical shapes that drop down and have to be rearranged in space. (p.5-6)

Other than the absence of Mieko’s father, which might account for poverty, there is no explanation for why a teacher of French and her daughter are living in such peculiar conditions.

Whatever the ambiguities of The Pachinko Parlour, the pattern is familiar to Australian readers: postwar migrants and refugees got on with rebuilding their lives and shouldered their memories of trauma privately. With rare exceptions such as Oh Lucky Country! by Rosa Cappiello, they did not write about the migrant experience in fiction or in memoir.  It is their children and grandchildren who write stories of displacement, loss of identity and resentment about a society that they feel is not inclusive.

Jacquiwine loved this book, and I recommend that you read her review too. See also Sharon’s review at Where the Books Go.

I read this book for #WITmonth, initiated by blogger Meytal Radzinski and now an international movement to celebrate the work of women writers in translation.  Visit Women in Translation for more information.

Image credit: pachinko machine By Piotrus – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Author: Elisa Shua Dusapin
Title: The Pachinko Parlour (Les billes du Pachinko)
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
Publisher: Scribe Publications Australia, 2022 , first published 2018
ISBN: 9781922585172, pbk., 176 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications


  1. I have a copy of this one for review. I quite enjoyed the author’s previous novel, so I’m looking forward to this. Thanks for such a intriguing review.


    • I am intrigued by the slicing of the tongue. I’d have to re-read the book to see if I’ve missed something, but I don’t understand the point of this detail. I know already that there is longstanding enmity between the two countries because of the Occupation, which was violent and cruel as it was elsewhere in WW2 Asia. But still, either slicing her tongue renders her speechless so that she can’t speak any language, Japanese or Korean, or it doesn’t, in which case she would still have been able to speak Japanese even if she hated the occupying forces.
      Or is it a melodramatic gesture which contrasts with the grandmother’s placidity, showing what this sweet little old lady playing with Playmobil dolls is capable of?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m thinking the melodramatic gesture (even though I haven’t read it yet), although, isn’t there a part of speaking the Japanese language that makes your tongue move differently? I’m digging way back here to a conversation I had with someone once on languages. I could be way off base, but it sprung into my mind when I read this.


        • Gosh, I don’t know. I’ve never heard of it, but maybe you’re right. After all, some people simply cannot physically roll their ‘R’s as you’re meant to in French, Italian &c.
          But, you know, I wonder also about the context. I mean, we know how the Japanese reacted to a ‘lack of respect’. Where and in front of which people could this have been done, and with what consequence?
          It’s mystifying….

          Liked by 1 person

          • I finished this one today. Really liked it. She’s got a way with words!


            • Well, there you go, different books suit different readers, and amen to that!

              Liked by 1 person

  2. It sounds so interesting, and like Jacqui I sense echoes of Cold Enough for Snow. But yes – books on Japan don’t tend to draw you to visit there..


    • Yes, it is like Cold Enough for Snow but the daughter in that isn’t quite so aimless.
      What I wonder is, why is this melancholy the prevailing subject? Is it that these books reflect the prevailing ‘publishing mood’ in Japan, or is it the prevailing mood among translators and publishers? (We here in Australia have a ‘publishing mood’ that favours abuse of all kinds, and grief. I’m tired of it, but fortunately we have a diversity of publishers here and the ones I read are doing something different.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, Lisa, for linking to my review. That’s very kind of you, and it’s fascinating to see your take on the book here. Yes, a very enigmatic novella that raises so many questions…

    I’m not sure I understand the reasons behind the melancholy mood that seems to be present in a lot of fiction set in Japan. Like you, I’ve noticed a sense of isolation and alienation in much of the contemporary literature from this area – but it’s also present in older books too, particularly those by Japanese authors like Soseki, Kawabata and Tsushima. I suspect it’s something in the Japanese culture or psyche rather than a publishing mood/trend. Someone like Marina Sofia might have a better handle on it, or maybe Tony Malone?


    • You’ve reminded me, Jacqui, that I have Michael Orthofer’s book on world lit, and I should look up what he has to say about it!


  4. I wonder if it IS a long-standing publishing mood, like the fact that surely – surely – not all books written in Iceland are grim crime novels, while that’s almost all that is published in English. Anyway, this one does sound intriguing and I feel it’s going to come to me at some point!


    • Yes, good point about ‘Nordic crime’. All those serial killers!


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