Korean culture has been rapidly spreading around the world, as more people take interest in South Korea’s various forms of media and entertainment. As a Korean, I feel pride for my country when I see how much more recognition South Korea gets. Pachinko, by Min Jee Lee, is one such form of media that has gained much traction, with Apple producing a drama series in 2022.
The book is about a fictional Korean family that immigrated to Japan in the midst of Japanese occupation, following them for four generations. Although the book starts with Hoonie, the central figure in the story is Sunja, Hoonie’s daughter. Sunja’s unplanned pregnancy forces her to immigrate to Japan to avoid bringing shame upon her family. Be forewarned: the story is raw and Lee does not hold back any details. A lot of suffering is portrayed in the book-- poverty, betrayal, and discrimination to name just a few-- but the characters, though morally grey, are strong and resilient.
The meaning of homeland, identity, and family are central themes, as the family struggles to live in 20th century Japan. The atrocities imperial Japan committed and the discrimination Koreans faced from the Japanese after the end of WWII are often forgotten or glossed over by most of the world. This book brings these issues to light in an easy to approach manner of a story, spreading awareness. Koreans were looked down upon by the Japanese as less than human, particularly Zainichi (ethnic Koreans that immigrated to Japan before 1945 and their children). Sunja and the other adults of the family face harsh discrimination and stereotyping as Korean immigrants to Japan. Sunja’s sons face difficulties with being ethnically Korean, but born in Japan, while Sunja’s grandson is born and raised in Japan, but educated in the US and working for a British bank.
Pachinko, a pinball game and the title of the book, is also a central theme. Pachinko is a form of low-stakes gambling that is popular because gambling for cash is illegal in Japan. The morally gray nature and large profits of pachinko led to the yakuza infiltrating the industry. As a result of the lowly view of the game, many pachinko parlors came to be owned by ethnic Koreans. Sunja’s sons, and even her grandson, enter the pachinko business because it is one of the only ways for them to survive: pachinko represents the desperation they have. The game itself can be viewed as an analogy for the lives of the family as well. The game requires some skill, but ultimately luck to win: Sunja’s family works hard, but luck does not seem to support them.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, and it has become one of my favorite books. The complex story and realistic portrayal of the complexities of human nature create a riveting story, and the historical context fleshes out the story even more. Because of the sexual content and strong language, I would recommend the book to older teens.