Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a...
Pachinko is the second novel by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee. Published in 2017, Pachinko is an epic historical novel following a Korean family who eventually migrates to Japan, it is the first novel written for an adult, English-speaking audience about Japanese–Korean culture. The character-driven tale features a large ensemble of characters who become subjected to issues of racism and stereotypes, among other events with historical origins in the 20th-century Korean experiences with Japan.
Pachinko was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award for fiction. Apple Inc.'s streaming service Apple TV+ has purchased the rights for a television adaptation of the novel.
In 1883, in the little island fishing village of Yeongdo, which is a ferry ride from Busan, an aging fisherman and his wife take in lodgers to make a little more money. They have three sons, but only one, Hoonie, with a cleft lip and twisted foot, survives to adulthood. Because of his deformities, Hoonie is considered ineligible for marriage. When he is 27, Japan annexes Korea and many families are left destitute and lacking food. Due to their prudent habits, Hoonie's family's situation is comparatively more stable, and a matchmaker arranges a marriage between Hoonie and Yangjin, the daughter of a poor farmer who had lost everything in the colonized land. Hoonie and Yangjin eventually take over the lodging house.
In the mid 1910s, Yangjin and Hoonie have a daughter named Sunja. After her thirteenth birthday, she is raised solely by her mother Yangjin, her father Hoonie dying from tuberculosis. When Sunja is sixteen, she is pursued by a wealthy fishbroker, Koh Hansu. Sunja becomes pregnant, after which Hansu reveals that he is already married but intends to keep her as his mistress. Ashamed, Sunja reveals the truth to her mother, who eventually confesses it to one of their lodgers, a Christian minister suffering from tuberculosis. Baek Isak, the minister, believes he will die soon due to his many illnesses, and decides to marry Sunja to give her child a name and to give meaning to his life. Sunja agrees to the plan and marries Isak, traveling with him to Osaka to live with Isak's brother and his wife. In Osaka, Sunja is shocked to learn that Koreans are treated poorly and are forced to live in a small ghetto and are only hired for menial jobs. Sunja's brother-in-law, Yoseb, insists on supporting the entire household on his own salary, but Sunja and her sister-in-law Kyunghee come to learn he is in heavy debt due to paying for Sunja and Isak's passage to Osaka. To pay for the cost, Sunja sells a watch given to her by Hansu.
As time goes on, Sunja gives birth to her son Noa and then to a second son she conceives with Isak, Mozasu. While Noa physically resembles Hansu, he is similar in personality to Isak, and seeks a quiet life of learning, reading and academia. Shortly after Mozasu is born, Isak is taken prisoner when a member of his church is caught reciting the Lord's Prayer when they were supposed to be worshiping the emperor. Despite Yoseb's resistance, Sunja begins to work in the market, selling kimchi that she and Kyunghee make. Their small business goes well, but as Japan enters the Second World War and ingredients grow scarce, they struggle to make money. Sunja is eventually approached by the owner of a restaurant, Kim Changho, who pays her and Kyunghee to make kimchi in his restaurant, providing them with financial security. A dying Isak is eventually released from prison, and he is able to briefly reunite with his family.
A few years later, on the eve of the restaurant's closure, Sunja is approached by Hansu, who reveals that he is the actual owner of the restaurant and has been manipulating her family for years, having tracked Sunja down after she sold her watch. He arranges for her to spend the rest of the war in the countryside with Kyunghee and her children, and for Yoseb to wait the rest of the war out working at a factory in Nagasaki. During her time at the farm, Hansu also reunites Sunja with her mother, Yangjin, and eventually returns a permanently crippled Yoseb to the family after he is horrifically burned during the bombings.
The Baek family eventually return to Osaka where Noa and Mozasu resume their studies. The family continues to struggle in spite of Hansu's help. Though they long to return to the North of Korea, where Kyunghee has family, Hansu warns them not to. Noa succeeds in passing the entrance exams for Waseda University. Despite Sunja's resistance, Hansu pays for Noa's entire university education, pretending it is simply because as an older Korean man he feels responsible for helping the younger generation. Meanwhile, Mozasu drops out of school and goes to work for Goro, a man who runs Pachinko parlors. Mozasu eventually meets and falls in love with a Korean seamstress, Yumi, who dreams of moving to America. The two marry and have a son, Solomon. Yumi later dies in a car accident, leaving Mozasu to raise their son on his own.
Noa, who has continued his studies and looks up to Hansu as a mentor, accidentally discovers he is his father and learns of his ties to the yakuza. Ashamed of his true heritage and being linked to corrupt blood, he drops out of university and moves to Nagano, intending to work off his debt to Hansu and rid himself of his shameful heritage. He becomes a bookkeeper for a racist Pachinko owner who won't hire Koreans and lives undercover using his Japanese name, Nobuo, eventually marrying a Japanese woman and having four children. After having abandoned his family and living sixteen years under a false identity, Noa is tracked down by Hansu at the request of Sunja. Though Hansu warns Sunja not to immediately approach Noa, Sunja refuses to listen to his warnings and begs Noa to reunite with her and the rest of the family. After promising to do so, he commits suicide.
In the meantime, Mozasu has become an extremely wealthy man, owning his own Pachinko parlors and taking on a Japanese girlfriend, Etsuko, who refuses to marry him. Hana, Etsuko's troubled teenage daughter from her previous marriage, arrives to stay with the family after learning she is pregnant, later having an abortion. Hana is drawn to Solomon's innocence and they begin a sexual relationship; he quickly falls in love with her, giving her large sums of money when asked, which she uses to run away to Tokyo.
Years later, Solomon, now attending college in New York and dating a Korean-American woman named Phoebe, receives a call from a drunken Hana in Roppongi. He relays the information to Etsuko and Mozasu, who manage to locate her. After graduating college, Solomon takes a job at a British bank and moves back to Japan with Phoebe. His first major client project involves convincing an elderly Korean woman to sell her land in order to clear way for the construction of a golf resort, which he accomplishes by calling in a favor from his father's friend Goro. When the woman dies of natural causes soon after, Solomon's employers claim the deal will attract negative publicity and fire him, citing his father's connections to Pachinko and implying that the woman was murdered by a hit.
With newfound resolve and a clearer outlook on life, Solomon breaks up with Phoebe, goes to work for his father's business, and makes amends with a dying Hana in the hospital. Now an elderly woman, Sunja visits Isak's grave and reflects on her life. She finds out from the cemetery groundskeeper that despite the shame Noa felt for his family, Noa had been visiting Isak's grave longer after Noa ceased contact with his family and started a new life in Japan. This gives Sunja the closure and reassurance she needs, and she buries a photo of Noa beside Isak's grave.
Pachinko takes place over the course of three books: Book I Gohyang/Hometown, Book II Motherland, and Book III Pachinko. Book I begins with the story of Sunja's father, Hoonie and ends with Noa's birth. Book II begins with Baek Isak's incarceration and ends with Sunja's search of Koh Hansu. Book III begins with Noa's new beginnings in Nagano and ends with Sunja's reflections upon everything that has happened to her.
Min Jin Lee (born 1968) is a Korean American writer whose work frequently deals with Korean American topics. She is the author of the novels Free Food for Millionaires (2007) and Pachinko.
In the latter stages of Korean-American author Min Jin Lee’s patient, sprawling story of a Korean family in Japan, Nobuo Ban, one of the novel’s principal characters, allows himself a moment of reflection. He is living a “small, invisible life” in Nagano, Japan, in 1969 – a modest but respectable middle-class existence, with a wife and four children and a job as a manager of a gambling joint where customers play the pachinko machines that lend the novel its title. But Nobuo’s unchanging routine and determinedly detached manner hide a terrible secret that plagues him daily: he is not, in fact, Japanese, but Korean – born Noa Baek, the son of poor immigrants despised by the rest of Japanese society. His failure to commit himself emotionally to his wife is at odds with the totality of his dedication to Japanese language, culture and manners, and betrays not just a deep-seated fear of being unmasked but an acceptance of the impossibility of equality or redemption. “Though he valued his wife and children as a kind of second chance, in no way did he see his current life as a rebirth.”
Noa’s predicament is a terrifying embodiment of the anxieties of Koreans in Japan – he stands to lose his family and job if his true identity is revealed – and indeed of immigrants in general. His desire to assimilate is constantly tempered by the fear of rejection, a tension that works its way into virtually every scene in the novel.
Spanning nearly 100 years and moving from Korea at the start of the 20th century to pre- and postwar Osaka and, finally, Tokyo and Yokohama, the novel reads like a long, intimate hymn to the struggles of people in a foreign land. Min Jin Lee meticulously reconstructs the relatively overlooked history of the large ethnic-Korean community in Japan, referred to as zainichi, whose perpetual status as outsiders obliges them, like Noa’s nephew Solomo in the novel, to renew their alien registration card every three years: a state of administrative limbo that mirrors their divided identities and condemns them to the role of the perpetual outsider.
The novel’s multi-generational narrative allows this rich history to unfold at a pace that is beguilingly peaceful, opening in a deceptively idyllic coastline setting in Korea, shortly after the Japanese annexing of Korea. Hoonie, the cleft-lipped, club-footed son of a fisherman, marries Yangjin, a 15-year-old “as mild and tender as a newborn calf”. Their first three babies die, but the fourth, Sunja, survives, and blossoms in adolescence. She soon falls for a sharp-suited man who wears white shoes and speaks fluent Japanese and Korean: a married yakuza, a polished gangster whose divided loyalties announce the end of Sunja’s innocence and the beginning of a life of hardship. Pregnant with Noa, her only salvation lies in marriage to an understanding pastor who arranges her escape to Japan, where she quickly becomes accustomed to the life of a Korean immigrant.
Shame and guilt underpin many of the finest scenes in the novel, with every character continually forced by their position as second-class citizens to make painful sacrifices, and, consequently, to consider the nature of those sacrifices. Sunja never fully comes to terms with falling pregnant by a married man, nor can she overcome her emotional and material debt to Isak, the man who saves her (his act of sacrifice for her and her family is not enough to provide her with any sense of salvation). Noa sacrifices his Korean identity in order to become Japanese, but fails to reconcile himself with either.
Although Noa and Hansu offer some of the most poignant emotional conflicts in the novel, the story is built upon the resilience of its female characters, who keep their families alive during their most difficult times, working long hours running boarding houses or making and selling kimchi in the most gruelling conditions in order to support the children. Elsewhere, minor characters such as Akiko and Phoebe probe the nuances in cultural difference in a way that Noa, Hansu or even Solomon are not able to.
Much of the novel’s authority is derived from its weight of research, which brings to life everything from the fishing village on the coast of the East Sea in early 20th-century Korea to the sights and smells of the shabby Korean township of Ikaino in Osaka – the intimate, humanising details of a people striving to carve out a place for themselves in the world. Vivid and immersive, Pachinko is a rich tribute to a people that history seems intent on erasing.
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