Pachinko (novel)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Pachinko paperback cover.jpeg
2018 United States paperback edition cover
AuthorMin Jin Lee
CountryUnited States
SubjectKoreans in Japan
PublisherGrand Central Publishing
Publication date
February 7, 2017
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)

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 immigrates to Japan, 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.[1]

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.


The novel 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.


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.


Hoonie — Hoonie is the first character to be introduced in the story, born with a twisted foot and a cleft palate.[2]:3 He meets his wife, Yangjin, on his wedding day and they have three children who die early in life before Sunja, their only surviving daughter, is born.[2]:9 Hoonie dies of tuberculosis when Sunja is thirteen years old.[2]:9

Sunja — Sunja is the main protagonist of Pachinko, appearing all throughout the novel. Sunja is the daughter of Hoonie and Yangjin, born in Yeongdo, Busan, Korea. Sunja has two children. Sunja's first born, Noa, is fathered by Koh Hansu and her second born, Mozasu, is fathered by Baek Isak.

Baek Isak — Baek Isak is a Protestant minister from Pyongyang, Korea. He is first introduced when he visits Yangjin's boardinghouse on his way to Osaka to move in with his brother, Yoseb. Sickly since birth, Baek Isak struggles with sickness until his death in Osaka.

Kyunghee — Kyunghee is Yoseb's wife and Sunja's best friend and sister-in-law. She plays a large part in helping Sunja support their families in living, helping Sunja prepare Kimchi to sell.

Yoseb — Yoseb is Baek Isak's brother who lives in Osaka, Japan. He works in a factory to support his family. He lives in Ikaino in Osaka, where most Koreans in Osaka are known to live. He receives a job opportunity in Nagasaki in 1945.[2]:202 He becomes very injured in the subsequent bombing of Nagasaki but lives thanks to Koh Hansu's support.

Koh Hansu — Koh Hansu is a Korean man who was adopted into a rich, prominent family in Japan. Using his connections, Koh Hansu continually strives to earn money and control what he can. Hansu meets Sunja in Korea and falls in love, even though he has a wife in Japan. Throughout the novel, Hansu utilizes his influence to look after Sunja and her family, helping to keep them alive and well. Hansu is driven by his love for his only son, Noa.

Noa — Noa is the only son of Koh Hansu and Sunja. He attends Waseda University in Tokyo before moving to Nagano in north Japan to start a new life, away from Hansu and Sunja. He struggles with identity issues stemming from his biological father's associations with the yakuza.

Mozasu — Mozasu is the only son of Baek Isak and Sunja. He faces constant bullying in school and tends to retaliate with force. As a result, he is taken into an apprenticeship at a Pachinko parlor as a guard. Eventually, he moves up in the ranks and ends up as an owner of parlors himself. Mozasu marries a girl named Yumi and has one son, Solomon.

Solomon — Solomon is the only son of Mozasu and Yumi. Growing up, Solomon does not face many of the same issues and his father or grandmother, since his father is very wealthy. Torn about what he wants to do with his life, he visits America and eventually decides that he wants to enter the Pachinko business like his father.


Themes in Pachinko include racism, stereotypes, power, and the game pachinko.[3] One of Koh Hansu and Sunja's first interactions involves young Japanese boys making fun of Sunja for being Korean, speaking to the discrimination that Koreans experienced within their own borders.[2]:30 This is a recurring theme throughout the book, especially present in the treatment of Koreans in Japanese schools, such as Mozasu's experiences with bullying.

Power is another main theme. Koh Hansu is the main exhibitor of power, using his influence to directly affect Sunja's life throughout the novel. Through this power, Sunja's family is able to survive and thrive while other Koreans around them struggle to support themselves, living in the same neighborhood but in much worse conditions. Through Hansu's influence, Sunja was deeply moved, but also conflictingly aggravated, as she thought she had successfully rid her life of Koh Hansu.

Pachinko is one of the themes directly addressed in the novel. Many times, the novel states that Koreans in Japan are often associated with the pachinko business. Lee has said that the novel's title, which was originally set to be Motherland, was changed to Pachinko when, in her interviews, Koreans seemed to relate back to the pachinko business.[4]

Historical Context[edit]

Pachinko takes place between the years of 1910 and 1989, a period that included the Japanese occupation of Korea and World War II. As a historical novel, these events play a central role in Pachinko, influencing the characters' decisions like Sunja's moving to Japan.

In an interview with Min Jin Lee, she references that the history of Korean-Japanese relationships are one of the most obvious displays of issues surrounding racism and exclusion outside the norms of the west.[4]

Reception and awards[edit]

The book received strong reviews including those from The Guardian,[5] NPR,[6] The New York Times,[7] The Sydney Morning Herald,[8] The Irish Times,[9] and Kirkus Reviews[10] and is on the "Best Fiction of 2017" lists from Esquire,[11] Chicago Review of Books,[12],[13] Entertainment Weekly,[citation needed] the BBC,[14] The Guardian,[15] and Book Riot.[16] In a Washington Post interview, writer Roxane Gay called Pachinko her favorite book of 2017.[17] The book was named by The New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2017.[18]

Pachinko was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award for fiction.[19]

Television adaptation[edit]

In August 2018, it was announced that Apple Inc. had obtained the screen rights to the novel for development as a television series for Apple TV+. The show is expected to be produced by production company Media Res with Soo Hugh serving as showrunner, writer, and executive producer; Min Jin Lee will also be an executive producer.[20] In October 2020, the series' directors and main cast were announced: South Korean filmmaker Kogonada will direct four episodes, including the pilot, and serve as an executive producer of the series. Justin Chon will also direct four episodes. The cast will include Lee Min-ho, Jin Ha, Anna Sawai, Minha Kim, Soji Arai, and Kaho Minami.[21]


  1. ^ "Fiction reviews". Publishers Weekly. No. 263. 2016. p. 47. ProQuest 1859879603.
  2. ^ a b c d e Lee, Min Jin. Pachinko. Grand Central Publishing, 2017
  3. ^ Stephens, Christopher J. (September 18, 2018). "'Pachinko' is a Meticulous Tapestry that Compels our Empathy". PopMatters. ProQuest 2119947570.
  4. ^ a b Morgan, Adam (February 7, 2017). "In 'Pachinko,' Korean Immigrants Face a Harsh Reality in Japan". Chicago Review of Books.
  5. ^ Aw, Tash (15 March 2017). "Pachinko by Min Jin Lee review – rich story of the immigrant experience". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2 June 2017.
  6. ^ Zimmerman, Jean (7 February 2017). "Culture Clash, Survival And Hope In 'Pachinko'". NPR. Archived from the original on 5 October 2017.
  7. ^ Lee, Krys (2 February 2017). "Home but Not Home: Four Generations of an Ethnic Korean Family in Japan". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 4 October 2017.
  8. ^ Craven, Peter (4 August 2017). "Pachinko review: Min Jin Lee's saga of Koreans in Japan is hard to put down". The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 5 October 2017.
  9. ^ Boyne, John (5 August 2017). "Pachinko review: a masterpiece of empathy, integrity and family loyalty". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 11 August 2017.
  10. ^ "An absorbing saga of 20th-century Korean experience, seen through the fate of four generations". Kirkus Reviews. Archived from the original on 5 October 2017.
  11. ^ Ledgerwood, Angela (7 September 2017). "The Best Books of 2017 (So Far)". Esquire. Archived from the original on 3 October 2017.
  12. ^ Morgan, Adam (28 June 2017). "The Best Fiction Books of 2017 So Far". Chicago Review of Books. Archived from the original on 7 September 2017.
  13. ^ "Best Books of the Year So Far: Literature & Fiction". 5 October 2017. Archived from the original on 5 October 2017.
  14. ^ Ciabattari, Jane (16 December 2016). "Ten books to read in 2017". BBC News. Archived from the original on 15 January 2017.
  15. ^ Aw, Tash (9 July 2017). "Best holiday reads 2017, picked by writers – part two". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 14 July 2017.
  16. ^ Nicolas, Sarah. "Best Books of 2017 (So Far)". Book Riot. Archived from the original on 14 July 2017.
  17. ^ Haupt, Angela (31 August 2017). "8 authors coming to the National Book Festival tell us the best thing they read this year". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 5 October 2017.
  18. ^ "The 10 Best Books of 2017". New York Times. November 30, 2017. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  19. ^ "2017 National Book Award finalists revealed". CBS News. October 4, 2017. Retrieved October 4, 2017.
  20. ^ Petski, Denise (August 7, 2018). "Apple Developing Int'l Drama Based On Min Jin Lee's 'Pachinko' Novel". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved August 7, 2018.
  21. ^ "Apple's 'Pachinko' Sets Cast, Directors for International Production | Hollywood Reporter". Retrieved October 23, 2020.