Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: A review

"A woman's lot is to suffer," seems to be the philosophy of life of Yangjin, the matriarch of the Korean family that we meet in Min Jin Lee's novel. It's a philosophy that she repeats often to various characters, especially to her daughter, Sunja, and it's a philosophy that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for all the women in succeeding generations of her family. Boy, do they suffer!

They suffer, but they are tough, and through it all, they persevere, accepting and never seriously questioning the cards that fate has dealt them. In fact, in their lives, there is little time for questioning. They are too busy working to eke out a living for themselves and their families.

Pachinko tells the story of this ordinary and honorable family. It's a story that begins in Yeongdo, a fishing village near the southern tip of Korea, in the early 20th century. It starts with the arranged marriage of the aforementioned Yangjin to Hoonie, a young man with a club foot and cleft palate and therefore not a likely candidate for a brilliant marriage. But this marriage works out well. The partners grow to love each other, are respected in their community, and they produce a beloved daughter, Sunja.

After Hoonie dies prematurely, Yangjin and her daughter keep a boardinghouse, and one day a handsome young Presbyterian minister stops to rent a space. It turns out that he is quite ill and the family and their two women helpers nurse him back to a semblance of health.

Meantime, 16-year-old Sunja has become infatuated and has an affair with a dealer in the local market, who turns out to be married and is a well-connected member of the Yakuza, the Japanese gangsters. Inevitably, she becomes pregnant, at which point her lover reveals to her that he is married and has three daughters in Japan. He offers to buy a house for her and her mother and to maintain them there, but Sunja is mortified and runs away from the relationship.

For a young unmarried Korean girl in the 1930s to be pregnant was a major scandal. It would be the ruination of her family. 

Sunja confides in her mother and her mother, in turn, talks to her boarder, Isak, the Presbyterian minister, about her situation. Isak, in gratitude for all they have done for him, offers to marry the girl and take her with him to Osaka where they will live in his brother's house and where he has a position as a pastor. This is how they come to be immigrants in Japan during this fraught period of history.

Korean immigrants in Japan are looked upon as little more than vermin by the Japanese. They are discriminated against and shut out of virtually all traditional occupations. In order to survive, they have to devise non-traditional ways of earning a living. For Sunja and her sister-in-law, this involves the making of kimchi and later other kinds of foodstuffs and selling them in the local market. Eventually, Sunja's two sons, the one whose father was a Yakuza and the one whose father is Isak, will find another way.

Pachinko is a kind of pinball-like game that is ubiquitous and vastly popular in Japan and the pachinko parlors do not balk at hiring Koreans. First, Sunja's younger son, Mozasu, and later, after he drops out of university, her older son, Noa, find work in such parlors. Both are adept and hard-working and the pachinko parlors become the means of raising the family out of poverty.

It was interesting to read of the Japanese culture and the Korean culture in Japan of this period, just before, during, and after World War II and on through the late 1980s. The discrimination against Koreans did not relent. Even though Sunja's children and grandchildren were born in Japan, they were not considered citizens of Japan. They were required to apply for alien registration cards every three years and were rarely granted passports so that it was almost impossible for them to travel out of the country. (Still, I suppose that is gentler treatment than they would receive in Trumplandia where they would be summarily deported.)   

This is a big novel that covers a lot of different themes including Japan's colonization of Korea in the early 20th century, World War II as it was experienced in East Asia, the coming of Christianity to the area, and the changing role of women, to name a few. But the narrative is propelled through time and history by the tumultuous lives of its characters; one might even say the heroic lives of its characters. As one of those characters observes:
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage” 
Indeed. Min Jin Lee has shown us that courage quietly and beautifully with this novel.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. Interesting themes the ones of this novel. I'm glad you loved it, Dorothy.

    1. It gave me a view of a part of the world and its history of which I am sadly ignorant.

  2. What a pleasure to revisit this novel through your review. It is one of my top favorites reads this year.

    1. It probably will make my list as well, although it is going to be very hard to make a favorites list. I've read so many excellent books this year.

  3. Thank you for sharing your review. I will need to look into this one.

    1. If you decide to read it, I hope you will find it as fascinating and rewarding as I did.


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