Thoughts on the novel Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Posted on March 28, 2020 by Janey Muñoz
Tags: fiction, reading, summary


Pachinko is an epic narrative centered on the lives of a Korean family across the 20th century, spanning four generations. It is a historical fiction, in that the backdrop to the story heavily influences the characters, both in cultural context as well as plot progression; for example, one of the characters is in Hiroshima during the bombing in World War II, leading to him becoming severely injured and requiring care for the rest of his life. Some themes in the book are suffering, loyalty, gender roles, honor, shame, culture, christianity, and beauty. The story is told in a disinterested manner, where the plot is stated more so than described.

What I appreciated most about this book was the peek it provided into a time period and cultures about which I was not familiar. From the concrete description of a traditional dress in Korea, a Hanbok, to the abstract conception of prejudices during and after the Japanese rule of Korea. I found myself often frustrated with the manner in which a character would act cruelly toward another based on their biases, but on reflection this is part of what I appreciated - being pushed to accept that humans and societies have lived very differently than what is my ‘normal,’ and that today many people are living a ‘normal’ that is far off from my own, and that ‘normalcy’ will always transform over time and place.

I am glad to have read the book, but I did not enjoy reading it. Pachinko is a tragedy, which I was not expecting. Soon after finishing it, I came across this quote from Arthur Schopenhauer (found in The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant) that captures why I believe it is so:

The life of every individual, if we survey it as a whole, … and only lay stress on its most significant features, is really always a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy. (326)

Although the book is hefty, coming in at just under 500 pages in length, it cannot and rightly does not attempt to cover the minutiae of the characters’ lives. Between chapters, years may pass. The author focuses on the events that most contribute to the characters’ trajectory, and in this story, many of them fall nearer to tragic than fortunate or heartening. I do not agree with Schopenhauer, that every life is a tragedy overall, but between my belief and his is a spectrum of experience.


Note: there are spoilers in the following.

The story begins in Busan, Korea in the early 1900s, where a teenage Sunja, loosely the protagonist of the story, is impregnated by an older man, Hansu. This event is the cornerstone of the story. Hansu is deeply interested in providing every opportunity for his son, Noa, despite Sunja protesting his involvement. For most of his life, Noa does not know that Hansu is his biological father, and instead believes his father to be Isak, a Presbyterian minister who married Sunja soon after he learned she was pregant. Isak saw the marriage as a compassionate task akin to Hosea’s marriage of Gomer in the Bible, and it was partially in gratitude for Sunja and her mother, Yangjin, caring for him at the boardinghouse when he was beset with tuberculosis.

What is my name to me? It’s only a matter of grace that I as born a male who could enter my descendants in a family registry. (65)

The characters’ lives are largely influenced by the social and political climate of Japanese occupation of Korea, and the concomittant prejudices experienced by Koreans living in the surrounding area. Isak and Sunja move to Osaka, Japan, soon after getting married. There they have son together, Mozasu, just before Isak is imprisoned in relation to his work as a minister. In this time of difficulty, Hansu secretly is pulling the strings to ensure that Sunja and her family have enough money to live. Eventually, he reveals his influence to Sunja, who cannot help but accept his efforts given that her family could be destitute or dead without his help.

As Hansu takes an active role in their lives, Noa sees him as a wealthy benefactor, a man keen on uplifting fellow Koreans and Noa in particular because he has so much potential to make something of himself in an environment that constantly tells Koreans they are lesser. Noa tries to maneuver the world, overcoming or sidestepping the prejudices against him by being studious and keeping to himself.

Like all children, Noa kept secrets, but his were not ordinary ones. At school, he went by his Japanese name, Nobuo Boku, rather than Noa Baek; … Above all other secrets that Noa could not speak of, the boy wanted to be Japanese; it was his dream to leave Ikaino [the Korean ghetto] and never return. (176)

Eventually, Noa gets into a prestigious Japanese university and begins to succeed in studying Literature, all the while being funded by Hansu. He learns that Hansu may be his father, and worse, that Hansu is probably a gangster. In despair and shame, Noa estranges himself from his family and starts a new life in Nagano, Japan, under a new name and as a Japanese man, working at a Pachinko parlor. He gets married and has children, never telling anyone his real, not even the woman he weds nor their children.

I tried to be as honest and humble as Baek Isak was; I never raised my voice. But this blood, my blood is Korean, and now I learn that my bloood is yakuza blood. I can never change this, no matter what I do. It would have been better if I were never born. How could you have ruined my life? How could you be so imprudent? A foolish mother and a criminal father. I am cursed. (311)

This story arc reaches a head when, years later, Hansu has tracked down Noa and brought Sunja to see him. Sunja cannot contain herself, and confronts him with joy and sadness, and Noa promises he will be in touch with her soon. The next day, she learns that Noa killed himself right after Sunja left.

In contrast to Noa, as a child Mozasu cannot abide the injustices around him without putting up a fight. This leads him to leaving school, instead working under the tutelage of a Pachinko parlor owner. Years later, Mozasu will come to be a highly successful parlor owner himself, giving his son, Solomon, a life of luxury and opportunity. Mozasu experiences his own tragedy in his wife and Solomon’s mother, Yumi, being killed in a car accident.

Solomon attends university in the United States, and gets a well-paid job working in finance. Unfortunately, he is fired when a deal he facilitated appears to have been tainted unbeknownst to him. After watching his first love die of a virus (alluded to being HIV), and ending his relationship with his Korean-American girlfriend, Solomon chooses to join his father in the Pachinko parlor business.

Intertwined with these main arcs are those of several others: Mozasu’s best childhood friend, a Japanese gay man pretending to be straight and working as a local police officer; the friend’s wife, who wonders about her husbands lack of sexual interest in her; Sunja’s mother, who on her death bed condemns Sunja for her selfishness in caring for her children; Mozasu’s second wife, who has effectively been exiled from her family for infidelity but finds contement with Mozasu.


Life in Osaka:

Isak spent long days and nights at the church serving the needs of a growing congregation, and Yoseb managed the biscuit factory during the day and repaired machines in factories in Ikaino in the evenings for extra money. The daily tasks of cooking, laundry, and cleaning for four were considerably less onerous than caring for a boardinghouse. Sunja’s life felt luxurious in contrast to her old life in Busan. (122)

Sunja gives birth to a son, named Noa by Yoseb:

Noa – because he obeyed and did what the Lord asked. Noa – because he believed when it was impossible to do so. (145)

Yoseb hates the idea of not being able to provide:

What kind of man let his wife work in a restaurant? … Which was worse – his wife working for moneylenders or him owing money to them? For a Korean man, the choices were always shit. (174)

Two years after being imprisoned, a dying Isak is returned to his family. Before he passes away, he gets some time to speak with Noa:

“What else can we do but perservere, my child? We’re meant to increase our talents. This thing that would make your appa happy is if you do as well as you’ve been doing. Wherever you go, you represent our family, and you must be an excellent person – at shool, in town, and in the world.” (192)

Mozasu versus Noa:

Mozasu knew he was becoming one of the bad Koreans. Plice officers often arrested Koreans for stealing of home brewing. Every week, someone on his street got in trouble with the police. Noa would say that because some Koreans broke the law, everyone got blamed. … Noas said that Koreans had to raise themselves up by working harder and being better. Mozasu just wanted to hit everyone who said mean things. (243)

Solomon gets his alien registration card on his 14th birthday:

“Let’s get your dog tags,” Mozasu said. Solomon faced his father. “Hmm?” “It’s what we dogs myst have.” The clerk looked furios suddenly. “The fingerprints and registration cards are vitally important for government records. There’s no need to feel insulted by this. It is an immigration regulation required for foreign–” Etsuko stepped forward. “But you don’t make you children get finger-printed on their birthday, do you?” (396)

Sunja in reflection:

It was not Hansu that she missed, or even Isak. What she was seeing again in her dreams was her youth, her beginning, and her wishes – so this was how she became a woman. Without Hansu and Isak and Noa, there wouldn’t have been this pilgrimage to this land. Beyond the dailiness, there had been moments of shimmering beauty and some glory, too, even in this ajumma’s life. Even though no one knew, it was true. There was consolation: The people would loved, they were always there with you, she had learned. (476-477)