Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Published: 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction 1. First lines. 2. Cover: Harper Collins 3. A young Korean girl [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] Okinawa Soba (Rob) via flickr 4. Korea Traditional pattern [CC BY-NC 2.0] Image by Kim Daram via flickr

Sunja, born into a poor family about 1915 in Yeongdo, Korea, falls pregnant to a wealthy fish broker, Hansu. He is already married, so when a Christian pastor called Isak arrives in town, she agrees to marry him, and move to Osaka, Japan. Sunja has a boy, Noa to Hansu, and later, a son Mozasu to her husband Isak. Starting in Korea and ending in Japan, the story follows the family through the turbulence of wars and social upheaval, and the struggles of the Korean people to have a better life in Japan where they are treated as outsiders. Pachinko (a type of pinball game), is a multi-million dollar business in Japan, and one with which many Korean-Japanese people have some historical or social connection.

Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.

Glanceabook: The family background to this story is very interesting, and it is written in a way that makes the family seem like a real family. The character of Sunja, particularly, is developed realistically, and the merging of factual historical events and fictional family circumstances is particularly well done.

  • The Guardian: “A vivid, immersive multigenerational saga about life for Koreans in Japan is a tale of resilience and poignant emotional conflict…. 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.”
  • Sydney Morning Herald: Pachinko is a massive attempt, full of subtlety and strategy, to universalise the Korean experience by showing it with its nose pressed to the glass of history.”
  • Irish Times: “The monstrous degrees of hardship, disrespect and inhumanity suffered by the Koreans makes for painful reading. They live in impoverished circumstances, are paid less than their Japanese counterparts, are spoken to as if they were dogs and, in one powerful scene, are forced to register time and again as strangers in a land in which many of them have in fact been born. Lee writes of this maltreatment with a stoicism that reflects the fortitude of her characters. Surviving is what matters to them, not human rights.”


“The winter following Japan’s invasion of Manchuria was a difficult one. Biting winds sheared through the small boardinghouse, and the women stuffed cotton in between the fabric layers of their garments. This thing called the Depression was found everywhere in the world, the lodgers said frequently during meals, repeating what they’d overheard from the men at the market who could read newspapers. Poor Americans were as hungry as the poor Russians and the poor Chinese.”

“In Japan, you’re either a rich Korean or a poor Korean, and if you are a rich Korean, there’s a pachinko parlour somewhere in your background.”

“The matchmaker’s funny little face was puffy and pink; black flinty eyes darted intelligently, and she was careful to say only nice things. The woman licked her lips as if she was thirsty; Hoonie’s mother felt the woman observing her and every detail of the house, measuring the size of the kitchen with her exacting eyes.”


Author: Min Jin Lee

Also published by: Head of Zeus and Grand Central Publishing


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