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#Gratitude – Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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I stumbled upon this book titled Pachinko when I was perusing the Amazon Kindle app free for a month. This book was available for a free read and I downloaded it for its colourful cover. The blurb was pretty enticing too though I am not a huge fan of historical fiction. I am grateful for this book being available for a free read, as I probably wouldn’t have gone for it otherwise. That would have been my loss.

Title: Pachinko

Author: Min Jin Lee

Lee was born in Seoul, Korea and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was seven years old. She studies History at Yale college and attended Law school at Georgetown University. Her debut novel Free food for millionaires (2007) was a national bestseller.

Pachinko is her second novel which she wrote while living in Japan for a few years where she corresponded with several second/third generation Korean immigrants for research for her book. This book will be translated in 24 languages and was antional bestseller in New york, besides topping several Top Pick lists all over the world.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Praise for the book

“Astounding. The sweep of Dickens and Tolstoy applied to a 20th century Korean family in Japan. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinkotackles all the stuff most good novels do—family, love, cabbage—but it also asks questions that have never been more timely. What does it mean to be part of a nation? And what can one do to escape its tight, painful, familiar bonds?”

– Gary Shteyngart, New York Times bestselling author of Little Failure and Super Sad True Love Story


Pachinko is a very popular version of pinball in Japan and the gaming parlours do a great business. Owing to it gambling nature, the business is not looked upon with respect. Moreover, some parlours tweak the system to ensure low wins for the gamers.

Pachinko follows the lives of four generations of Koreans in Japan as they struggle to retain their identity and culture in the harsh throes of war.

Our tale begins in the early 1900s in a small fishing village in Korea where 15-year-old Sunja helps her mother run a boarding house. A chance encounter with a wealthy Korean businessman leads to pregnancy for Sunja. She is heartbroken to know that her lover Hansu is a married man and refuses to be his mistress, thus setting in motion a tale of heartbreak and hardships.

Salvation comes in form of Isak, a Korean missionary who knocks at their door in severe throes of TB. Overwhelmed by the care and love of the mother and daughter, he offers to marry Sunja and accept the child as his own. They immigrate to Japan to live with Isak’s older brother Yoseb and his wife Kyunghee. Isak joins at the local church but barely makes ends meet.

Sunja gives birth to Noa who is adored by everyone for being a hard-working conscientious child. He takes to schooling like duck to water and everyone hopes him to turn into a scholar like his father Isak. Sunja and Isak have another boy – Mozasu who turns out to be a fun-loving kid but hates to study.

“In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am. So what the fuck?”
― Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

There was intense racism practiced against the Koreans in Japan and their living/working conditions were pitiful to say the least. In one ugly incident, Isak is arrested by the police and tortured for years in prison. He is eventually released but dies due to ill-health and starvation.

Noa starts to hate his heritage and begins to adopt the Japanese way of life in subtle guises. Mozasu has no such compunction and goes on to work at a Pachinko gaming parlour.

“You are very brave, Noa. Much, much braver than me. Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”
― Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

Hansu enters Sunja’s life in Japan and is interested in Noa’s future. He sets it up that Noa is able to pursue a University education. Sunja has no desire to be in touch with Hansu and is fearful of the day Noa discovers the truth about his birth.

Kyunghee is unable to have a child and when Yoseb has an accident in the factory, rendering him invalid; she goes about her life working harder than before. Sunja is her unerring support in everything.

Faced with poverty, Sunja and her sister-in-law take to making Korean delicacies at home which they then sell in the market place. Impressed with their skills, a popular restaurant hires them fulltime to prepare these items.

Sunja’s life turns up and down at every corner and she wonders at her youth, body and the concept of love.

“…a God that did everything we thought was right and good wouldn’t be the creator of the universe. He would be our puppet.”
― Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

When World War threatens peace in Japan, Sunja’s life takes another turn. Will she cope? What happens when Noa finds the truth about his father? What happens to Mozasu’s future? How does the life of this generation turn out in war riddled Japan? Will they eventually return to Korea?

Pachinko book review Korea Japan generations war
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Lasting impression on me:

This is a slow meandering tale, set in war-time Japan. The narrative switches tone depending on who is telling the tale. I loved this narration style for it moved the story through various viewpoints, without actually judging anyone. In fact, there is no rage, no recriminations over the misfortunes occurring in their lives. Just a graceful acceptance of their destiny.

The story moves from a humble fishing village in Busan, Korea to the filthy and squalid slums housing immigrant Koreans in Japan; the bustling streets and markets to the hallowed classrooms of finest Universities in Japan and ofcourse the Pachinko parlours owned by the underworld warlords.

The author builds a powerful backdrop of Korean-Japanese tensions against which the tale unfolds. In many ways, the future is shaped by this attitude and leads to decisions which over time prove fatal. It reminded me of the India-Pakistan relationship and how refugees are forever branded so. There is no acceptance for them on either side of the border.

I loved the parent-child relationship that altered with generations in some measure but in essence remained the same. The concept of culture, marriage and home is so similar to how we perceive it in India; I could connect to this on so many levels as a reader.

The fate of the women, how they view sex and their bodies, and their unflinching devotion to their husbands and family is very real in this book.

All through the book a feeling of shame hangs over the head of every character, even as they wrestle with upholding their culture and traditions. Some sail through it while others succumb to the pressure. Their lives are full of struggle and hardships at every corner, no matter how hard they work.

I think the author used Pachinko as a metaphor while naming the book; the players come to play with great hope and dexterity but no matter how hard they try, a win seems out of their reach. The game is complex and requires great skills but the underhanded ways of the parlour owners, makes it impossible for them to win. This seems to be the fate of every character in the book.

My rating:

This is my first time for reading a Historical fiction and much to my delight, I didn’t find it cumbersome or unyielding. Think  that has something to do with the quiet calm way this books unfolds. I loved this simplistic writing style and even though the pace of story telling was slower than what I am accustomed to reading, I loved the book. I am giving it a 4 star rating and would recco a read if you are keen to explore more of Asian culture and their stories.

My first ever book about Japanese culture was the Memoirs of a Geisha which you could find here 

How about you – do you have a favourite Asian author or book?

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6 thoughts on “#Gratitude – Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

  1. These days I am high on chick flicks (I know not your genre at all) But I know some day I will get bored of it all and then I will need to read something more grounded. Something like ‘Pachinko’

    1. This is indeed a tome to read- its huge but it was well worth it to me. I hope you do get some time to read it someday- its so beguiling to read about other cultures which are so so similar in thought process to ours.

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