Pachinko: a stunning depiction of immigration, family, and sacrifice

Ava Montalbano, Contributor

“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a beautifully written novel about four generations of a Korean family living in Japan. Lee is a fantastic storyteller whose characters capture the complexity of immigration, humanity and what it means to be family. Lee writes about the economic struggles of living in Korea and Japan in the early to mid-1900s and about the social and racial struggles Korean immigrants experienced. “Pachinko” offers an insightful account of social dynamics within 20th century Japan, which appeals to western audiences who may have little to no understanding of Korean or Japanese culture.  

The novel begins with Sunja, a young girl born into a poor Korean family. Sunja’s parents are kind, patient and honest innkeepers who each have struggled with hardships and poverty. After an unplanned pregnancy with an older married man, Sunja quickly marries a caring minister, Isak, and the two move to Japan to live in a small home with their in-laws. Once in Japan, Sunja gives birth to her son Noa and becomes pregnant with her and Isak’s second son, Mozasu. The now family of six, including Sunja’s in-laws, balance economic disparities, and racism against Koreans in Japan throughout the book. Sunja and her sister-in-law, Kyunghee, opened a kimchi stand, a lifelong dream of Kyungee’s made necessity as the family could not survive off their current income. Sunja’s two sons face discrimination in school, and each child handles the prejudice differently. Noa attempts to assimilate into Japanese culture and dives deeper into his studies, hoping to achieve higher education. Mozasu rejects the idea of pleasing his fellow Japanese peers and instead pursues a career in Pachinko, a Japanese arcade game. The story details what living in Japan was like during World War II, and the measures the family had to take to avoid the turmoil of war. “Pachinko” concludes with the fourth generation of children living drastically different lives than their parents before them. 

I absolutely fell in love with Lee’s storytelling and her matter-of-fact writing style. Although each character experiences racial, economic and gender-based discrimination, the writing is not emotionally charged. The characters within the novel tackle their hardships with grace and dignity, never complaining and always striving to do better. I admired each character for their ability to be patient with the ups and downs of life, each using their setbacks as a learning experience. My favorite part about the novel is that nothing is written in black and white; Lee’s characters are human and complex, filled with contradictions and faults. You will find yourself hating a character’s actions but loving them for their intentions or at least understanding what led to their decisions.  

As I was reading Pachinko and slowly coming to the end of the novel (by that, I mean I was trying not to finish the book because I didn’t want it to end), I began to notice that every character’s strength was ultimately their downfall. Lee writes this subtly, and so it was not until l a disagreement between two characters that I picked up on this trope. Once realized, it was hard to not see this similarity among the other characters. Supposed strengths like love, self-improvement, obedience, protectiveness, and selflessness were ultimately the downfall of each character. I found this interesting because these characteristics do not seem important until the end, and prior to this, they seemed admirable. “Pachinko” provides lessons throughout the novel, but I think perhaps the greatest one is that balance is necessary to ensure not only your own happiness, but the happiness of those around you.  

“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is honestly one of the best books I have ever read, and I completely understand all the praise it has received. The novel is a stunning depiction of immigration, family, and sacrifice, and I cannot compliment this novel enough. Everyone needs to experience this novel; you should go buy it right now!