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Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

This novel takes place over the 20th century, beginning even before Sunja’s birth in Busan and ending years after the death of Noa, Sunja's son. It could be described as a family saga, for we follow the paths of the lives of Noa and Mozasu (Sunja's other son), as well as the one of Sunja’s grandson, Solomon. It is also a novel of female suffering and a journey of how Sunja became a woman, where suffering lies at the core of her life.

At the end of the novel, Sunja visits both her late husband’s and her late son’s graves. She contemplates the journey that her life has taken, beginning with her encounter with Hansu, a wealthy Korean that would visit Busan and conduct an affair with Sunja. Hansu had exploited Sunja, doted on her and then abused her innocence in order to achieve his selfish desire of fathering a son. At first, it seemed successful: in Japan, he sponsored Noa’s studies in Waseda, after having encouraged his education. However, Noa then disappears after discovering the truth of his parentage. And, when he is found, he takes his own life. For Sunja, loss precedes any gains in her life: she loses hope for her future when Hansu reveals his marriage; she loses Busan and her mother when she marries Isak; she also loses Isak, first when he is imprisoned, then when he is released.

Though Sunja’s Japanese has deteriorated, she is able to communicate with the groundskeeper, who tells her that that he had known Noa. He reveals that Noa had visited Isak’s grave monthly prior to his death, and thus Sunja receives some consolation that, despite the sense of betrayal that Noa had felt at learning of his mother’s relationship with Hansu, Noa still perceived Isak as his father.

The cemetery is a place of loss and separation, where those who no longer live are kept only as memories and no longer as active participants in the lives of not only those who remember them, but also in society. It is in this place, out of time and spatially segregated from the rest of society, that Sunja seeks to gain insight over her past and the dreams of Hansu that continue to follow her: “What she was seeing again in her dreams was her youth, her beginning, and her wishes – so this was how she became a woman.” Is Sunja merely a collection of all her failed wishes?

Sunja moved from Yeongdo, a district of islands in today’s South Korea. It is to be assumed that the final resting-place of her body would be the same Japanese cemetery in which her husband and son had been buried, in a country that has turned her into a taint – as a Korean – in her family bloodline.

Since the young couple’s passage to Japan, Sunja has never returned to Korea. Her son, who hides his Korean identity so fully that he becomes a Japanese citizen and removes any possibility of his family being exposed to the truth, tells her that his “supposed motherland” is “tiny but beautiful”. This motherland, however, is inaccessible to Sunja in the present moment. For her, she only has the memories of her girlhood, dressed in comfort and warmth by way of contrast with the slums of Osaka that became Sunja and Isak’s new home. It is clear, however, that even in the boarding-house Sunja had been shielded from the violence of colonisation only temporarily. The poverty would overcome Yangjin and force her to sell her land, and, even during Sunja’s life in Korea, her future victimisation in Japan itself is foreshadowed by the young Japanese boys that corner her on her journey home to her mother; moreover, Hansu’s timely appearance at the moment, which began his contact with Sunja, is only one of an entire sequence of his interventions in her life.

In early 1930s Osaka, the married couple Yoseb and Kyunghee (the latter being Isak’s brother) live in a “boxlike shack” that is the better property standard for Koreans in Japan. The fact that Yoseb and Kyunghee own this house, representing a very small turn of fortune in their struggle to survive in Japan, must be kept hidden from other Koreans for fear of theft. Unlike in Yeongdo, it seems that social interactions are founded upon mistrust and fear, spreading between Koreans themselves and augmenting Sunja’s sense of isolation: even amongst Koreans, their way of life is subjugated to the mistrust of the Japanese, having spread into the excluded and shunned community.

If to be Korean is considered a taint to one’s blood in Japan, then so is mental illness or tragedy – exemplified, seemingly, by Etsuko’s unfaithfulness to her husband and her daughter’s death of HIV/AIDS. The men of the novel react differently to their situations: Hansu, the biological father of Sunja’s first son, sees only power and cares for nothing other than his desires, willing to operate as a feared and powerful outcast of Japanese society; Isak and Yoseb both struggle to survive, with Isak’s honest nature landing him in prison for his religion; and Yoseb’s interminable hard work provides little for his wide and widowed sister-in-law. The hours of manual labour result in Yoseb’s physical handicap, causing him to become a burden upon his family and therefore the very opposite of the husband figure that he had aspired to become.

Though Noa seems to be successful in becoming better – more hardworking, more honest, more polite – than that which the Japanese assume of him, he realises nonetheless that he will remain one side (even if it is deemed the preferred, happier side) of a stereotyping mechanism: Akiko fetishes Noa’s Korean background, infatuated with the thought of her magnanimous ability to embrace what she assumes to be the hidden criminal aspect of Noa’s upbringing. On the other hand, Monzasu, Noa’s much less studious brother, is unable to retaliate to his school bullies in the same way as Noa. Despite being on the precipice of embodying the violent Korean outcast, it is Monzasu who survives and becomes successful in the pachinko business. In the end, he endures claims of being yakuza, accepting that his honesty – a pillar of his identity – will only be known to himself and very few of his peers. Even Solomon, Monzasu’s son and therefore Sunja’s grandchild, buckles under accusations that his father’s business is only successful due to illegal activity. And yet, despite the difficulties of Korean life in Japan, Solomon decides to return to Japan and to continue to be inferiorised, looked down upon whilst simultaneously also being envied for his family’s fortune.

Since losing his home in Yeongdo, Sunja gives herself to another search: the creation of a family in which she can pass on the loving care of her father and mother that, in her mind, marks her early childhood and is the foundation of familyhood. Hansu seems to haunt her at every turn, however, and the final pages of the novel emphasise the cruel inescapability of their past: after all this time, eleven years after Noa’s suicide, Hansu is still alive.

Nevertheless, there is a Korean family that persists in Japan, and a future that will be headed by Solomon, the only grandchild that Sunja knows. In that sense, it is possible to conceive of a home being built, created out of the homeless path of Sunja’s life, whose foundations lie in Solomon’s resilience in the face of his outsider status in Japan. Despite his parents’ birth in Japan, not to mention his own, he is considered a foreigner with permission – as if he was, a priori, undeserving of it – to remain in the country of his birth. Their identity rests in the paradox of their legal status, as Koreans without recourse to travel beyond Japan, and their lived experience, as well as their understanding (enabled through society’s constant rejection of them), of Japan. Thus the homeplace that Sunja has passed onto her children is grounded in a Korea, one that is found in Sunja’s childhood and that can only be glimpsed from a distance.



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