Dark Past Uncovered: The Fabled Japanese and Korean Relationship

Family sagas do possess a different literary flare that appeals to readers. The ins and outs of family relationships, the varying story curves and directions, the trials and tribulations, and the development of the characters irresistibly fuse to offer a unique literary journey. Family sagas never lack run out of rooms for entertainment and for introspection. Lengthy they maybe but their niche in the world of literature is something that can never be denied.

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is not your typical saga. Conjuring a family story with a backdrop filled with historical elements, Lee conjured a captivating tale. The story commenced in 1883 in the island fishing village of Yeongdo, off the coast of Busan, South Korea. Hoonie, due to his deformities, was considered unfit for marriage. After the annexation of Korea to Japan left many starving, Hoonie’s marriage with Yangjin was arranged. The couple went on to manage a lodging house and in the mid-1910s, they welcomed their daughter, Sunja.

Hoonie passed away due to tuberculosis, leaving Yangjin to care for the thirteen-year-old Sunja. Three years later, the mysterious fish broker Koh Hansu pursued Sunja and impregnating her. When Sunja broke the news, Hansu admitted that he was already married but offered to have Sunja as his Korean mistress. The heartbroken Sunja begged off and banished Hansu from her life. Her salvation came in the form of a sickly minister Baek Isak who was passing by Yeongdo. Taking Sunja and Noa, Sunja and Hansu’s son, under his wings, Isak brought his new family to Osaka where their destinies began to unravel.

“Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests. And the guys in charge will exploit men who believe in ideas too much.” ~ Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

To uncover Min Jin Lee’s inspiration for her second novel, Pachinko, one has to travel back to about thirty-years ago when she was still in college. A history major and an immigrant, she was fascinated to learn about the Korean-Japanese community, an offshoot of the Korean diaspora during the Japanese invasion of her home country from 1910 to 1945. Her intricate research and vivid descriptions of several historical events were carefully sewn into the mantle of the narrative. It is this fine texture of historical context that makes the tapestry of Pachinko stand out.

Historically, Japanese and Korean relations have always stood under shaky ground. Their colorful histories are riddled with years of numerous sieges, bloodshed, conflicts and cold wars. The undercurrents of pains of their past can be still felt in current times. Albeit the improvement of diplomacy over the years, the annals of history say otherwise.

The major historical background further precipitates into several inherent themes. On the peripheries of the dynamics of Korean and Japanese relationships, themes like racism and stereotypes were portrayed all throughout the narrative in several situations and in varying degrees. The dire living conditions and the abuses Sunja’s family experienced in the slums of Osaka is but one allusion to this discrimination.

Pachinko is also an exploration of identity. Through Noa’s individual journey, two facets of identity as a major theme were explored – bloodline and nationality. The resulting internal conflicts are reflections of the general sentiment of his generation. The novel also explored themes about gender roles and sexism. Power is another theme that is mainly exhibited through Koh Hansu. The game pachinko is one of the more direct themes in the story.

“Yes, of course. If you love anyone, you cannot help but share his suffering. If we love our Lord, not just admire him or fear him or want things from him, we must recognize his feelings; he must be in anguish over our sins. We must understand this anguish. The Lord suffers with us. He suffers like us. It is a consolation to know this. To know that we are not in fact alone in our suffering.” ~ Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

One of the story’s more compelling facet is the representation of human spirit, especially its resilience. In the hodgepodge of different themes, it is a story of good, honest people who mustered the strength to overcome unfavorable circumstances such as diseases, wars, discrimination and death. It is these varying sentiments that helped move the story forward. Min Jin Lee did a commendable job of striking of balance amongst the different elements of the story whilst arousing a plethora of emotions.

Lingering at the seams are undercurrents of political nature. Min Jin Lee intertwines the political and the historical in the story, brilliantly striking equilibrium between these two facets of the story. Her straightforward and no-nonsense writing suited the story for it was narrated through a detached third-person. The story of Sunja and the ensuing Korean diaspora were amongst the novel’s interesting facets. The writing maybe appropriate but the language was lackadaisical; it was neither compelling nor riveting.

The story carried itself too well it took quite some time for the proverbial cracks to surface. By covering as much ground as possible, Min Jin Lee left crucial details unexplained; further elucidation would have helped in the appreciation of the story’s complexity. It wouldn’t harm the story if the novel was divided into two books. There was also a palpable disconnect between the readers and the characters. Although some characters are imbued with strong values such as resilience, the overall character development was underwhelming; some of individual impacts were ephemeral.

“People are rotten everywhere you go. They’re no good. You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let’s see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants.” ~ Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

To say Pachinko is a complex novel is an understatement. It is an ambitious undertaking in which Min Jin Lee strived to cover as much ground as possible. Parts historical, parts political, and parts fictional, Min Jin Lee capably sewed these varying themes into one complex yet interesting tableau, as interesting as the history that Min Jin Lee tried to relate in her story. Moreover, the historical portion provided insights into the dynamics of Japanese-Korean relations.

Pachinko wasn’t totally seamless. Nevertheless, Min Jin Lee conjured an entrancing story that is a literary metaphor of the eponymous Japanese arcade game. Just like the game of pachinko, the characters gambled on their chances – some they won, some they lost. For this round, Min Jin Lee earned an admirable following.



I love family sagas and to read one that is quite close to home is a wonderful experience. Pachinko is a surprisingly good read. Not great but good. I did hear, rather, read a lot of positive commendations on the book and I can understand why. There is something gorgeous about the fusion of history and fiction.

Min Jin Lee did enough to reel readers in even though the writing was a little lackadaisical, or passive. The bevy of characters was, at some points, overwhelming. I think the story might have a different impact and complexion if it was related entirely through Sunja’s perspective. Nevertheless, it was still a pleasant read that demonstrated and highlighted pretty much the lukewarm relationship of Japan and Korea related through the trials and tribulations of a family.

Book Specs

Author: Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publishing Date: February 2017
Number of Pages: 479
Genre: Family Saga, Historical Fiction


History is seldom kind. In Min Jin Lee’s bestselling, magisterial epic, four generations of a poor, proud immigrant family fight to control their destinies, exiled from a homeland they never knew.

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant – and that her lover is married – she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home and to reject her son’s powerful father sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From the bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters – strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis – survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.

About the Author


(Picture by Wikipedia) Min Jin Lee was born on November 11, 1968 in Seoul, South Korea.

When she was 7 years-old, her family moved to the United States. She grew up in Elmhurst, Queens, New York where her parents owned a wholesale jewelry store. To understand the new culture, she spent a lot of time at the Queens Public Library. She attended Bronx High School of Science. She studied history at Yale College in Trumbull College. She pursued her law degree at Georgetown University Law Center.

Before pursuing writing, Lee worked first as a corporate lawyer in New York from 1993 to 1995. She quit to focus on writing. Her writing career began with mostly short story fiction. Her short story Axis of Happiness won the 2004 Narrative Prize from Narrative Magazine. Motherland, another short story won The Peden Prize for Best Short Story. Her first novel, Free Food for Millionaires was published in 2007, followed by Pachinko, publilshed in 2017.

Apart from her endeavors in fiction, Lee also wrote several nonfiction works such as essays and reviews for a variety of publications such as Times of London, the New York Times Magazine, and Conde Nast Travel. She has also done lectures in various colleges and universities all over the world.

Lee currently resides in Harlem, New York, with her son and husband.