About the Book
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a work of historical fiction published in 2017. Pachinko was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2017. It’s a saga about multi-generations of a poor Korean immigrant family striving for their lives in the 20th century Japan. The book starts with the Japanese invasion of Korea. It highlights the difficulty of the lives of Koreans and the discrimination they faced at the hands of the Japanese during their occupation of Korea. It also conveys how the family seek a new and better life in Japan, the hardship of wartimes, and witnessing the home they left become divided into two countries they hardly recognize. The book contains of three parts- Book I: Gohyang/Hometown, Book II: Motherland, and Book III: Pachinko.
Book I: Gohyang/Hometown (1910-1933)
Yeongdo, Busan, Korea
Book 1 introduces the first generation of the family, the mother and father of Hoonie, their only surviving son. They run a small boarding house in Yeongdo, Korea. They love Hoonie greatly, but they also know not to spoil him. They are full of joy when he is able to find a wife, Yangjin, despite his physical impairments. The young couple has a daughter, Sunja. Her parents love her very much. Hoonie dies of tuberculosis when Sunja is 13. Afterwards, Yangjin keeps running the boarding house by herself for income.
When Sunja is about 16, she meets a wealthy fish broker, Koh Hansu. She falls in love with him and gets pregnant. However, he refuses to marry her, explaining that he already has a wife and three children in Osaka. Hansu offers to support Sunja financially and be with her when he’s in town on business. But Sunja refuses to be Hansu’s mistress, even though as an unwed mother, she’ll be disgraced in the eyes of society.
Around that time, a well-dressed, sickly young pastor from north, Baek Isak, arrives at the boarding house. Yangjin recognizes the signs of tuberculosis and nurse Isak back to health. When Isak is better, he asks Sunja to marry him after hearing about her situation. And she agrees to marry him. After they’re married, they move to Osaka, Japan, to live with Isak’s brother and sister-in-law, Yoseb and Kyunghee. Isak becomes the assistant pastor at a church. Soon, Sunja gives birth to a son, Noa.
Book II: Motherland (1939-1962)
In Book II, young Noa now has a baby brother, Mozasu. However, Isak gets arrested for religious activities. Life dramatically changes for the family. Sunja must learn to make money by selling kimchi in the market. Later, Kim Changho, manager of a restaurant, offers to employ both Sunja and Kyunghee to make kimchi for his restaurants, for a generous salary. They accept. Sunja had no idea that her job has been created by Hansu, who has learned of her circumstances. Three years later, Isak is finally released from prison, weak and sick, but he dies soon after.
One day, Hansu shows up saying that there will be bomb attacks in Osaka by the Americans and that Sunja needs to leave. He brings the family to a farm in countryside where they will be safe, though Yoseb goes to Nagasaki for a new job. Hansu is also able to bring Yangjin from Korea, and the mother and daughter reunite. Yoseb caught up in bomb attacks when in Nagasaki.
After the war, the family moves back to Osaka and rebuilds their house. Kim also stays with them and continues to work for Hansu. As Noa grows up, he is studious and well behaved, while Mozasu doesn’t like school and gets into trouble. Mozasu befriends a Japanese outcast, Haruki, whose mother is a seamstress. To keep him out of trouble, a neighbour who owns a pachinko parlor, Goro, hires Mozasu to work for him. Meanwhile, Noa gets into the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo.
Against Yoseb’s advice, Sunja asks Hansu for the money for Noa’s tuition fees. She doesn’t want to ask from him since she worries about Hansu having influence over her son’s life. However, the cost of university is too high. And Hansu does pay for all of Noa’s fees and gotten him an apartment. Sunja feels stuck, hating to accept Hansu’s continued interference, yet wanting the best opportunities for Noa.
Noa meets a pretty girl at school, Akiko, and they date for a long time. Meanwhile, Mozasu marries Yumi, a girl who works for Haruki’s mother. One day, Akiko points out his obvious resemblance to Hansu and that Hansu is clearly a Yakuza which is how he afford all these things. Noa confronts Sunja and finds out that it is true. After that, he abruptly drops out of the university and moves to another city, refusing to tell his family where he is.
Book III: Pachinko (1962-1989)
Noa finds a job in Nagano and soon builds a successful career in the pachinko industry. And everyone he knows thinks he is Japanese. He marries a woman named Risa and has four children. For 16 years, he successfully lives as a middle-class Japanese family man. But in 1978, after Hansu tracks him down and Sunja goes to see him. She embraces him, wanting him to come home and reunite with his family. Noa promises to do so, but when she leaves, he kills himself. Sunja does not attend the funeral, so Noa’s wife and children never learn of Noa’s Korean family.
Meanwhile, Haruki marries one of his mother’s assistants, Ayume, although he is gay. One day, she sees him engaged in a sex act with a young man, but never says anything.
Mozasu owns his own pachiko parlor now and has a son, Solomon. When Solomon is 3 years old, Yumi saves his life by pushing him out of the way when a car loses control and comes toward them; she dies of her injuries.
Mozasu raises Solomon in Western schools and wants him to work for an American company someday. By the time Solomon is a teenager, Mozasu is dating Etsuko who was previously divorced and has three kids. Solomon is in love with Etsuko’s troubled daughter, Hana, until he goes away to Columbia University, where he dates a Korean-American girl named Phoebe. Phoebe returns to Tokyo with Solomon when he lands a good job at a British investment bank. But when there’s a complication at work, Solomon is fired. Phoebe dumps Solomon after he declines to move back to the United States and marry her. With the encouragement of dying Hana, Solomon decides to join his father in the pachinko business.
The book ends with Sunja visiting Isak’s grave and learning that Noa visited the grave all the time, even while he was living in Nagano. Sunja buries the photo of her son next to Isak.
About the Author
Min Jin Lee is the national bestselling author of Free Food for Millionaires, and recipient of the New York Foundation forthe Arts fellowship for Fiction, the Peden Prize for Best Story, and the Narrative Prize for New and Emerging Writer. She writes for the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, the London Times, Vogue, the Wall Street Journal, and Food & Wine, among others. For more information, please visit MinJinLee.com.