Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (Head of Zeus 2017)


This novel tells the story of four generations of a Korean family, mainly in Japan, from 1934 to 1989. It’s a painless, pleasurable history lesson. Painless for the reader, that is. The writing is beautifully accessible, the characters eminently ‘relatable’ (even the seducer of the young virgin who sets things going is good at heart), the plot – though predictable in its general shape as family sagas tend to be – furnished with enough interesting twists.

What I’ve taken away from the book is a fleshed-out sense of what it means to be Korean in Japan. You don’t become a Japanese citizen just by being born in Japan. Even if you come from several generations born in Japan, if your parents, grandparents, or further back, came from Korea, you must register as Korean (and choose whether North or South) on your fourteenth birthday. You can be naturalised, but very few manage it. And anti-Korean myths and stereotypes abound. Min Jin Lee explains in a note that the book was thirty years in the making, that she started out with a sense of the Koreans in Japan as ‘historical victims’, but when she had a chance to live in Tokyo for a time (she herself is US born), she found that the reality was much deeper and more complex. The depth and complexity of the identities and experiences of Korean–Japanese are beautifully and instructively rendered in the novel.

9 responses to “Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko

  1. Many thanks for drawing my attention to this Jonathan – already in my digital possession! Can’t wait for it to reach the top-of my TBR pile. Many friends/students/others in Japan from this background/or those born in Korea during the Japanese occupation.


  2. This was my reading group’s top book of the year, closely followed by Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love and AS Patrić’s Black rock white city. In some ways those books are “better” literature, but Pachinko explored so well the experience of being the despised other in a community/country and the different responses people make to that situation.

    I think you’re right about being predictable overall, but each particular situation played out interestingly, so the overall arc and result was much as you’d think but how it happened for each individual was engrossing.

    I think having visited Japan, and also having read The people who eat darkness made this book especially interesting to me.


  3. Happy New Year, Sue! I’m glad you and your group liked it so much. I’m glad I read it, but didn’t feel compelled to write a longer review of it. Apart from the chilling similarity of Noa’s death to the death of a friend of mine, I wasn’t engaged at an emotional level.


    • Yes, I could tell that – I mean that you didn’t feel compelled to write a longer review I mean. Interesting re the emotional engagement because I was completely invested in the two women in particular and their struggle to survive. I liked the fact that there were points where you thought a certain thing would happen, as it probably would in bestseller sagas, but it never quite did play out that way though the overall arc as you say was predictable.

      I’m sorry to hear about your friend’s death and the similarity to Noa’s.

      Happy New Year to you too.


  4. I have this one on the TBR, and was interested in it because The Spouse told me that people he met on a business trip in Japan were fascinated by Korea… despite the fact that they are neighbours they do not tend to visit as tourists or do business with them. He’d been to Korea by then and they were very keen, apparently, to hear all about it. (Unless it was a case of the legendary Japanese ‘politeness’.)


    • This is interesting to hear Lisa. There may be some truth to it. However, my son had an interesting experience. When he was teaching in Japan – in one of the closest prefectures to Korea – the teachers at his school would each year have a team building (I suppose) trip away each year. One year they decided they’d go to Korea – it’s only an hour flight I think from there – but the Education Department bureaucrats, as I understand, wouldn’t let them travel overseas! Whether that was the real reason or whether it was to do with the Japan-Korea issue we’ll never know of course. Anyhow, in the end, as I recollect, they went to Osaka that year instead!


      • It might have been as simple as an insurance issue. Over the years there have been times when education departments in Australia wouldn’t let school groups go to Bali. As President of VILTA I came under a bit of pressure to persuade them to change their minds. Nobody ever came straight out and said it, but I think the reason was that if the department had approved school tours and there was a terrorist incident, the insurers could argue successfully that it as a foreseeable event and refuse to pay up. That’s the underlying reason for half the DFAT alerts: you can’t sued for not warning people that a place isn’t safe.


      • Yea, could be that too. Money certainly underpins a lot these days.


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