Book Review : Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Three days in bed, recovering from minor surgery, and one good thing came of it- I finally finished ‘Pachinko’ by author, Min Jin Lee. The 480-page book took me a very long time to complete. In between, I read Preeti Shenoy’s ‘Rule Breakers’ which was a quick read and began Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for meaning’, and Anees Salim’s ‘The odd book of hundred baby names’ both of which I am yet to complete. In case you’re judging me on the number of books I read at the same time, ‘Don’t!’ That’s just me when a book is long, but, lovely and yet, difficult to get through.

So much happened in the first forty pages of Pachinko- the author covered the story of two generations and began the third generation- it led me to wonder what more could be there in the remaining pages. By the 60th odd page, my interest in the story wavered and it slowed down my pace. The only reason I did not give up on the book was that- a) it is an award-winning story and the writing is very good and b) I saw a great review by Barack Obama on the book and I wanted to know what the ex-President of the United States liked about the book.

At the end of the 480 pages, I can say I’m glad I stuck with it and I am glad Kindle recommended it to me. After reading ‘The stationary shop of Tehran,’ ‘No more mulberries’- a story set in Kabul, ‘Half of a yellow sun’ – the story of the Biafran war and ‘The Purple Hibiscus’ both of which provide a glimpse into African culture, a chance to peek into East Asian history and culture intrigued me.

‘Pachinko’ is a book that runs from 1932 during the second world war and the Japanese occupation of Korea and goes on till 1989. It’s the story of a Korean family who move to Japan in 1933 and stay there long after the war is over. The book throws light on Japanese and Korean culture. Author Min Lee’s book is a tragic reality, a shocking eye-opener into the lives of Korean immigrants in Japan and the Japanese culture towards women. Japan’s crimes toward Koreans were as atrocious as the bombing of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki by the Americans. Decades after, while the world moved forward, Koreans who stayed back in Japan continued to be looked down upon by the Japanese.
The author considered ‘Motherland’ as the book’s original title but it was subsequently changed to ‘Pachinko’ as her research showed how deeply Koreans linked their roots and identities to the unpredictability of the Pachinko game. Pachinko parlours are famous in Japan and are somewhat similar to western casinos. Pachinko owners are called yazukas which literally translates to gangsters or mafia. In the book, I think Pachinko is used as a metaphor for the risks, thrills and addictions people have in life just like the obsession Koreans and Japanese have with the game. The story reflects on stereotyping in society, the difficulty of shrugging off one’s roots and the impact that can have on generations to come.

The book follows the life of a Korean girl, Sunja.

About the book

The book is divided into three sections and is divided into 3 time periods. The book follows the life of a Korean girl, Sunja.

The first section is from 1910-1933- Sunja is born in the 1910s. The first 40 pages are the backstory of her parents and their parents. Sunja is the only child of Yangjin and Hoonie. Her parents run a lodge which was passed on to them by Hoonie’s parents. Despite being physically handicapped, Hoonie is quite capable and manages to provide for his family even when Japan annexes Korea and Koreans have little to eat. When Sunja turns 13, Hoonie dies and she is taken care of by her mother. At 16, she has a relationship with a Pachinko parlour owner, Hansu, which leaves her pregnant. He proposes marriage to her but Sunja learns that he is already married. One of the lodgers, a Christian minister, Isak Baek who suffers from TB offers to marry her and give her child a name. Once married, Isak and Sunja move to Osaka to live with Isak’s brother, Yoseb and sister-in-law, who live in a ghetto. Isab joins a church.

The remaining two sections of the book talk about Sunja’s life as an immigrant in Japan during and after the world war, the hardships she faces to raise her two children after her husband, Isak’s death, the lives of her children, Noa (Hansu’s son) and Mozasu (Isak’s son). Noa is academically very good and ends up in one of the best universities in Japan. However, on finding out that he is not Isak’s son but ‘Yazuka’ blood in him, he cuts all ties with his mother who has slogged all her life to give him the best education, gives up his education and ends up working as an accountant in a Pachinko parlour. Mozasu, who was disinterested in studying, also joins a Pachinko parlour and through sheer hard work, he manages to make a life for himself and his family in Osaka. However, despite his honesty and integrity in doing business, he is looked down upon because of the nature of his business. Mozasu’s son is bright like his uncle, Noa. Mozasu sends him to the United States and he studies at Columbia University and ends up working in one of the big banks. But the story sees him returning to Japan.

‘Pachinko’ highlights the horrific side of Japanese society, the treatment of women, the struggle of immigrants to fit in and in the end never belong to the country they immigrated to or the country they left. The book is a slow read but it is worth reading it. There are some parts that feel stretched- like the end for me. But, on the whole, I came out feeling more knowledgeable.

A few lines from the book to give you a feel of the writing

“There is nothing fucking worse than knowing you’re just like everybody else. What a messed up lousy existence. And in this great country of Japan- the birthplace of all my fancy ancestors- everyone, everyone wants to be like everyone else. That’s why it is such a safe place to live, but it’s also a dinosaur village. Japan is fucked not because it lost the war or did bad things. Japan is fucked because there is no more war, and in peacetime, everyone actually wants to be mediocre and is terrified of being different.”

“When she told her friends in New York about this curious historical anomaly and the pervasive ethnic bias, they were incredulous at the thought that the friendly well-mannered Japanese they knew could ever think she was somehow criminal, lazy, filthy or aggressive.” She in this line is a Korean girl.

“It’s not just the perfume, though, it’s all the other creams and things that you wear, and it makes up this smell. I used to walk around department stores wondering what it was. The smell of mama.”

“The mama-san couldn’t recover her expenses so she sent Nariko off to a toruko where she would have to bathe and serve men in the nude until she was too old to work that job. Her tits and ass would last half a dozen years at most in the hot water. Then she would have to find something else to do.” This is about an 18-year-old girl who becomes a hostess to make an extra buck but is hit by an angry customer. Mama-san is the pimp.

“At lunchtime, Haruki sat at the end of the long table with two seat gaps around him like an invisible parenthesis while the other boys in their dark woollen uniforms stuck together like a tight row of black corn kernels.” Haruki is a Korean boy in a school in Japan.

What do I like about the book?
The information on the culture and history of Korea and Japan as well as the writing provides a vivid picture of the place and the times. In addition, the story draws you in and leaves you feeling for the characters, whether it is Sunja or Khyunjee, her sister-in-law or even Mozasu’s wife, who has a limited part in the book.

What is irksome?
That it took me so long to complete the book- it is a little too long and there are parts that feel stretched.

Who the book is for?

The book has mature themes and would appeal to any reader above the age of 24 perhaps, who enjoy reading about different cultures.

Rating : Five stars

Book blurb

A Victorian epic transplanted to Japan, following a Korean family of immigrants through eight decades and four generations.

Yeongdo, Korea 1911.

A club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple has one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then a Christian minister offers a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man, she barely knows to a hostile country where she has no friends and no home, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story.


Lastly, ‘Pachinko’ is a book that needs a second reading to appreciate the finer details and the well-rounded characters the author has created. It is a must-read for all those who love a worthwhile read.

5 responses to “Book Review : Pachinko by Min Jin Lee”

  1. kittysverses Avatar

    The book sounds interesting. Thanks for an elaborate review, Smitha. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Smitha V Avatar

      Thank you for reading, Kitty :). The book is very interesting and if you like fiction with history and facts, then you would enjoy reading this book.


  2. robbiesinspiration Avatar

    HI Smitha, I hope you are now recovered from your surgery and on the road to wellness. This sounds like a most interesting peep into Japanese society and their relationship with Koreans. I visited South Korea for a month when I was in my early twenties and found it very different, but intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Smitha V Avatar

      Hi Robbie, I don’t know why but I was surprised to know that you had lived in S.Korea, even if only for a month and that too when you were so young. It must have a very interesting experience. I’m sure you will enjoy reading the book.
      I am feeling much better now. Thank you for your good wishes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. robbiesinspiration Avatar

        Hi Smitha, I have done a few interesting things as I always take opportunities.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply. I love comments.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: