Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I have ‘read’ this book as an audiobook and loved it so was delighted when it was chosen as our next Exe Files book club book. This time I would have to read it and I have learnt that I pick up on different things depending on whether I read or listen. I enjoyed it just as much this time. Scroll down on this page to read my first review.

Here, I just want to pick up in a bit more detail some of the things that I noticed rather than a summary of the story, which I did in the first review.

I want to come back to the food and its importance. In book 2 Motherland, the book spans the whole of WWII and the Korean War. Times were hard and food was scarce. Previously Sanja and her mother were poor but had land and a kitchen garden from which they were able to supplement what they bought and meant that they ate well. Sanja’s mother was a very good cook and so the boarding house inhabitants ate well.

Once Sanja had moved to Osaka with her husband things changed. She lived in cramped conditions with a very small kitchen and she and her sister-in-law had to be extremely thrifty to feed themselves. Meat was rarely eaten, white rice only on very special occasions with protein being the hardest food to afford. At one point when talking about the war, Yoseb stated that their bellies were their emperors. Their hunger and constant search for food ruled them.

It is also in this book that we start to gain an understanding of what it means to be a foreigner with the children being ostracised because they smell of different foods – garlic and kimchee. In book 3 Pachinko, we start to understand the idea of ‘forever foreigners’ – the generation that was born in Japan but still was deemed Korean and had to register themselves every three years from the age of 14.

Food was also the way out of some of their difficulties when Sanja and Kyunghee make and sell Kimchee. They had a never-ending search for cabbage and other ingredients which were just not available to the them. Sugar was hard to come by and so once again, Hansu stepped in to help them out without letting it be known that it was him. We then get introduced to the idea of Yakuza or the Yaks.

The notion of home and a homeland is another strong theme throughout the book of ‘forever foreigners’. Like so many people Sanja and Isaek, Yoseb and Kyunghee are all economic migrants, moving to Japan for work and a better life only to be crushed into ghetto and seen as one homogenous group of criminals and smelly, dirty people. They were also a group of people stuck in Japan. They couldn’t leave because they had and were not allowed a passport yet they were not seen as Japanese. When Korea became a North and South, families often had no ties to the one that was offering to allow them to come ‘home’.

There was always talk of Koreans going home, but in a way all of them had lost the home in their minds for good.


The third book introduces us to the reasons why the book is called Pachinko.

He loved all the moving pieces of his large, noisy business. His Presbyterian father had believed in devine design, and Mozasu believed that life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control.


And it is interesting that this comes up when the children and grandchildren of those who had migrated start to make lives for themselves. The family as a whole is wealthy but life throws curve balls. Noa kills himself when after he realises that he has Yakusa blood, Hana dies of Aids and everyone ends up working in the Pachinko business despite their university study or leaving school early. In fact, the ending could be a little bit depressing because nothing they did released them from Pachinko and forever being Koreans in a grubby, crime-rich world. How many generations does it take for this to disappear?

There are many ignored people in this book: Christians, Koreans, those with physical or mental disabilities, poor people, prisoners, those who are HIV positive, the unmarried and women who become pregnant outside of marriage, homosexuals, drug addicts and working women. They are all in there.

This is not a history book but a story of a family and how history shaped them. I still loved it.

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