The good and the bad immigrant

“Reading Pachinko is paying witness to the turmoil suffered by the Korean Diaspora in Japan through the keyhole view of one family,” writes Darsana Mohan.

“Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage” – A mother warmly tells her son as they struggle with imminent loss, in a land not really their own. 

We are met with many such moments as we read of the Zainichi (1), a term weighed down with the paradox of referring to Koreans who have permanently settled in Japan but literarily indicating temporary residence. 

Pachinko is the saga of a Korean family in Japan, spread across generations, set in the backdrop of Japan’s annexation of Korea (1910 to 1945). I say ‘Saga’ because the book begins with the birth of a son to a fisherman in Korea and traverses down to his great-great-great Grandson in New York. It is a sprawling epic made malleable to the different turns that history and geography impose upon it. It is also a detailed fictional examination of the colonizer and the colonized. 

Reading Pachinko is paying witness to the turmoil suffered by the Korean Diaspora in Japan through the keyhole view of one family. Most of the narrative follows the trajectory of Sunja as she evolves from a naïve 16 year old in Korea to a weary veteran of loss in her seventies in Japan. We learn of her early life in Korea as she helps out her widowed mother in the lodging house they own. Sunja meets an older fish broker, Koh Hansu, who through an act of chivalry wins her over. Hansu takes advantage of Sunja and when she becomes pregnant, informs her of his wife in Japan. He offers to have her kept as a mistress but Sunja refuses out of pride. She is later “saved” from ignominy by a house guest, the magnanimous but sickly pastor Isaac. Isaac marries her as he feels he is called upon an act of god. Sunja and Isaac leave for Osaka as Korea has been sapped of its resources. They live with Isaac’s brother and wife in Japan.

By way of time jumps, we learn that Sunja and Isaac have had a child, Mozasu, along with Sunja’s first-born, Noa. The Korean adults find ways to make ends meet while the children face the routine harassment and dissociation of being othered in Japanese society. The family is hit with a devastating blow when treason charges are trumped up against Isaac as a member of his church refuses to pledge allegiance to the Japanese Emperor. It is here that we witness the true blossoming of Sunja as she sets out in stubbornness to earn money and take care of her children. 

Pachinko is the story of the outsider – it speaks of characters on the fringe end of society, who tackle suffocating conventions, just to survive. Sunja and her sister-in-law must overcome their family’s patriarchal notions to go out and earn a living. Noa and Mozasu rally, in their own ways, against the stereotypes that box them in as the children of Korean immigrants. Generations later, Mozasu attempts to dissuade his US educated son from joining his Pachinko business as the occupation comes with its own biases. Min Jin Lee asks you to look at the people who’ve been forced into the cracks and are crawling their way out. They walk a thin line between immigrants and refugees as Japan exploits their home country. We play spectator to the aftermath of generational trauma handed down from ancestor to heir.

This book is a timely tale that beautifully captures the intersection between colonization, nationality and the daily desperation of the colonized. A country that capitalizes on its immigrants to do its dirty work is the only constant from history into the contemporary. In Pachinko, Japan forces itself on a country to exploit its desperate populace. An apt reference that comes to mind is the song Immigrants in which artist, Snow Tha Product, quips “Peter Piper claimed he picked them, he just underpaid Pablo.” (2)

In a world formed and benefitted by migration, immigrants serve as the scapegoats for binary and exclusionary political agendas.

Min Jin Lee also explores the dichotomy of the good and the bad immigrant through the reactionary paths taken by Noa and Mosazu. Noa develops a fatalistic stubbornness to integrate and be accepted as Japanese while Mosazu makes a living by standing firm in his Korean-ness. There are winners and losers but even victory is bittersweet. Much like the Pachinko game, our characters are thrown into life in a helter-skelter fashion and are asked to find their way. 

The female characterization in Pachinko is deeply welcomed. Min Jin Lee infuses realistic dialogue and nuanced narratives into them. There are commiserations about the burdens of patriarchy, quiet odes to the strength in resistance and meditations on desirability and ageism. Lee does not paint her book with one-dimensional suffering. Our characters are rich in their responses to such jolting external stimuli but also hold the capacity for honest reflection. It cemented my desire to read more books written by womxn* of colour.

My only gripe with the book is how the author leaves us in the dust with certain storylines/characters. Sometimes the interactions are in disarray and one loses track of events. However, that is a slight to ignore as she impresses with her ability to touch upon the multi-layered experience of having been alive in such a tumultuous time. 

Pachinko encapsulates generations of endurance, interweaved with humanity’s best and worst. It is a tale much needed for the times, as we see our country and the world turn on its own and leave kindness in its wake.

“The stupid heart could not help but hope.”

*A definition of women that explicitly includes not only cis women, but also trans women and femme/feminine-identifying genderqueer and non-binary folks. (3)



  1. Wikipedia. Koreans in Japan. [Online]
  2. K’naan featuring Residente, Riz MC & Snow Tha Product. The Hamilton Mixtape: Immigrants (We Get The Job Done). [Online] Jjune 28, 2017. [Cited: November 28, 2019.]
  3. Paradis, Crystal. Feminist Oasis. [Online] January 2, 2018. [Cited: November 28, 2019.]
(L) : Min Jin Lee; (R) : Pachinko, Grand Central Publishing (2017)

Darsana Mohan is a writer, poet and lover of tea. She enjoys long walks on the beach, ice creams at sunset and bowing down to our Alien Overlords.

Read More on Bengaluru Review :

The coloniser’s language

Police procedural writing at its best

When books brought hope to a war ridden town



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