Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee, 2017. Audiobook narrated by Allison Hiroto.

This book was recommended to me by my friend Amy, whom I thank deeply.


Pachinko is a gambling game that is enormously popular in Japan. A pachinko machine could be described as a cross between slots and a pinball machine. While some say that there is skill in setting the ball rolling to the “sweet spot,” what happens after that is purely luck. Pachinko is really a game of chance, offering the player only the illusion of control.  Pachinko parlors play a role in this story but the machines are also a metaphor for the nature of human experience.

The events of this novel are set in motion by fifteen-year-old Sunja, the naive daughter of a hard-working mother and the apple of her late father’s eye. Walking home one afternoon from the market in the quiet Korean fishing town where her mother runs a boarding house, Sunja is cornered by some Japanese youths who harass her with racial slurs and threats of rape. She is saved from this harrowing scenario by the older, sophisticated Koh Hansu, who swoops in wearing an expensive suit and all the confidence of a powerful businessman. He nimbly disperses the thugs in flawless Japanese and the reader senses that from that moment, innocent Sunja’s fate will be intertwined with Hansu’s, for better or worse.

The story that unfolds from these events spans decades and explores choices and sacrifices made over four generations, offering the reader an incredible glimpse into the experience of Korean immigrants in Japan before the Second World War and beyond. Japan annexed Korea in 1910 but ethnic Koreans living in Japan (called zainichi) were scorned by Japanese and Koreans alike, never fully belonging to either country.  Much of the story takes place in Ikaino, the Korean ghetto of Osaka. Most zainichi lived in utter privation and those who climbed out of poverty were the subject of contempt, assumed to be yakuza– members of organized crimeWhen Japanese rule over Korea ended in 1945, even children of ethnic-Korean descent born in Japan were not considered Japanese citizens, and were required to be finger-printed on their fourteenth birthdays, while those who returned to Korea faced much worse.

Lee delivers a monumental narrative full of characters– imperfect and often frustratingly human– who live at the center of this experience. Relationships within families, the comforts and constraints of culture, and the arcs of fate are etched on the pages with clarity and care. The telling is quiet and understated. For all the suffering and successes that occur throughout the 480 pages, there are really no big dramatic scenes. Many of the greatest tragedies take place off-camera, so to speak, and are related without sentimentality. Lee relates her account with empathy, but never pity.

“[Koreans in Japan] didn’t see themselves as victims,” Lee explains. “They were so tough that I felt foolish for having pitied them. The things that happened in history were horrid, but the Korean-Japanese I talked to weren’t waiting for an apology. They don’t expect things to get better or anyone to start telling the truth about the war. They’ve moved on and adapted. They save money to send their kids to school in America.” Author Min Jin Lee to The Japan Times, 2017

I found the book to be extremely educational, and I gained insight I never would have had, nor even known that I was lacking. I appreciate the straightforward delivery, which seems faithful to the characters’ own view of their lives, and not as if it were trying to make me feel a certain way about either the Koreans or the Japanese. The book allowed me space to reflect on the nature of relationships, particularly those among women and within families. “Pachinko” deftly navigates the complexities of culture, the role of luck, circumstance, family, shame, and survival.

BookPop Score


“Pachinko” gets a Definitely Read This from Stardust Pop. I recommend the audiobook, narrated by Allison Hiroto. It was helpful to have the Korean words pronounced for me and her delivery enhanced the storytelling.

Those are my thoughts. For a more literary and in-depth review, see this one from the New York Times.


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