The book follows an emotional story of the Baek family – through to the fourth generation, and their migration from their home country, Korea, to Japan – just after Japan’s annexation of Korea, followed by the resulting struggle to adjust and fit in against the odds of perpetual ostracization of non-natives living in Japan.
‘Spoiler Free’ ‘Pachinko’ Summary
‘Pachinko’ narrates the story of Sunja, the central character connecting four generations of The Baek’s family. Born to a disabled, poor fisherman, Hoonie, and his wife Yangjin, in the fishing village of Yeongdo, Sunja is pampered and treated with great love and affection and taught the values of family and the benefits of being Industrious.
However, the unfortunate happens as, during her adolescent age, Sunja meets, falls deeply in love, and becomes pregnant with Hansu, a wealthy fisherman and member of Japan’s organized crime group ‘Yakuza.’ Hunsu refuses to marry her, and this results in shame and disgrace for Sunja and her family for being pregnant without a husband.
Her saving grace comes when a Christian minister, Baek Isak, accepts to marry and adopt her child. Isak moves Sunja and her child to Japan – out of the disgraceful and mocking neighborhood of her Korean hometown, but this is only the start of her hardship as she grapples with poverty and a new environment that is highly segregated of foreigners.
She gives birth to Noa, a son, who grows up hating being identified as Korean because of the unfair treatments apportioned to them. When Noa becomes ready for college, Sunja couldn’t afford it, so Noa asks Hansu, who he sees as an uncle, to help with his tuition. Hansu agrees to pay for everything but Sunja is adamant she doesn’t need his help and promises to pay back every penny spent.
Noa is extremely happy to be going to college and feels eternally grateful to Hansu for making that happen. However, Noa soon discovers from a secret source that his real father is in fact Hansu, not Isak. Devastated by the news, Noa drops out of college, travels to a distant land, marries and has kids, and refuses to be in touch with his family.
After years of searching, Hansu finds Noa and brings his mother Sunja to him. The two reconcile, with Noa promising to visit her from time to time, however, Noa kills himself shortly after their meeting.
Spoiler alert: Important details of the novel are revealed below
‘Pachinko’ is introduced with the grandparents of Sunja residing in their Korean hometown, in a village called Yeongdo. Their son, Hoonie, who is club-footed and cleft lip, is cultured and hardworking just like his parents, but the family fears he may not be able to find a wife due to his disabilities. He does find a wife – Yangjin, a beautiful young woman, and has a daughter they call Sunja, whom they shower with great love and affection.
However, Hoonie dies of illness when Sunja turns 13, and this causes an upheaval in the destiny of the teenager. A few years later, Sunja is in the market where she meets and feels for a wealthy and influential fish seller and starts a relationship with him.
She becomes pregnant months later, and as is Korean tradition, must get married to Hansu to wipe the shame and disgrace off the face of her family. Hansu refuses to marry her with the excuse that he already has a wife and children back in Japan, but pledges to be responsible for her and the child. Sunja rejects the gesture, thinking of the shame and torment this would bring to her family.
Then comes a young Christian minister, Baek Isak, who arrives sick at the boardinghouse tended by Sunja and her mother, Yangjin. After being treated and shown love by the two women, Isak decides to help erase the shame by marrying Sunja – who agrees.
Following the marriage ceremony, Isak relocates Sunja and her unborn child to Osaka, Japan, to live with Yoseb and Kyunghee, his brother and sister-in-law. Osaka has a high population of Koreans living in Japan, and the majority of dwellers here face maltreatment and systemic ostracism from the locals.
Not long afterward, she gives birth to a son, Noa, who joins them in an extremely difficult life characterized by poverty and discrimination. Around six years later, Noa welcomes a brother, Mozasu, but the war (WW II) has just begun all of their lives are at risk.
Isak, their father is arrested and jailed by the Japanese government as part of the people who refuse to denounce their Christian worship during the war tension even after strict orders from authorities. Isak dies moments after his release three years later.
Life becomes even harder for Sunja and her children that she started a street food business, partnering with Kyunghee. Hansu, who has been keeping tabs from a distance, wants to ease the suffering of Sunja so he arranges for the two women to be employed by one of his restaurants without them knowing he owns it.
Later, the war heightens and life becomes even riskier. Hansu finds Sunja and offers to move her and her children to the remote countryside to save them from an imminent plan to bomb Osaka. He promises to feed them well and take good care of them. She agrees. Hansu would later arrange for Sunja to reunite with Yangjin, her mother, and rescue Isak’s badly wounded brother, Joseb from the thick of war.
Despite the odds, the family thrives through the hardship and soon the brainy Noa receives an admission to study in the university, while his little brother Mozasu, who hated school, gets a job working at the ‘Pachinko’ gambling company, and soon moves up the ladder in terms of position and earning.
Paying tuition for Noa proves impossible for the family, but Hansu weighs in to help with all expenses – to the dismay of Sunja who promises to pay back every penny.
Noa begins college and has a girlfriend, Akiko, who will later meet Hansu and tell Noa how strikingly alike they look. Noa takes Akiko’s words seriously and goes and asks his mother, Sunja. He finds out that Hansu is, in reality, his real father and is devastated by the news.
For this reason, Noa drops out of school, travels to another city, and gets employed by the ‘Pachinko’ company. He embraces a Japanese identity, maintains a middle-class status, meets and marries a new lady, Risa, and has four children but stays out of touch with his mother, Sunja for a long time.
Meanwhile, his brother Mozasu, who’s already having a successful career with the Pachinko company, settles down with Yumi and bears a son, Solomon. One sad day sees Yumi lose her life to save her son from a drunk driver.
Mozasu finds a Japanese girlfriend, Etsuko – who has a daughter – Hana, but raises Solomon as a single parent, often with the help of his mother, Sunja. Shortly after meeting each other, Solomon and Hana begin a romantic affair which they keep secret until he travels to the United States for studies – where he has a new girlfriend, Phoebe.
Phoebe moved to Japan to live with Solomon after he secured a high-paying job, but soon dumps him and returns to the United States after he was fired. Solomon hears that Hana is on a dying bed and visits her one last time. Hana inspires him to take after his father’s ‘Pachinko’ business.
After sixteen years, Hansu locates Noa and reunites Sunja with him. Mother and son reconcile. Noa promises to stay in touch but instead commits suicide after Sunja leaves.
What is the main story behind the book ‘Pachinko’?
Min Jin Lee’s ‘Pachinko’ covers a lot of grounds. However, a major story it portrays is the reality of the pains and struggles faced by Korean foreigners in Japan.
How old is Sunja when Hoonie dies?
Sunja has just entered her teenager when she, unfortunately, loses Hoonie, her father. She was only 13 at the time.
What kind of character is Hansu?
In Pachinko, Hansu is described as having a strong personality. That partly explains why he’s a member of the ‘Yakuza’, one of Japan’s most notorious crime rings.
How are Noa and Mozasu related?
Noa and Mozasu share the same mother in Sunja. However, Mozasu’s biological father is Isak, the Christian preacher, while Noa’s father is Hansu, the influential fish mogul and ring leader who refuses to marry Noa’s mother, Sunja.