Although based upon historical fiction, ‘Pachinko’ by Min Jin Lee juggles several themes that mirror the reality of living for a poor Korean family – down to the systemic discrimination, maltreatment, and ostracism its members later face by being immigrants in a foreign country. The themes are striking and deserve a look into.
Family Love and Bond
The theme of family and bond are some of the front-running themes floated throughout the book ‘Packinko’. From the start of the book where the reader is introduced to Hoonie’s parents, there is an expression of a unique kind of bond and love between this couple, and they go on to transfer this to their invalid son Hoonie – along with the virtue of hard work and industriousness.
When Hoonie gives birth to Sunja, following an unlikely marriage, he does the same with her – thus bombarding her with love and care and the mentality that it’s a cruel world and that family must come first before anything else. Sunja will go on and inculcate this to her sons Noa and Mozasu, as well as her grandchild – Solomon.
Systemic Discrimination and Survival Struggle
‘Pachinko’ takes readers back to antebellum Japan – through the different wartimes ( of World War). From 1910 when Japan took over the control of Korea, its economy fell drastically and poverty became widespread for native Koreans – who were forced to pay allegiance to the Japanese authority.
This opened up a new bleak reality for Koreans as they faced tremendous ostracism and unfair treatment from the Japanese, and it became even worse for Koreans who immigrated to Japan as they were tagged ‘Zainichi’, which was a racist delineation loosely translating to a non-local foreigner. For this reason, Sunja, her children, and grandchildren face a strong test of survival.
The Demands of Motherhood and Benefits of Industriousness
‘Pachinko’s’ central character, Sunja, gets a taste of motherhood – a bitter one for that matter – when she was only a teenager. She meets and gets romantically attached to Hansu and becomes pregnant thinking that he would marry her, but it doesn’t happen that way.
The reader later sees how Sunja suffers and endures through her motherhood, heightened by the fact that she loses her husband, Isak, her only support structure.
Industriousness and hardness inculcated by her forebears become her saving grace for later days when poverty cuts loose and getting by is nearly impossible; much before the rich Hansu weighs in to assist her.
Key Moments in Pachinko
- In a small fishing village of Yeongdo, Korea resides an aging fisherman and his wife both of whose names are not given. Due to economic hardship, this couple begins renting out part of their homes as lodgers for tourists who come to Yeogdo.
- They give birth to three sons but only the elder, Hoonie, a disabled child with cleft palates and clubbed foot, survives.
- Hoonie is taught to be responsible and hardworking and has some education to the level of being able to read, write and do basic calculations so he does not get cheated out of money.
- Despite his disability, Hoonie finds an unlikely pride, the beautiful Yangjin, and has a daughter, Sunja, a miracle child who survives following the death of the first three children born to the couple.
- Sunja is pampered and treated with affection, but at age 13, she loses her father and that marks the beginning of her sufferings.
- By age 17, Sunja is seduced and gets pregnant to Koh Hansu, a wealthy fish broker and member of the ‘Yakuza’ crime ring. He refuses to marry Sunja thereby subjecting her and her family to shame and disgrace.
- An ailing lodger and Christian minister, Baek Isak, decides to marry Sunja instead and moves her to Osaka, Japan, where they live with his brother Yoseb and his wife.
- Sunja gives birth to Noa; and then Mozasu – six years later. Shortly afterward, World War II begins, and insecurity and economic hardship increased.
- Isak is arrested and jailed by the Japanese government for going against their dictate and preaching the gospel. He falls sick and, three years later upon his release, dies in the company of his family.
- As life becomes tougher, Sunja begins hawking kimchi at the market, and later gets employed by a restaurant, just to be able to provide for her children.
- News floats about an imminent bombing targeted at Osaka. Koh Hansu comes in time to relocate Sunja and her children to the countryside to save their lives.
- Noa does well at school and is offered admission to the university. Mozasu, on the other hand, hates school and instead drops out and gets a job at the ‘Pachinko’ gambling company.
- Sunja is unable to pay for Noa’s education. Hansu pays all expenses although Sunja wishes there were other ways and promises to pay back every penny, but Hansu is not interested. Noa knows Hansu as an uncle and the late Isak, his real father.
- Akiko, Noa’s girlfriend in college, hints to Noa that he looks very much like Hansu. This greatly worries Noa that he goes and asks his mother and finds out that Hansu, not Isak, is his real father. Out of devastation, he drops out of college, goes to a distant city where no one knows him, marries, has four children, and works at the ‘Pachinko’ company, assuming a Japanese identity.
- By now, Mozasu, his younger brother, who is doing quite well at the ‘Pachinko’ company, marries Yumi and begets a son, Solomon. Yumi will later sacrifice her life to save her son after a drunk driver tries to run him over.
- Without a mother to take care of Solomon, Sunja moves in with her son, Mozasu, to take care of her grandson, Solomon.
- Mozasu finds a Japanese girlfriend, the widowed Etsuko – who has a daughter, Hana. Shortly after meeting, Hana and Solomon start a romantic relationship, keeping it a secret from their parents until Solomon travels to the United States to study and meets Phoebe, his new girlfriend, who is Korean-American.
- Solomon is employed by a big company and returns to Tokyo with Phoebe. However, the latter dumps him after he loses his job and fails to return with her to the States and marry her. Solomon decides to take over his father’s ‘Pachinko’ business after he has a chat with Hana, his longtime lover – who is now lying on a sickbed and about to die.
- Meanwhile, Noa has stayed away for 16 years without reaching out to his mother. Hansu finds him and brings Sunja to him; mother and son reunite with son promising he will be visiting and no longer stay out of touch. Noa commits suicide shortly after his mother leaves.
- Later, Uchida, a cemetery attendant, confirms to Sunja that while Noa was alive he often visited Isak’s gravestone and paid homage to him despite finding out who his real father was.
Style and Tone
The style of narration deployed in ‘Pachinko’ is free-associative omniscience. Min Jin Lee utilizes this style as it helps her navigate through her characters of four generations seamlessly and with ease.
In terms of tone, Lee uses, interestingly, a mild and soft tone to reflect the persona of her characters even though each has a different variation of idiosyncrasy. The tone is also honest, direct, and cinchy.
In ‘Pachinko,’ Lee brings into play several figurative languages, and from the start of the book, the reader already sees popular ones such as simile and metaphor play. However, further, into the pages, Lee employs more advanced figurative language including allusions, epigrams, and paradoxes.
Analysis of Symbols in Pachinko
In ‘Pachinko‘, the home has a clear symbolism of family, identity, peace, and belongingness, qualities which every Korean in the book cherishes but somehow comes to evade. Sunja leaves home in search of a better life but loses every sense of it in Japan, and this is made even worse by the annexation of her home country Korea – followed by World War II.
‘Pachinko‘: The Game
‘Pachinko‘ stands as another symbol in the book and is perhaps far-reaching throughout the book. In Japan, ‘Pachinko‘ is a pinball game of gambling played by customers usually in public inns and parlors. One major characteristic of this game is that the owners rig it so that the company doesn’t lose too much money, most customers don’t know this so they keep playing and hoping to win.
The game represents life as controlled by one greater, higher being. And the customer’s ways of playing and never giving up shows the hope that humanity has in life, and despite the challenges and hardship, people always try to stay persistent with the hope that someday it’s going to get better.
In ‘Pachinko‘, clothes symbolize social status in a way. For example, Sunja notices that Isak is a preacher from an upper-middle-class family based on how neatly kept and laundered his clothes are. With Koh Hansu’s choice of clothes, Sunja could tell he’s well-off in the fish business, and by how neat he always appears and the fact that he doesn’t smell of fish, tells her that Hansu is perhaps not doing his dirty work by himself.
What is a predominant theme in Min Jin Lee’s ‘Pachinko‘?
There are several important themes portrayed in Min Jin Lee’s ‘Pachinko‘, however, the predominant themes might include family life and bond, and a search to find oneself in a foreign land.
What narrative style did Min Jin Lee employ in ‘Pachinko‘?
In ‘Pachinko‘, Min Jin Lee employs a narrative style known as the third-person omniscience narrative.
What allegorical meaning does ‘Pachinko‘ portray?
‘Pachinko‘ is a Japanese game of gambling usually featured in public parlors, and it’s used throughout the book to represent an allegory of the interaction between Sunja’s family member’s struggles, chances, and willingness to make it in life.