Pachinko Review

Publication Date : February 7, 2017


Pachinko is an epic historical novel portraying struggling immigrants against the backdrop of the second world war. It is a tale of four generations of a Korean family that live in Japan searching for better living condition during volatile times. As people from a weaker country by war classification, living in a domineering country, the family is subjected to ethnicity and nationality based discrimination. As bad as the situation is for them already, on day to day basis, they also still have to face endless challenges on finding a balance between money and morals. 


Genuinely speaking, Pachinko is one singularly remarkable story. It is beautiful, atmospheric, and evocative. It is essentially an ensemble show, where numerous characters are respectively telling their each unique sides of a story of generations of one big family. Having plentiful characters doesn’t always work every time, but it definitely does perfectly in this novel.

The characters all have distinctive personalities and each of them possesses in-their-own-way kind of heroism which gives the tale a meaningful note. The novel is divided into three sections, which for each part, a different lead would tell the narrative in an uninterrupted timeline. I often find it hard to adapt with a change of lead in the middle of a story, because most of the times, I root for a character a bit too hard for me to abruptly uproot and plant my root in another character. But in Pachinko, every shift of era and its respective people, feels fluid and painless.

If you’re a history sucker like myself, Pachinko would sit right and tight in your heart. Blanketed in its soothing narrative, it constantly rolls toward a fundamental track, tapping the notion of patriotism and humanity. A Korean family who not only do they try to get by with their lives, but also are desperate for identities. The family is painted as outcasts with no definitive home nation. Unless one readies herself to have an indefinite meaning of home, she would forever hurt from being a stranger in the land she’s born in.

Additionally, beneath the surface, the book somewhat confronts the definition of a nation. It aptly quotes Benedict Anderson (I’ve put the complete passage at the end of this post), who says that nation is essentialy imagined communities. Why is it imagined? Because as a citizen, we don’t personally know millions other members of the same country, yet we believe that we all belong to the same state.

During the second world war, Korea was deep in the making into North and South Korea as we know it today. It was such unstable times, that even under intense persecution, it was just as dangerous going back to ever-changing Korea as staying as an outsider in Japan. But living as an unwanted citizen during these hard times inevitably raises questions on basic issues, like why can’t they be considered as Japanese even when they’re born in Japan? Or why where their ancestors originate from won’t stop matter even though they’re way past that, and even though, it’s already an ancient history? Unfortunately, these are questions without answers.

To be honest, this is a circumstance that hits a bit too close to home for me. I, myself am of Chinese descent who was born and bred in Indonesia. I full-well empathize with the predicament the characters in Pachinko struggle with. Getting rid of bureaucratic discrimination, like identification papers, is one thing. But abolishing the labelling, and trying to fight for a complete acknowledgement, is truly another level of intricacy.

At the end of the day, the question “Are you a good Japanese?” or “Are you a good Korean?” or in my case, “Are you a good Indonesian?” often feels irrelevant for people with uprooted disposition like us. It’s hard to point out which causes which, but being consistently treated as foreigners in our own nations, it’s always difficult for us to act like a true patriot.  

In smaller portion of the narration, there’s an interesting juxtaposition of western and eastern culture, where US being western representative looks very glamorous seen through the austere lenses the Asians wear. It’s like a dream to live a life where one can have such a great freedom of expression. In the story, some of the characters, though in separate manners, meet this different set of principles. Yet coming from a prohibitive society, there are several forms of assimilation that appear hard to comprehend at first. Therefore, often when a brand new way of life pit against traditions, each individual in Pachinko has to hurt in one way or another. More than ever, freedom looks more and more utopic.

Eventually, the book closes up with that even though grass on the other side often looks greener, family and dignity are two things that the Asians value greatly. Both are some sort of supremacy in our civilization. And also, those are the reasons why, as enticing as it is, it’s never easy to jump to another boat.

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I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…

The nation is imagined as limited  because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations…

It is imagines as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm…

Finally, it is imagined as a community,  because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly die for such limited imaginings.

-Benedict Anderson-


  1. Sounds like a great book! I really like that excerpt you give at the end of your post. It’s so interesting (and eye-opening) to think of the word “nation” in this way.

  2. The plight of the zainichi is both fascinating and tragic. On one hand there is the fact that Japan did try to make Korea a part of Japanese territory to a point that teaching Korean culture, history, and language was illegal over there. On the other hand, the Koreans who did move to Japan were treated as outsiders.

    I can’t help but think about how some of the most successful zainichi were treated as Japanese with their Korean heritage being ignored. Two that come to mind was Karate master Masatatsu Oyama and pro-wrestler Rikidozan.

    Thanks for the review. I hope to pick up this book soon.

  3. There are two main reasons why. The first being I was into martial arts back in college, mainly into Taekwondo but also tried to incorporate some Karate into my workouts.

    Reason #2 is that I spent a lot time in South Korea. I was an English teacher there. During that time I read up on history of North and South Korea and even talked with others about the Korean diaspora (as in Koreans who became citizens of the US, USSR, and Japan).

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