Book: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko book

Heffers in Cambridge is one of my favourite bookshops. Friendly, homely, and full of hand written recommendations, it’s the best place to find good reads. I have to limit the number of times I go in there, however, as I always come out with piles and piles of books to sit on my shelf until I can read them.

When I was grabbing some Boxing Day bargains, a member of staff recommended Pachinko to me. I took her word for it and after a quick read over the blurb, put it in my pile to buy.

Pachinko follows the lives of members of a Korean family in Japan-occupied Korea, who then have to go to Japan to escape.

The story starts with Sunja, the prized daughter of a humble man with physical deformations and the wife he adores. When Sunja is a teenager, she moves over to Osaka and from there they story grows to oversee the generations that follow, and how their lives are in Japan as Koreans.

I loved this book on two levels. Firstly, I’m so intrigued by North Korea, and am often reading articles or books about it, but this is the first thing I’ve read about a family living through the split of the two countries. Min Jin Lee’s writing is almost like looking at a photo, it’s so real, and I really felt the confusion, panic and strife of the family.

Secondly, I really loved the characters. I really felt for Sunja, as she goes through some really tough times and honestly I don’t know what I would do if I were in her shoes. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but I also really liked Noa as well and I resonated with his storyline as I have a similar parental situation to him.

I knew that Koreans in Japan aren’t treated very well, but I had no idea to what extent they were treated so badly. The book really opened my eyes to how Japanese treated “zainichi” Koreans; people of Korean heritage who are born in Japan.

I love books that paint scenes that are just pleasant to be in. Without progressing the story too much, it just allows you to be in that time, in that place and experience every day life. I felt that there were so many pockets of stillness like this.

One complaint I do have, however, is that while we take a leisurely stroll through the first half of the book, I feel like the second half was a sprint and I didn’t get to bond as well with some of the later characters. It’s a hefty book, and I understand that if we’d have kept the same pace through the whole thing it would have been a mammoth read, but I think the author could have split this up into two or more books and I would have been just as hooked.

To finish, just a note on the name. Pachinko is a Japanese gambling game that’s kind of like pinball (I never played it; pachinko parlours are smoke-filled kinda gross places, but the French exchange students at my Japanese uni did). While there is more of a connection to the game later on in the story, Sunja and her family feel like little balls in the machine, being bounced around and having their direction changed over and over.

Pachinko is one of my favourite books I’ve read this year – though to be fair I’m reading a lot of excellent books recently. I’ve already told a whole bunch of people they can borrow it from me since I want to share the love.

Have you read this book? If so let me know in the comments!


  1. I’ve just moved back from Korea and I still can’t get enough of Korean culture! I will make sure to check this out! It sounds so interesting!

  2. When I was in Tokyo, I had to walk past a Pachinko place every day, on my way to and from the office. It was so loud! I never went inside, though.
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