Pachinko is a sweeping, multi-generational saga that follows a Korean family from the early 1900s through the 1980s. At the opening of the novel, Sunja is a young girl who falls in love with an older man and becomes pregnant. When she discovers that her lover is married, Sunja must make a difficult choice to avoid shaming her family. She marries a young pastor staying at her family’s boardinghouse, who is willing to raise her child as his own provided that she is willing to move with him to Japan where he has been appointed to pastor a church. In the 1900s, Korean’s were discriminated against in Japan and were prohibited from holding jobs where they could make a decent living and provide for their families. Christian pastors were often jailed for conspiring against the government and after their son Noa is born, that is exactly what happens to Sunja’s husband Isak. Fortunately, Sunja and Noa live with Isak’s brother and wife, who are childless and embrace Sunja and Noa as their family.
Generation after generation, the family suffers the poverty, hunger, and marginalization of a people without a country. They cannot return to Korea, a country divided by North and South after WWII, so they must work hard to make a home in a country that does not want or value them.
Even when Sunja’s future generations begin to prosper by running Pachinko Parlors, they are not allowed to become Japanese citizens. Her grandchildren born in Japan were not considered citizens, and were required by law to retain a Korean passport and register their residency with the government at the age of 14.
The author gracefully weaves in the metaphor of Pachinko – like a cross between a pinball and a slot machine, a game of chance that can be manipulated by the owner of a Pachinko Parlor to sway the odds. Sunja’s family was caught up by time and prejudice and though their fates were mostly sealed, they were able to work not only hard, but smart, and rise above many of the limitations placed upon them by the Japanese.
Pachinko is a story for our times – the story of a family that rises above the limitations placed upon them by people and governments, to make not only a home, but a life.