Review of “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee

3 min readMar 28, 2021

Mr. Obama highly recommended this book. Many of my friends did so too, and I finally finished reading it. If you read it, you will know where I am from. The main character, Sunja, reminded me of my grandmother who died at the age of 99. I think 97% of the factual descriptions of the book are accurate, which is commendable given that the author is a Korean American born in the US. She has spent 30 years on research until she completes this book.

The book reminded me of many things, for example:

  • When I was a kid, some Japanese kids around me used to say to me that “you Korean smells like stinky garlic,” “go away from Japan,” etc. My grandparents told me that Japanese kids used to throw stones at them.
  • Due to the discrimination, many Korean Japanese couldn’t find a good job even if they were bright. Thus they ‘developed’ industries and many engaged in them: Korean BBQ, Yakuza (mafia), money lending (some are legal but mostly illegal), and Pachinko (gambling). Pachinko was a good source of income, by which some managed to study abroad. Some became very successful entrepreneurs (e.g., Masayoshi Son of Softbank) or management of global companies (the first Asian top management of a global investment bank was Korean Japanese).
  • When I was a kid, my parents and relatives often used to say to me that “You really have to study hard such that you will never be looked down on by the Japanese,” “You have to do the right thing. If you do something wrong, people will say that all Koreans are evil,” among others

The below are, in my opinion, the typical responses by Korean Japanese to the situation:

  • Fight back. Many of my friends were very good at beating people. Hitting the others with the forehead was called “Cho-pun (Chosen = Korea + Punch).”
  • Study hard and try to get out of the situation such that no one looks down on them. Many Korean Japanese parents spent a lot of money on kids’ education partly because of it. “Your country may be a colony again, but no one will rob your education,” one of my relatives said.
  • Try to hide the identity. You can’t tell whether a person is Japanese or Korean by face. So some tried to hide their identity and lead a life as Japanese. Life will be very messy for those whose identity is revealed despite their wishes, because even if they obtain Japanese nationality, many still perceive them as Koreans.
  • Despair.

I think I belonged to #2 above, but at some point, I realized that I was not free because my mindset was still trapped by the dogma that the winner can oppress losers. I now believe that the best response or retaliation to oppression or discrimination is to forgive the oppressors and live well and fully. Forgiveness is not tolerance toward misconduct. We can fight against injustice while forgiving the oppressors. If I were to write a novel on Korean Japanese, I would like to write about it.