In this bestselling novel, four generations of a poor Korean immigrant family fight to control their destiny in 20th-century Japan, exiled from a home they never knew.
Profoundly moving and gracefully told, Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. Betrayed by her wealthy lover, Sunja finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life.
So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history. In Japan, Sunja's family members endure harsh discrimination, catastrophes, and poverty, yet they also encounter great joy as they pursue their passions and rise to meet the challenges this new home presents. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, they are bound together by deep roots as their family faces enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.
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Min Jin Lee is a recipient of fellowships in Fiction from the Guggenheim Foundation (2018) and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard (2018-2019). Her novel Pachinko (2017) was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, a runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, winner of the Medici Book Club Prize, and one of the New York Times‘ “Ten Best Books of 2017.” A New York Times bestseller, Pachinko was also one of the “Ten Best Books” of the year for BBC and the New York Public Library, and a “best international fiction” pick for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In total, it was on over seventy-five best books of the year lists, including NPR, PBS, and CNN, and it was a selection for Now Read This, the joint book club of PBS NewsHour and the New York Times. Pachinko will be translated into twenty-seven languages. Lee’s debut novel Free Food for Millionaires (2007) was one of the best books of the year for the Times of London, NPR’s Fresh Air, and USA Today, and it was a national bestseller. Her writings have appeared in the New Yorker, NPR’s Selected Shorts, One Story, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, Condé Nast Traveler, the Times of London, andthe Wall Street Journal. Lee served three consecutive seasons as a Morning Forum columnist of the Chosun Ilbo of South Korea. In 2018, she was named as one of Adweek’s Creative 100 for being one of the “ten writers and editors who are changing the national conversation,” and one of the Guardian‘s Frederick Douglass 200. She received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Monmouth College. She will be a Writer-in-Residence at Amherst College from 2019-2022.
What initially inspired you to write this novel? Why did you choose to focus on Korea and Japan during a time of war?
I learned about the Korean-Japanese people nearly thirty years ago when I was in college. I didn’t know anything about this community, which had its origins during the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea from 1910 to1945. As a history major and as an immigrant, I was curious about the Korean diaspora, resulting from the invasions and destabilization of the once-unified nation. However, what really moved me to write this novel and to rewrite it so many times were the compelling stories of individuals who struggled to face historical catastrophes. Although the history of kings and rulers is unequivocally fascinating, I think that we are also hungry for the narrative history of ordinary people, who lack connections and material resources. The modern Korean is informed by the legacy of the Japanese occupation, World War II, the Cold War, and the Korean War as well as Confucianism, Buddhism, Communism, and Christianity. All these topics are reflected in this book, because they interest me, but I wanted to explore and better understand how common people live through these events and issues. These wars and ideas loom large in our imagination, but on a daily basis, such events and beliefs are illustrated concretely from moment to moment.
Which authors do you admire?
I adore nineteenth-century writers Bronte, Eliot, Trollope, Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Balzac. I also love Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Twain, Tanizaki, Henry James, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. As for modern living writers, I very much admire Lynn Ahrens, Lan Samantha Chang, Alexander Chee, Junot Díaz, Robin Marantz Henig, Kazuo Ishiguru, Colson Whitehead, Haruki Murakami, David Henry Hwang, Meg Wolitzer, Maxine Hong Kingston, Hilton Als, Simon Winchester, Chang-rae Lee, David Mitchell, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Gary Shteyngart, William Trevor, and Erica Wagner. The writings of Cynthia Ozick, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Audre Lorde, Vivian Gornick, bell hooks, James Baldwin, and Virginia Woolf continue to encourage me to write more honestly and to dwell on subjects that matter to me.
Much of this novel deals with the pressures of being a first-generation immigrant, or having dual cultural identities. How much of this was informed by your own experiences? What effects do you think war has on individuals and society?
Consciously or unconsciously, being a first-generation immigrant informs my point of view and interests. Regardless of one’s identity, all of us live in an information era where we are continually made to feel physically vulnerable to the political instability and violence around the globe in real time. Consequently, most of the developed world has growing factions in each nation, which want to raise the drawbridge and batten down the hatches. Out of fear, many of us want to retreat, and this makes some sense. Fair or no, immigration is considered in the context of economic scarcity, fear of terrorism, wars and geopolitical conflicts, which may be incipient stages of informal proxy wars. Whatever their cause, all such anxieties and conflicts affect individuals and societies and their movement patterns. Naturally, the movement of people changes the culture of the people around them, and the culture of the people around them affects the migrant people.
As for me, I lived just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center during the September 11, 2001, attacks, and my family and I had to be evacuated for a time. My family and I were residing in Tokyo during the Tohoku Earthquake on March 11, 2011. I have been changed by these events, and these events inform my work and the way I approach crises.
Unfortunately, every one of us is vulnerable to manmade and natural disasters, small and great. According to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), there are over 65 million refugees in the world, which is about 1 out of every 113 people on earth. When my father was sixteen years old, he lost his family in the Korean War. The war and the memory of being a war refugee was not spoken of often, but these events lingered in the air of my childhood home. I think this kind of trauma is an unspoken legacy for many first- and second-generation immigrants in the United States and elsewhere. My father, a teenage war refugee from Wonsan, became a South Korean migrant worker in Busan, then a college-educated businessman in Seoul. He immigrated to the United States and became a small business owner. He is now a naturalized American citizen, a retiree, and a member of the AARP who also enjoys recreational deep-sea fishing. He has lived many lives away from his birthplace. Most immigrants are like this. Many of my friends and their families have been directly affected by the Holocaust, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the suffering inflicted by military dictatorships in the Americas and in African nations. Today, all of us live in an era of vast income, educational and information inequality. However, what we also witness each day is how many ordinary people resist the indignities of life and history with grace and conviction by taking care of their families, friends, neighbors, and communities while striving for their individual goals. We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly.
Why did you choose to title your novel Pachinko?
Pachinko is a kind of vertical pinball game played by adults in Japan. Although gambling is formally illegal there, pachinko bypasses this prohibition by allowing the player to win prizes, called keihin, which are exchanged outside the premises of the pachinko parlor for cash. What is little known outside of Japan is that as of 2015, pachinko generates revenues of about 19 trillion yen, which is about $190 billion U.S. at the current exchange rate, or about twice the export revenues of the Japanese car industry. Yes, this includes Nissan, Toyota, and Honda. The game started out in the early part of the twentieth century in tiny stalls with itinerant operators at local festivals. After World War II, pachinko was played in parlors for prizes like soap or cigarettes, which were exchanged elsewhere for cash. Today, many parlors issue tokens or cards embedded with valuable metals, which are exchanged for cash only a few steps away from the parlor. There are about 12,000 parlors officially registered in Japan, and 11 million Japanese play pachinko regularly, or about one out of every seven Japanese adults.
Although ethnic Japanese may have started the pachinko business, over its near century presence in Japan, a great number of ethnic Koreans have operated pachinko parlors and have been involved in the keihin business and the manufacture of the machines. Despite the strict regulatory involvement of the police and government authorities in the past twenty-five-plus years, the Japanese continue to view the pachinko industry and the people involved with suspicion and hostility. I mention all this here because nearly every Korean-Japanese person I met in Japan had some historical connection or social connection with the pachinko business—one of the very few businesses in which Koreans could find employment and have a stake. For example, if I interviewed an American-educated Korean-Japanese person who worked in the finance industry as an executive for a Western investment bank, he may have a relative who worked briefly in a parlor, or an uncle who lost everything in a failed pachinko business. Also, nearly every Korean-Japanese I interviewed had some close or distant connection to the yakiniku (Korean barbecue, or galbi) business. In short, Korean-Japanese had to participate in small businesses, which were often given outsider or inferior status, because it was not possible to find work elsewhere. For me, the pachinko business and the game itself serve as metaphors for the history of Koreans in Japan—a people caught in seemingly random global conflicts—as they win, lose, and struggle for their place and for their lives.
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“History has failed us, but no matter.” How does the opening line reflect the rest of the book—and do you agree? In a way, Sunja’s relationship with Isak progresses in reverse, as her pregnancy by another man brings them together and prompts Isak to propose marriage. How does Lee redefine intimacy and love with these […]
A New York Times Top Ten Book of the Year and National Book Award finalist, Pachinko is an “extraordinary epic” of four generations of a poor Korean immigrant family as they fight to control their destiny in 20th-century Japan (San Francisco Chronicle).
NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2017 * A USA TODAY TOP TEN OF 2017 * JULY PICK FOR THE PBS NEWSHOUR-NEW YORK TIMES BOOK CLUB NOW READ THIS * FINALIST FOR THE 2018DAYTON LITERARY PEACE PRIZE* WINNER OF THE MEDICI BOOK CLUB PRIZE
Roxane Gay’s Favorite Book of 2017, Washington Post
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * #1 BOSTON GLOBE BESTSELLER * USA TODAY BESTSELLER * WALL STREET JOURNAL BESTSELLER * WASHINGTON POST BESTSELLER
“There could only be a few winners, and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones.”
In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant–and that her lover is married–she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.
Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters–strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis–survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.
"Stunning... Despite the compelling sweep of time and history, it is the characters and their tumultuous lives that propel the narrative... A compassionate, clear gaze at the chaotic landscape of life itself. In this haunting epic tale, no one story seems too minor to be briefly illuminated. Lee suggests that behind the facades of wildly different people lie countless private desires, hopes and miseries, if we have the patience and compassion to look and listen."—The New York Times Book Review
"In 1930s Korea, an earnest young woman, abandoned by the lover who has gotten her pregnant, enters into a marriage of convenience that will take her to a new life in Japan. Thus begins Lee's luminous new novel PACHINKO--a powerful meditation on what immigrants sacrifice to achieve a home in the world. PACHINKO confirms Lee's place among our finest novelists."—Junot Díaz,Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and This Is How You Lose Her
"Astounding. The sweep of Dickens and Tolstoy applied to a 20th century Korean family in Japan. Min Jin Lee's PACHINKO tackles all the stuff most good novels do-family, love, cabbage-but it also asks questions that have never been more timely. What does it mean to be part of a nation? And what can one do to escape its tight, painful, familiar bonds?"—Gary Shteyngart, New York Times bestselling author of Little Failure and Super Sad True Love Story
"Both for those who love Korea, as well as for those who know no more than Hyundai, Samsung and kimchi, this extraordinary book will prove a revelation of joy and heartbreak. I could not stop turning the pages, and wished this most poignant of sagas would never end. Min Jin Lee displays a tenderness and wisdom ideally matched to an unforgettable tale that she relates just perfectly."—Simon Winchester, New York Times bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles
"PACHINKO is elegant and soulful, both intimate and sweeping. This story of several generations of one Korean family in Japan is the story of every family whose parents sacrificed for their children, every family whose children were unable to recognize the cost, but it's also the story of a specific cultural struggle in a riveting time and place. Min Jin Lee has written a big, beautiful book filled with characters I rooted for and cared about and remembered after I'd read the final page."—Kate Christensen, Pen/Faulkner-winning author of The Great Man and Blue Plate Special
"An exquisite, haunting epic...'moments of shimmering beauty and some glory, too,' illuminate the narrative...Lee's profound novel...is shaped by impeccable research, meticulous plotting, and empathic perception."—Booklist (starred review)
"PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee is a great book, a passionate story, a novel of magisterial sweep. It's also fiendishly readable-the real-deal. An instant classic, a quick page-turner, and probably the best book of the year."
—Darin Strauss, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author of Half a Life: A Memoir
"The breadth and depth of challenges come through clearly, without sensationalization. The sporadic victories are oases of sweetness, without being saccharine. Lee makes it impossible not to develop tender feelings towards her characters--all of them, even the most morally compromised. Their multifaceted engagements with identity, family, vocation, racism, and class are guaranteed to provide your most affecting sobfest of the year."—BookRiot, "Most Anticipated Books of 2017"
"An absorbing saga of 20th-century Korean experience... the destinies of Sunja's children and grandchildren unfold, love, luck, and talent combine with cruelty and random misfortune in a deeply compelling story, with the trouble of ethnic Koreans living in Japan never far from view. An old-fashioned epic whose simple, captivating storytelling delivers both wisdom and truth."—Kirkus (Starred Review)
"A sprawling and immersive historical work... Reckoning with one determined, wounded family's place in history, Lee's novel is an exquisite meditation on the generational nature of truly forging a home."—Publishers Weekly
"If proof were needed that one family's story can be the story of the whole world, then PACHINKO offers that proof. Min Jin Lee's novel is gripping from start to finish, crossing cultures and generations with breathtaking power. PACHINKO is a stunning achievement, full of heart, full of grace, full of truth."—Erica Wagner, author of Ariel's Gift and Seizure
"A beautifully crafted story of love, loss, determination, luck, and perseverance...Lee's skillful development of her characters and story lines will draw readers into the work. Those who enjoy historical fiction with strong characterizations will not be disappointed as they ride along on the emotional journeys offered in the author's latest page-turner."—Library Journal (starred review)
"Brilliant, subtle...gripping...What drives this novel is the magisterial force of Lee's characterization...As heartbreaking as it is compelling, PACHINKO is a timely meditation on all that matters to humanity in an age of mass migration and uncertainty."—South China Morning Post Magazine
"Everything I want in a family saga novel, a deep dive immersion into a complete world full of rich and complex lives to follow as they tumble towards fate and fortune...PACHINKO will break your heart in all the right ways."—Vela Magazine
"Spanning nearly 100 years and moving from Korea at the start of the 20th century to pre- and postwar Osaka and, finally, Tokyo and Yokohama, the novel reads like a long, intimate hymn to the struggles of people in a foreign land...Much of the novel's authority is derived from its weight of research, which brings to life everything from the fishing village on the coast of the East Sea in early 20th-century Korea to the sights and smells of the shabby Korean township of Ikaino in Osaka - the intimate, humanising details of a people striving to carve out a place for themselves in the world. Vivid and immersive, Pachinko is a rich tribute to a people that history seems intent on erasing."—The Guardian (UK)
"Pachinko is a rich, well-crafted book as well as a page turner. Its greatest strength in this regard lies in Lee's ability to shift suddenly between perspectives. We never linger too long with a single character, constantly refreshing our point of view, giving the narrative dimension and depth. Add to that her eye and the prose that captures setting so well, and it would not be surprising to see Pachinko on a great many summer reading lists."—Asian Review of Books
"The seminal English literary work of the Korean immigrant story in Japan...Lee's sentences and the novel's plotting feel seamless, so much so, that one wonders why we make such a fuss about writing at all. Her style is literary without calling attention to its lyricism."—Ploughshares
"Effortlessly carries the reader through generations, outlining its changing historical context without sacrificing the juicy details...Life is dynamic: in Pachinko, it carries on, rich and wondrous."—The Winnipeg Free Press
"Lee shines in highlighting the complexities of being an immigrant and striving for a better life when resigned to a second-class status. In particular, she explores the mechanisms of internalized oppression and the fraught position of being a "well-behaved" member of a maligned group. When history has failed, and the game is rigged, what's left? Throughout Pachinko, it's acts of kindness and love. The slow accumulation of those moments create a home to return to again and again, even in the worst of times."—Paste Magazine
"Lee is a master plotter, but the larger issues of class, religion, outsider history and culture she addresses in Pachinko make this a tour de force you'll think about long after you finish reading."—National Book Review
"A big novel to lose yourself in or to find yourself anew-a saga of Koreans living in Japan, rejected by the country they call home, unable to return to Korea as wars and strife tear the region apart. The result is like a secret history of both countries burst open in one novel. I hope you love it like I did."—Alexander Chee, author of Queen of the Night and Edinburgh writing for the Book of the Month Club