JTO Book Club: Pachinko


Words by Temi Otedola

Original Thumbnail Art by Antonia Weishaupt


The JTO Book Club is back for its March edition! If it’s your first time reading a Book Club post you can catch up here:

December 2018 Edition: Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (here)

January 2019 Edition:  Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (here)

February 2019 Edition: Homegoing by Yaa Gyaasi


Welcome to the March edition to the JTO Book Club! For those of you who are new to this series, the JTO Book Club is a monthly blog post that reads then analyses a book voted by you via Instagram. I’m really passionate about sharing and celebrating my favourite reads so please make sure to leave a comment at the bottom of this blog post and join our book-loving online community.


Judging A Book By Its Cover…

(This section documents my conjectures of the book or author prior to reading, I will also include any background information I think you should have before my personal analysis)

Admittedly I had never heard of Pachinko until it was recommended in the comment section of a previous JTO Book Club post. Solely considering the title of the book, I learnt that Pachinko was a mechanical arcade game popularly used as a form of gambling in Japan, although I had no idea how it would relate to Pachinko’s narrative. Pachinko’s cover design gave me the impression it might be a hopeful book, but I still couldn’t guess where the characters would be situated in terms of time frame and location.



Analysing Pachinko

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko tells the tale of a Korean family navigating life through various generations and historical events. Pachinko’s timeline stretches all the way from the 1880s to the 1970s, starting with Hoonie, a lodging house owner in the fishing village of Yeongdo, Korea. Hoonie is locally characterised by his cleft lip and twisted foot, and the reader learns of the prejudice and taboo that followed the disabled or “othered” parts of society at the time. However, it is Hoonie’s daughter, Sunja, who we follow for the duration of the book. We meet her as a young girl, the pride and joy of her father, and watch her become a mother, wife, businesswoman and grandmother. Sunja becomes the focal character for the duration of Pachinko and my emotional attachment to this book largely derived from Sunja’s story.



A principal theme of Pachinko is the historical and social ties between Korea and Japan. Although Sunja’s family is Korean, she and her descendants spend most of their lives situated in Japan. Prior to reading Pachinko, I rather ignorantly didn’t even know that there had been ongoing strife between the two nations. Although the book touches on the historical relationship between Korea and Japan, it does an even better job of presenting the everyday racism felt by Koreans in Japan and even within their own country. Pachinko’s characters live through Japan’s rule in Korea and World War II, so we get to see how the larger political structures affected the social structures between the two nationalities. The reader quickly learns of the common stereotypes used to distinguish Korean behaviour, often linked to uncleanliness and cultural inferiority. It was so bad that Koreans in the Japanese city of Osaka were confined to an exclusively Korean ghetto called Ikaino where Sunja and her husband, Baek Isak, moved to in hope of a better life in Japan. Ikaino is the only place Koreans were allowed to live in Osaka and despite the fact that the Baek family were wealthy in Korea, within Japan they were forced to live in squalor. This perpetual pull between what it meant to be a Korean in Japan and Lee’s questioning of national pride was truly compelling.


These sentiments of racism touched on in Pachinko unsurprisingly led to doubts of cultural identity amongst the characters. We only have to look at Sunja’s sons, Noa and Mozasu, to consider how cultural identity and particularly its loss can affect our idea of self. Noa and Mazasu are actually half-siblings by blood. Noa’s biological father is Koh Hansu, a rich and powerful Korean who Noa first believes is his benefactor. Conversely, Mozasu’s father was Sunja’s husband Baek Isak, the Protestant minister who died following a stint in a Japanese jail after a member of his church had been caught praying when they were supposed to be worshipping the emperor. So already we see the moral mirror that is formed between these two fathers and thus, their two offspring. When Noa finds out that his biological father, Hansu, is tied to the yakuza (Japanese mafia) he rejects his family including Sunja, drops out of Waseda University as his tuition was being paid for by Hansu, and moves to north Japan to start a new life. However, Noa’s troubles had only just begun. In order to work for a racist Pachinko owner, Noa begins living as a Japanese man, using the name Nobuo. He later marries a Japanese woman and has four children, seemingly fitting into a respectable Japanese life;however, he is still stifled by his lie and confronted by his fake sense of self. Noa ultimately commits suicide and I am immediately confronted by how harmful identity issues can be to our idea of self. There is also the issue of “generational disconnect” as we see the descendants of Sunja being Koreans that have never even seen Korea and becoming increasingly isolated from their cultural identities. This generational disconnect is often the existence of emigrating and diaspora cultures, a feeling many of us coming from West African nations can also relate to.



I felt like I needed to end this blog post returning to the female characters Lee constructed. Sunja largely carries Pachinko’s narrative so a female vitality seems to take over the spirit of the book. With this vitality, we see the determination and resilience of women under almost any circumstance. The quote I chose as my takeaway for this book (see below) really encapsulates this, and we see that female hardship often crosses cultural and generational lines. Pachinko shows women as providers (Yangin), women as friends (Sunja and Kyunghee), and women as imperfect as their male counterparts (Hana). However, the greatest feminine emblem I took from Pachinko was motherhood, its strain and entirety of emotion. When Noa dies, Sunja forever lives with a part of her missing. Sunja ultimately blames herself and her past with Koh Hansu, and yet she wouldn’t have married Baek Isak and given birth to Mozasu without him… and so motherhood does not seem so disconnected to the game of Pachinko as I first thought, a game that appears fixed, constant, but leaves space for randomness, loss, and hope.


Go ahead and share your thoughts, we’re all listening.


Temi’s Takeaway Quote:

“Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.”

– Min Jin Lee,  Pachinko

For all JTO Book Club updates check out the designated “highlight” on my Instagram page (here).



G  I  V  E  A  W  A  Y

Follow the below steps to win a copy of Pachinko:

– Follow @jtofashion on Instagram (here).

– Like my latest Instagram photo.

– Comment below on this blog post stating: your thoughts on Pachinko or what your favourite book is and why…

– Send me a DM stating that you have finished the following steps.

– I will post an Instagram Photo tagging the 3 winners so keep an eye out!


For postal reasons, the books can only be sent to addresses within the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States.

SHOWHIDE Comments (18)
  1. I have never read pachinko but it sounds interesting and I would love to read it. You’re review on the book is a very lovely piece.

  2. Pachiko for me is a long book but is told with such flair and linguistic dexterity that I found myself unable to put it down until the end. Every year, there are a few standout novels that survive long past the hype has died down and the hyperbolic compliments from friends have been forgotten. Pachinko, is a masterpiece of empathy, integrity and familial loyalty – an interesting read definatly. I recently started – Little fires everywhere by Celeste Ng – It explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster – it’s been such an amazing journey so far ?.

  3. My favourite book has to be ‘Crash the Chatterbox’ by Steven Furtick. This is my favourite book as someone who struggled with growing self confidence and self esteem which was hard due to constant negative self talking and being verbally abused. Out of what I learnt from the book, I believe in my abilities more and want to launch a website by the end of the year. One of my goals this year is to read books outside of non-fiction books; the only fiction book I have enjoyed is Americanah by Chimamanda but Pachinko is a book I am very interested in, to learn and become more open minded about other cultures, social settings and country histories (specifically Korea & Japan in this case). The featuring of female characters, all with circumstances that are relatable to the everyday woman serves as another reason for my interest in this book. I would be ecstatic to give this book a read.

    1. Pakincho is a book that is mainly about cultural identity, the death of Noa was as s result of cultural identity..he left where he stayed because he was not with his real father and went to live in another place in japan..they are people from Korea but never lived in Korea..as Africans we tend to loose our identity because of where we stay

    2. Hi Iyin!

      Thank you so much for your comment and sharing your struggles with confidence with us. Americanah has been so highly recommended by JTO Book Club members that it will definitely be a focus soon, but in the meantime, I highly recommend Pachinko as a non-fiction read.

      P.S. Please share your website once it launches – you got this!

  4. One of my favourite books is “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah. From start to finish he had me in tears of laughter; but still managed to highlight in every chapter his experience as a mixed race/coloured person during and after the apartheid in South Africa and how his experiences have shaped him to be the person he is today. I learned so much about the apartheid that I had no idea about 10/10 would recommend!

  5. Omg I absolutely loved Pachinko. I had heard about it from so many readers on twitter and I decided to try it. First of all I absolutely love that we were transported to a time and place where I don’t know so much about, very refreshing that the story was set in that time and in Korea.
    Reading this book was such a journey, so many emotions!! I cry a lot so I really did cry from all the deaths. Also from the love in the book.

    I have sooooo many favorite books omg. I very much loved the Crazy Rich Asians series. It was amazing! I cried, I laughed, I laughed!!!!!!!!! Boy was it a ride. It was everything, all the stories, so rich, so interesting. I really didn’t want it to end. I remember getting to the end and being like omg NOOO! I really love books that make me feel it all and the three books did that for me. I’m a crier so it was just an amazing journey for me.

    I would so love to own a copy of Pachinko so I really hope I win!

    1. Hi Somie – thank you so much for your comment! I really enjoyed Pachinko too, it was a really refreshing but equally emotional read for me.

      I loved the Crazy Rich Asians film that came out recently but have never read the books, have added it now to the JTO Book Club recommendation list so hopefully it will be a focus book soon.

  6. One of my favourite books is “Dreams of my father” by Barack Obama (formal president of the United States). I love the book so much because it’s a story of race and inheritance. I believe that we are all one people, humans on the same planet and race shouldn’t divide us.

    1. Thank you for your recommendation Fred, it has been added to the JTO Book Club list.

      I’ve been meaning to read this autobiography for the longest time, along with Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’.

  7. Really good review. One of my favourite books is Stay With Me -Ayobami Adebayo. It’s an emotional story about trust and i like that it shows me a marriage and relationships from a whole different perspective. A beautiful story of endurance and love.

    1. Hi Tomiwa, thanks for your comment! This is the 5th ‘Stay With Me’ recommendation! It has been added to the JTO Book Club list and will absolutely be an upcoming focus.

  8. I have never read this title (and I would love to win this book lol) but based off of your think piece the novel sounds like a microcosm of the Japanese – Korea conflict which still goes on today (in some aspects) this as a backdrop to a story of a woman depicted as strong feels like a rare and relevant idea. I read Chinese at university and I find that in most Asian cultures generally women have historically been depicted as submissive and weak.

    I also enjoyed the idea of the characters which make up the novel, they sound very idiosyncratic. I feel like I will read into the feature of the person with visible disability as some kind of double meaning. Themes of identity, cultural competence and the issues which occur when trying to assimilate in a society which you are so easily identified as an “other” all stand out to me. Even more so this idea that there can be segragation amongst people who actually look like one another (we often assume we have an affinity towards each other based on our phenotypes) but history shows otherwise. All in all looks like a good read.

    1. Wow how interesting that you studied Chinese at university! I absolutely agree that there is a submissive stereotype surrounding female Asian characters that is so tired, which is why I fell in love with Lee’s female characterisations.

      Your analysis is so spot on and I really think you will enjoy ‘Pachinko’, thank you for sharing!

  9. one of my favourite books is called “Women who love too much” by Robin Norwood, this book is an amazing book, it helped me so much personally. In the book Robin Norwood is a therapist and she helps women who have been in toxic relationships or women who are attracted to toxic men and she really helped them changed their lives and in the process allowed me to look back at my past relationships and identify my toxic traits, toxic men and how to avoid toxic relationships. The women she helped ended up doing so well for themselves and got into healthy and loving relationships.

    1. Hi Temilade, thank you for your recommendation! I have never read a relationship-type fiction book so would be really interested to give this a go – it’s been added to the JTO Book Club List!

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