“Pachinko,” Min Jin Lee’s best-selling novel series, was recently adapted as an eight-episode Apple TV drama series. Starring Yuh-Jung Youn, Lee Minho and Minha Kim, Pachinko is a historical saga that showcases Sunja and her descendants’ living as foreigners in 20th century Japan. It is a story of resilience across multiple generations of Koreans as they endured Japan’s savage and dehumanizing treatments during the colonial period.
Rather than focusing on broader historical events like World War ll, the drama series provides an insight into how Japan’s domination of Korea shaped the lives of ordinary Korean families. In contrast to the novel that chronologically flowed from the early to late 1900s, the drama jumps between different time periods, simultaneously introducing the story of first-generation and third-generation Koreans in each episode.
In 1910, Korea was formally annexed as part of Japan’s growing Pacific empire. Upon the annexation, Korea faced a forced colonial period for 35 years, during which Japan mercilessly assimilated Japanese culture into Koreans and took away their abundant natural resources and raw materials. These practices degraded Korean identity and dignity, as Koreans were denied the right to speak their own language, tradition and religion.
In order to avoid imperialist atrocities such as sexual slavery and inhumane laboring, many Koreans moved to foreign lands, one being the land of their oppressor — Japan. Korean immigrants in Japan established the Pachinko industry as their main living form, according to the Association for Asian Studies.
As the author Min Jin Lee described, Pachinko was a game of chance and survival to first-generation Korean immigrants who started new lives in an unfamiliar country. It was a risky and bold attempt to secure living in a country that brutally seized control of their motherland.
Although the Pachinko industry directly helped Japan rise as the world’s second-largest economy from 1968 to 2010, Korean Pachinko parlor owners were frequently mocked by the Japanese for being “gamblers.” In the series, Goro, the pachinko parlor owner, and Mozasu, Sunja’s son and Goro’s employee are treated as “yakuza” (criminals) just because of wrongful assumptions about pachinko gambling and criminal activities.
As evident from Sunja’s story and the documentary footage at the end of the series, Korean migrants bravely paved their lives in Japan despite the immense hardships and racial discrimination. In episode eight, Sunja’s husband, Isak, is arrested along with a group of Christians for mouthing the Lord’s Prayer during a ritual. However, Sunja persists throughout her life and takes responsibility for her young child by making and selling Kimchi at the train station.
Similarly, one of the first generation Korean women interviewed in the season’s ending documentary footage shared her story of selling bootleg alcohol and rice in the market to sustain her family.
“There were no hardships for me in the life I chose for myself,” Chu Nam-Sun, one of the women featured in the footage, said. “I made my own way, my own path, so I have no regrets whatsoever about the path I chose and walked down.”
Despite the enormous effort from early generation Korean immigrants to integrate into the Japanese society, later generations still faced challenges due to Japan’s social-Darwinistic ideas. The main theory behind Social Darwinism is that some races are biologically superior to others. Japan during the colonial period believed that Japanese blood lineage was considered a symbol of superiority and legitimate authority.
Such beliefs posed a constant struggle to the Korean-Japanese descendants who spoke no Koreans and were native-born citizens of Japan. Commonly referred to as “zainichi,” these descendants who permanently resided in Japan were considered “aliens” and “foreigners to Japan” even though Japan was their homeland, according to Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education. (Zainichi Koreans did not have a nationality until at least 1965 when Japan and South Korea normalized diplomatic relations.)
In the show, Sunja’s grandson, Solomon, had to register as a “resident alien” in the country where he was born and raised. Regardless of financial prosperity, high education background and familiarity with Japanese culture, Koreans were still Koreans. A hint of Korean identity in Solomon’s blood was enough to categorize him as an alien who is problematic to the pure racial homogeneity in Japan.
Treated as sub-humans with dirty blood, Korean migrants during Japan’s colonialism lived through unreasonable and shameful discrimination, exclusions and violence. According to the Association for Asian Studies, even the slightest drop of Korean blood signified “contamination” in a conformist Japanese society that often saw the difference, especially Korean difference, as a matter of contempt.
In fact, as evident from the burning alive of Koreans after the Kanto earthquake in episode seven, Korean immigrants in Japan experienced dehumanizing persecution that deprived them of their sense of humanity.
However, strong and resilient people like Sunja fought through these mistreatments and finally emerged triumphant. The story illustrated in Pachinko should not be simplified as “efforts of our ancestors” and “confronting challenges as immigrants.” It is a story that presents generations of struggle Zainichi Koreans suffered due to Japan’s persisting atrocities and genocidal violence against the Korean race.
History might only record glamorous and extravagant war heroes. But everyday Korean migrants like Sunja also demonstrated an impressive level of courage by advancing their lives even amid enormous hostility from the surroundings.
In fact, these strong individuals who did not back down against the history of Japan’s mistreatments of Koreans should be respected as true heroes.