Korean History through the TV lens: Contextualizing Pachinko’s colonial Korea

"Pachinko" Opening Credits. Source: imdb.com

Pachinko”, Minjin Lee’s epic historical fiction novel, published in 2017, follows a Korean family who immigrated to Japan, with the story’s events unfolding between 1910 and 1989. The first season of its TV show counterpart just aired on Apple TV+ exploring themes like Japanese colonialism, Korean diaspora and identity, discrimination, political unrest, as well as gender and sexuality themes. 

Minjin Lee’s opening line “History has failed us, but no matter”, showcases the importance of history throughout the novel. While the TV show attempts to explain the greater historical context, the audience is often left to view the events through the eyes of the characters who, as ordinary people, often lack understanding of the world and their narratives are based on their personal experiences. With many international viewers lacking the historical background to comprehend various parts of the show, many historical aspects could be lost on the audience. Consequently, this article will explore Pachinko’s historical roots, focusing on the colonial era of Japan’s occupation of Korea, to help viewers appreciate its historical richness. The article will also highlight female representation and masculinity themes in colonial Korea within the TV show’s greater historical context.  

Japanese colonialism through a bowl of rice 

“In 1910, Japan colonized Korea as part of its growing empire. Under Japanese rule, many Koreans lost their livelihood, forcing many to leave their homes for foreign lands. Despite this, the people endured. Families endured. Including one family … From one generation to another.” This is the opening sequence of Apple TV+’s Pachinko. The series’ protagonist, Sunja, was born and raised in colonial Korea, occupied by the Japanese. Throughout the series and through her eyes, we relive the struggles that she, and many Koreans, endured during the Japanese occupation. 

In 1910, Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan and was considered a part of Japan until 1945. To establish control over Korea, the Empire of Japan implemented Japanese assimilation policies that aimed to detach from traditional Korean culture. Schools and universities forbade the use of Korean, Korean films were made in Japanese and Koreans were forced to take Japanese names. Even Korea’s agricultural sector was taken away by the Japanese, with the land of many Koreans being confiscated and handed over to Japanese merchants and corporations, who forced the landowners and farmers into tenant farming. What is more, Korea became Japan’s main rice supplier when the latter faced rice shortages, leaving almost no rice rations for Korean citizens. Thus, white rice in colonial Korea was a luxury and was reserved for weddings and funerals.

“Pachinko”, episode 4. Source: Apple TV+.

In the show, an elderly Sunja, played by Oscar-winner Yoon Yoojoung, recalls the last time she ate Korean rice: on her wedding day. In a flashback scene, Sunja’s mother, Yang-jin, is seen bargaining with an elderly merchant, as she wishes to buy two hops of rice. Yang-jin hopes her daughter can taste white rice on her wedding day before she departs for Japan, but due to Japanese monitoring the merchant can’t sell rice to Koreans. However, while reluctant at first, the mother’s desperation and the realization that it may be the last time Sunja ever tastes rice from her homeland convinces him to give out three hops of rice instead of two.


Masculinity in colonial Korea: the emasculation of the colonized subject 

When further exploring the theme of Korea’s colonization in film and literature, various masculinity themes can be highlighted in Pachinko, such as the emasculation of the Korean male colonized subject. “We are not men. At least not in their eyes. And this humiliation drives us to drink, to fight each other and when we get home, we end up beating our wives. Because there at least we know we’re not the lowest.” This sentence is taken from episode six of the TV show, perhaps portraying this exact dynamic. With Korean men being oppressed and humiliated during Japanese colonialism, their identity was built on victimhood and Japanese men were seen as the enemy. Consequently, the crisis of Korean masculinity was elevated into a matter of the Korean nation’s crisis.

Similarly, when Korean men failed to meet these expectations of the traditional Korean society that viewed men as the head of the household and the main providers for their families, they felt further emasculated. A clear example of this in the show is portrayed through the character of Yoseb, the elder brother of Sunja’s husband. Yoseb, who is of “yangban” lineage (Korean aristocrat), is an educated man who excels at languages and is a gifted mechanic. Despite all that, he is forced to work as a foreman at a biscuit factory in Japan receiving little money as compensation. As the elder brother, he feels responsible not only for his own family but also for his parents and his brother’s family. When it is later revealed that Yoseb is indebted to some Japanese goons, the women of the family successfully deal with the matter on their own: paying back the amount he owes along with the interest within the same day. However, this turn of events enraged Yoseb. When the women handled his debt, Yoseb was worried that society might think him incapable of fulfilling his role and duties as the patriarch of the family, leading to his feeling of emasculation.

The New Woman Paradox: Modernity vs. Patriarchy 

This power dynamic between colonizer and colonized was also reflected in gender hierarchy, with Korean women eventually becoming the group that had to suffer the most. In a colonized, patriarchal society women were being exploited and oppressed both by Japanese colonialism, as well as patriarchal Korean society. 

When modernization was brought to Korea by Japan, women were able to receive an education -something that was previously unheard of- and start working, in an effort to visualize their new modern and independent selves. However, even when women were able to enjoy more amenities, Korea’s patriarchal society wouldn’t let them achieve their goal of independence, viewing modernity with suspicion and rejecting the “New Woman” prototype. This paradox of the “New woman”, which showcases the clash of modernity with traditional society, manifested itself in one more way. Men in colonial Korea rejected the “New Women” as wives, but they still wanted them as mistresses since they deviated from the conventional and, perhaps, boring norm of the “wise mother and good wife”. 

At the time, the early marriage custom or “chohonje” was still in place from the Choson dynasty; a tradition which refers to the custom of parents choosing spouses for their prepubescent children, or in some cases even before they were born. In Pachinko, Sunja seems to fall victim to this trap, as when she informs her lover of her pregnancy and asks him to marry her, he reveals that he is already married with children. However, he does wish to keep her as his mistress, since his wife has failed to give birth to a son. 

Pachinko’s protagonist, Sunja, doesn’t necessarily fit the “New Woman” prototype perfectly, as she wasn’t privileged enough to get an education. However, she does seem to be a “New Woman” in her quest to craft her modern self, refusing to become a mistress even if it meant that she would be living in luxury. Instead, she chose the hard path of financial independence and autonomy, as she has no qualms about working any opportunity she has so that she can provide for her two sons.

Pachinko. Source: www.dazeddigital.com

Pachinko: the symbol of the Korean diaspora

One of the themes emphasized in Pachinko is the Korean diaspora. The majority of Koreans in Japan are Zainichi Koreans, often known simply as Zainichi, a term which refers only to long-term Korean residents of Japan who trace their roots to Korea under Japanese rule. This distinguishes them from the later wave of Korean migrants who arrived mostly in the 1980s. 

In Pachinko, when Sunja gets pregnant, she enters a marriage of convenience with a Korean minister and they migrate to Osaka. There they are shocked to discover that Koreans are treated as second-class citizens. Their children Noa and Mozasu, as second-generation immigrants who were born in Japan, question their own identity; a theme that highlights the struggles of the Korean diaspora and in particular, Zainichi Koreans. On one hand, the children grew up attending Japanese schools, learning the Japanese language (as Korean was forbidden) and assimilating to Japanese culture. On the other hand, they were being bullied because of their Korean heritage and were often ridiculed when their clothes smelled of kimchi. They, as Zainichi Koreans, are never fully accepted by their Japanese classmates and later, employers or subsequently, Japanese society. 

Finally, the novel’s title, “Pachinko,” refers to a Japanese gambling machine of the same name. Statistically, Zainichi Koreans worked mainly in pachinko parlors, since discrimination in hiring pushed them into the so-called 3Ds: dirty, dangerous and demeaning industries. In an interview with the author at the end of the book, Minjin Lee reveals that the pachinko “game serves as a metaphor for the history of Koreans in Japan, as they win, lose and struggle for their place and their lives”. Therefore, the title “Pachinko” symbolizes the immigrant experience and Korean diaspora, highlighting the gamble of moving to a foreign country, as well as the enigma that surrounds the unknown. After all, working at pachinko parlors is what helped Sunja’s family establish themselves in the new country. 

Foteini Giannopoulou
About Foteini Giannopoulou 4 Articles
Foteini is currently pursuing a Master of Global Affairs & Policy at Yonsei University’s GSIS, as a 2020 Korean Government Scholarship recipient from Greece. Being a “global citizen”, she has participated in various educational seminars, international conferences, and summer schools in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Foteini has previous professional experience in social entrepreneurship for inclusive and sustainable development in Greece and Europe, while she has completed her internships at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Greece and the Hellenic Parliament. Academically, she is interested in international cooperation and especially bilateral relations between Asia and Europe, focusing on education, social entrepreneurship and sustainable development issues.