Television

Japan Is Still Reckoning With the History Behind Pachinko

The Apple TV+ series starts over a century ago, but the controversy over the country’s colonial past continues in the present.

Minha Kim and Inji Jeong in Pachinko.
Minha Kim and Inji Jeong in Pachinko.  Apple TV+

Pachinko, the Apple TV+ series adapted from Min Jin Lee’s novel, is the rare story tackling the impact of Japanese colonial policies on Korean identity. In 1910, Japan colonized Korea as part of its imperial expansion into the East Asian continent. Many Koreans were conscripted to support the Japanese economy through forced labor, taken as sexual slaves for the imperial army, or were forced or left little choice but to leave for lands abroad by the ever-decreasing opportunities available at home. By the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, this home would no longer exist, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union dividing Korea into two occupation zones.

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Yet, as the opening of Pachinko states, “the People endured.”

Told through the lens of a single family over four generations across 70 years, this story, adapted by Soo Hugh, captures how Japanese imperial ambition continues to affect Koreans and their descendants, and is key to understanding how the violence of colonialism manifests in the modern day as long-standing discriminatory attitudes remain. We meet Sunja in 1930s Korea as the child of a barely-surviving lodge owner, whose life takes a turn after meeting a Korean yakuza member named Hansu. They survive, but life is difficult under Japanese rule, where rations are poor and treatment by Japanese officials is rough.

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Their life is uprooted following a hastily arranged marriage after Sunja becomes pregnant with Hansu’s illegitimate child. Rather than Japan being a land of opportunity, they find that the discrimination against them by imperial forces at home persists in Japan. The refusal of many landlords to rent to Koreans, with many jobs barring ethnic Koreans as well, leaves them a target for harassment while forcing them into slum housing.

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Sunja’s experiences, as well as other moments highlighting anti-Korean sentiment such as the mass killing of Koreans baselessly accused of looting in the aftermath of the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, are recounted through flashbacks. But the Apple TV+ version of the story is primarily seen through the eyes of Solomon, a third-generation Korean living in Japan. His life is in stark contrast to Sunja’s: A successful graduate of an American university, he works for an international bank in Japan that seeks to close a lucrative real estate deal—one prolonged by Han Geum-ja, an older Korean lady who refuses to sell the final plot of land necessary to complete a long-in-development project.

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While many of the other landowners have already sold their properties for sizable cash sums, Han Geum-ja is determined to live the rest of her days in the place she calls home, a place where she has control over her destiny. In an attempt to change her mind, Solomon appeals to their shared heritage as Koreans living in Japan, even going a step further by asking his grandmother Sunja to speak with her.

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As the three share a meal, they speak about the Korea of old. Sunja and Geum-ja are of the generation that came to Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, people who, following Korean independence, now live stateless in the country they’ve called home for most of their lives. As they reminisce, Solomon learns more of the hardships faced by Sunja after she moved to Japan; her decision to marry and her circumstances left her little choice but to leave Korea, even if it made the journey no less easy. She misses that home, even as she realizes it has changed beyond recognition.

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Understanding their sacrifices, no wonder Geum-ja has held off on this deal for so long. No wonder Solomon, now understanding his mother’s sacrifice and why she was so determined to stay, changes his mind and implores Geum-ja at the final moment not to sign the contract, a move that costs him his job.

Korean identity has, in part, been defined by the adversity faced under Japanese rule. Having closed itself off from the rest of the world for over 250 years , Japan underwent a period of rapid modernization following Western ideas beginning with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. After drafting a new constitution inspired by Western models in 1889, the country embarked on its own colonial conquests in East Asia for the purposes of increasing its political and economic strength in the region. Under this unequal relationship, defined by military force and political control, propaganda efforts positioned the role of Japanese forces as protective, a necessity for countering Western forces in the region. In reality, what became known by the 1930s as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere existed mostly as a tool to aid the military and economic strength of Japan through the exploitation of those living on the continent.

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Japan has since issued apologies for some of those actions. In 1993 and 2015, the government apologized and paid compensation to the victims and families of those forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during colonial rule. Yet even ignoring the refusal to accept any responsibility for atrocities for almost 50 years or the gravity of the pain inflicted on the victims and their families, attempts to walk back this apology or engage in denialism by ruling Liberal Democratic Party politicians, alongside the downplay or absence of references to these acts in Japanese textbooks, ensure tensions remain fraught. This is without discussing present-day hate groups like Zaitokukai that seek to target and strip the rights of Koreans living in Japan, frequently engaging in intimidation campaigns against Koreans and Korean schools.

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Koreans who lived in Japan prior to the end of colonial rule and their children are still classified as “Special Permanent Residents,” not citizens. Whether from marriage, conscription, or people leaving in search of economic opportunities no longer available in an increasingly-impoverished colonized Korea while Japan’s economy prospered, those who moved and chose to remain after the war were effectively made stateless, given a status of Zainichi Korean that othered them within Japanese society.

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As we witness in Pachinko’s early episodes, unfair treatment facing Koreans in Japan merely continued the treatment many faced at the hands of Japanese officials and emigrants at home. Forced to live in squalor without well-paying jobs, many were forced towards organized crime and jobs in sectors Japanese workers were less-interested in, such as the titular pachinko, a game that itself exists in a legal gray area due to links to gambling. Ties to the yakuza and criminality by some smeared all Koreans, connotations which persisted beyond colonial rule, with this unsubstantiated criminal supposition driving persistent anti-Korean attitudes that remain, even as Korean pop culture continues to grow in popularity in the country.

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Although Lee’s novel was a bestseller in the US, no official Japanese translation of the novel existed until a two-part release in July 2020. Meanwhile, the book received only limited coverage in Japan, mostly in reaction to the book’s American sales success prior to its translated release. (A Korean translation was released in 2018, and has recently jumped to the top of South Korea’s bestseller list.) A New York Times interview with Lee—subsuquently translated by Courrier Japan—and an opinion piece from Newsweek Japan recalling the story for an unfamiliar Japanese audience before equating its US success to the universality of the immigrant experience and the discriminatory attitudes faced by immigrants around the world, remain some of the few major outlets to discuss Pachinko in the Japanese language. Response to the book upon its translated release and the Apple TV+ series has been muted, although while one article highlights the show’s approach to issues like “comfort women,” the same piece also discusses how a vocal minority on sites like Facebook claim Pachinko is “anti-Japanese.”

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Amidst all this is a story with far more to say than simply recounting colonial pain or seeking sympathy for hardship. On the contrary, there’s a defiance that defines the series from the moment those opening words flash on our screen all the way until the series finale. Even the opening title sequence, featuring the cast dancing in a pachinko parlor interspersed with archival footage, feels like an act of defiance and an attempt to assert an identity in spite of their circumstances.

Min Jin Lee has emphasized the similarities in anti-Korean sentiment faced by Koreans in Japan and in America, having initially been inspired to write of Pachinko after learning the history behind the novel at Yale. Rather than assuming that life will be better elsewhere, the story’s characters hold fast to their unique identities as Koreans living in Japan. Ultimately, Solomon chooses not to stay in the US, while Sunja chooses to keep living in Japan despite growing more isolated with age and returning to visit Korea after her conversation with Geum-ja. In a quote supplied for Newsweek Japan’s editorial, Lee emphasizes that “Japanese people are not responsible for the past. All we can do is understand it and live truthfully in the present.” In the end, only by listening and understanding can we attempt to make a change to a cycle of discrimination that endures today, with understanding as a crucial step in that journey.

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