Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305

Pachinko is the title of a novel by Min Jin Lee. It’s also the name of a very popular arcade game in Japan. The main theme of the novel is the search for identity and acceptance. Subordinate themes include the relationship between Japan and Korea, food as a part of your identity, and the role of chance.

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The story follows Sunja, a Korean girl, through the vicissitudes of her life when she leaves Korea for Japan. Her family struggles to fit into Japanese society, because of the historical animosity between the two cultures. Koreans in Japan were viewed as second-class citizens, and they suffered discrimination.

Sunja also personally struggles with her identity, because of the circumstances in which she left Korea at sixteen years of age. One way she preserves her Korean-ness is by making and selling kimchee, the pickled cabbage condiment strongly associated with Korea. Kimchee lasts for a long time, so it’s a good metaphor for the struggle of someone trying to survive and keep their identity in a foreign land.

The role of chance is important in the novel. Sunja gets pregnant. The Second World War breaks out. Sunja’s sons become pachinko parlor owners. All of these are chance occurrences without which the story would have been much different. The title of the book, Pachinko, is an indicator of just how important chance is to the story. The game of pachinko involves watching a steel ball bounce around a pin-ball-like board as it falls through bumpers, holes, and traps before landing in point-scoring or prize-winning slots at the bottom. In the same way, Sunja’s life was influenced by forces outside her control. She made decisions in reaction to her circumstances, but the main events of her life seem like obstacles which she avoids or collides with at random.

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