Discover Nikkei Logo

Pachinko : Korean and Nikkei, some similarities

Sunja, the protagonist of the series (Apple TV+ trailer).

I came to the Pachinko series, on Apple TV+, because of the article in a Spanish media that raved about it. Then I found its irresistible trailer and decided to watch it.

Pachinko is the story of Sunja, a Korean girl who lives in a fishing village when the Korean peninsula was a colony of Japan. Later, the series jumps several decades and shows us an elderly Sunja, residing in Osaka.

How does the girl who helped her mother, the administrator of a modest guest house, prepare food or wash the clients' clothes, appear around sixty years later in a wealthy house, where she lives with her son, a prosperous businessman? , and receives a visit from his grandson, a trilingual young man who works in a large company in the United States?

Part of the answer lies in the first season of the series. Because I really liked it and also wanted to know the outcome of the story, I bought the novel on which it is based, written by Min Jin Lee, a Korean American author.


The novel is a beautiful emotional journey from beginning to end. Unlike the series, it is linear. As I progressed and discovered the fate of Sunja and the rest of the characters, I also learned about the situation of Koreans living in Japan.

What I knew before reading the novel was little, what—I imagine—most people know. That while Korea was a colony of Japan (1910-45), many Koreans migrated to the Japanese archipelago, where they were victims of abuse, discrimination and even a massacre after the Kanto earthquake in 1923 (thousands of Koreans were murdered in retaliation for perverse and false rumors, such as those that said they were poisoning the water or committing robberies in the midst of the chaos).

He also knew that to this day some residents of Korean origin in Japan, despite being born in the country and raised as Japanese, continue to be the target of discriminatory acts or insults. But nothing else.

Reading Pachinko opened my eyes to a difficult and conflictive reality through the experiences of its characters, and along the way I found—avoiding the distances—parallels between the history of the Koreans in Japan and that of the Nikkei in Peru. .

Alluding to one of the characters, a man born in Japan and the grandson of a Korean woman, the novel says: “He had visited South Korea with his father several times and everyone there always treated them as if they were Japanese.”

Since he didn't speak Korean well, the most practical thing for him was to pretend to be just another Japanese tourist.

In another passage of the play, the father of the previous character, also born in Japan, says: “In Seoul they call people like me Japanese bastards, and in Japan I'm just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.” be".

After reading these fragments, I thought about the thousands of Peruvian Nikkei who migrated to Japan in the late 1980s and early 1980s.

Many, who in Peru believed that they were considered Japanese (in fact, they felt like “nihonjin”; that is how they identified themselves), discovered in Japan that they were not. The Japanese did not see them as compatriots, but as foreigners.

In those times several times I heard people say: “In Peru we are Japanese, in Japan we are Peruvians. What are we?". I think the people who were saying it could identify to some extent with the thoughts and words of the Pachinko characters.

I remember that a Nikkei, after spending about a year in Japan as a dekasegi, suggested that—since in Peru they were Japanese and in Japan Peruvians—an alternative would be for all the Nikkei to go to an island to create their own homeland.

He said it jokingly, of course, but behind the humor lay the need to find a space of belonging, where the Nikkei did not feel excluded.

I felt the need to find a third place (neither where we were born, nor where our ancestors were born) expressed by Nikkei in another character in Pachinko , a Korean woman born in Japan who turned the United States (California, in particular) into her dream destination. .

“For Yumi, being Korean was just another horrible burden, like being poor or having an unworthy family that you couldn't get rid of. Why go to live there (Korea)? She also couldn't imagine staying in Japan, which was like a stepmother you love and who refuses to love you, so Yumi dreamed of Los Angeles."

Yumi was paired with a person like her (a Korean born in Japan). His dream encompassed him. “I wanted them both to go to the United States to build a life where they would not be despised or ignored. “He couldn't imagine raising a child in Japan.”

What happened to Yumi? Did you fulfill your dream of living in California? You have to read the novel.


The attacks on Koreans after the Kanto earthquake in 1923 made me think of the looting of the businesses and homes of Japanese immigrants in Peru in 1940, with the exception that the first was much worse (in Peru there was material damage, but not a massacre by any means).

However, in both cases the Koreans in Japan and the Issei in Peru were attacked by mobs spurred on by gross lies (in Peru it was said that the Japanese were the spearhead of the Japanese army to penetrate the country, that they stored weapons secret, etc.).


“Why in Japan do they still distinguish Korean residents who have been here for four fucking generations? You were born here. You are not a foreigner! It's crazy. Your father was born here. Why do they have South Korean passports? It's bizarre."

The person who says this is an American girl of Korean parents who does not understand how her boyfriend, born in Japan to a Japanese father, does not have Japanese nationality.

Reading this I was reminded of a prominent Nisei cyclist, Teófilo Toda, national champion of Peru, who could not participate in a South American tournament in the 1950s because the Peruvian government denied him a passport to travel, an open way of ignoring his Peruvian identity. .

Now, the similarity ends there, since Peru, unlike Japan, recognizes all people born in its territory as nationals. As it is, the Nikkei have always had Peruvian nationality.

To finish, I will stick with one of the characters in Pachinko , a Korean immigrant in Japan, perhaps one of the most sensible and lucid, and whose reflections I believe have universal scope (for Koreans, Japanese, Peruvian Nikkei and the rest of humanity ).

“Yoseb saw no point in anyone dying for their country or any other ideal. “He only understood survival and family,” the novel reads.

Then: “Did the Koreans want Japan to win (the war)? Hell no, but what would happen to them if Japan's enemies won? Would they be saved? It didn't seem likely. Save your ass: this is what Koreans believed in. Save your family. Fill your belly. Pay attention and be skeptical of those in charge. If the Korean nationalists fail to take back their country, have your children learn Japanese and try to move on. Adapt. Wasn't it as simple as that? For every patriot fighting for a free Korea, for every (Korean) traitor fighting for Japan, there were ten thousand compatriots who were just trying to put something on the table. In the end, the stomach is your emperor.”

Of course, not everything can be reduced to the stomach, there are necessary struggles, but perhaps we should listen more to people like Yoseb.


© 2022 Enrique Higa Sakuda

Japanese Peruvians Koreans Koreans in Japan Nikkei in Peru Pachinko (TV)
About the Author

Enrique Higa is a Peruvian Sansei (third generation, or grandchild of Japanese immigrants), journalist and Lima-based correspondent for the International Press, a Spanish-language weekly published in Japan.

Updated August 2009

Explore more stories! Learn more about Nikkei around the world by searching our vast archive. Explore the Journal
We’re looking for stories like yours! Submit your article, essay, fiction, or poetry to be included in our archive of global Nikkei stories. Learn More
Discover Nikkei brandmark New Site Design See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon! Learn More

Discover Nikkei Updates

Nikkei Names 2: Grace, Graça, Graciela, Megumi?
What’s in a name? Share the story of your name with our community. Submissions now open!
Episode 16
June 25 (US) | June 26 (Japan)
Featured Nima:
Stan Kirk
Guest Host:
Masumi Izumi
See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon!