The reasons why Lee Min Ho’s “Pachinko” is meaningful to Korea and Korean-Japanese
“Pachinko”, which stars Lee Min Ho and Youn Yuh Jung, is way more than a popular K-drama, with meanings immeasurable to Koreans.
In 2022, Apple TV+ released an original series called “Pachinko”, with amazing aftermath. Overseas media poured out rave reviews and called the series masterpieces, while the reaction of viewers was also great. However, in Japan, criticisms such as “completely fictional”,” fraudulent” or “absolutely not true”, can be seen, so why is it that the reception was so mixed?
There are various expressions to call Koreans living abroad, such as Korean-Americans, Korean-Japanese, and Korean-Chinese. They are people who have settled in other countries and have legal status as citizens of those countries. However, their life may be filled with sadness and pain, perhaps comparable to the experience of living in someone else’s house, at the same time not belonging to the mainstream of the society.
For Koreans, the ones that experience the most pain are most often those residing in Japan.
In particular, these Korean-Japanese suffer from unimaginable prejudice and discrimination while living in Japan. During the Japanese colonial period, the Japanese military took a huge number of Koreans to the army, munitions factories, or overseas. Although Japan eventually retreated, many of the aforementioned were unable to return to Korea for various reasons, and instead had no choice but to settle down in Japan and spend the rest of their lives there.
These people and their descendants were not recognized as Koreans or Japanese, seeing that they do not reside in the former and are ostracized in the latter, suffering from all sorts of contempt and bullying. The ambiguous identity of being neither Korean nor Japanese has created confusion for them since childhood. As a result, many Koreans in Japan hide their identity to avoid discrimination or are unable to enter normal society. Although the 2nd and 3rd generation Koreans in Japan have started to completely integrate into Japanese society, discrimination against them still persists.
Even after graduating from university and studying abroad in Japan, many Koreans who reside in Japan cannot get good jobs such as teachers, police, or nurses. In the meantime, in 2017, Lee Min Jin, a Korean-American, published a novel called “Pachinko” in the United States, which became famous, was recommended by former US President Obama, and selected as a New York Times bestseller.
Author Lee Min Jin, who immigrated to the United States at the age of 7, lived in Tokyo for 4 years due to the job of her Japanese husband. While living in Tokyo, she interviewed dozens of Koreans in Japan, which eventually led to the novel. It is said it took her 30 years to prepare for “Pachinko”.
“Pachinko” deals with the long family history of four generations of Korean immigrants, and is set in the Japanese colonial period from the 1910s to the 1980s. The novel carefully sheds light on the lives of Korean-Japanese who overcame discrimination and poverty, before taking roots in Japan.
Apple, which was behind the creation of the iPhone, grows to be impressed with this novel. Then, when the company entered the OTT market under the name of Apple TV+ and had to go against the all-mighty Netflix, it was worried about not having a suitable original series.
It was during that time that Lee Min Jin’s “Pachinko” caught Apple TV+’s attention, and the rights to adapt the book was bought. In the end, an 8-episode drama was created, with 100 billion won of investment as well as a solid cast lineup consisting of Oscar-winning actress Youn Yuh Jung, alongside the highly popular Lee Min Ho, Jung Eun Chae, Jung Woong In, and many more.
Finally, on March 25th, the first episode of “Pachinko” was released through Apple Korea’s YouTube channel. As of March 29th, this video has received tremendous attention, recording a whopping 5.56 million views. Some even made a prediction that the Apple TV+ series would become as popular as Netflix’s “Squid Game”.
Thanks to “Pachinko” being famous as a novel, the drama received infinite attention from the media even before the video was released. The British BBC described “Pachinko” as a “dazzling Korean epic”, while the Financial Times praised “Pachinko” as “the best show ever from Apple”. At the same time, the drama also scored nearly 100 points on Rotten Tomatoes, a representative review site. The Hollywood Reporter also evaluated “Pachinko” as “an intensely heart-wrenching, timeless story”.
“Pachinko” revolves around Sun Ja, who lives in the house of a son who runs a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a very symbolic place for Koreans in Japan. As mentioned above, it is quite difficult for Korean-Japanese living in Japan to enter normal society, and the easiest place for those people to make a living was the pachinko business. Pachinko is the national pastime of Japan, where gambling is illegal, but pachinko is not classified as a casino and so is operated legally.
Meanwhile, it is said that about 70% of Koreans in Japan are pachinko operators, as despite the love Japanese people have for pachinko, they tend to avoid it as a business venture.
Thanks to all these, among Koreans in Japan, there is a legendary figure named Han Chang Woo, who rose to 7th place in the Japanese business world through this pachinko business. His impressive rise eventually became the inspiration for Lee Min Jin to write “Pachinko”.
Born on December 17th, 1930 in Sacheon, Gyeongsangnam-do, Han Chang Woo boarded a stowaway ship bound for Japan two months after Korea’s liberation. He followed the advice of his eldest brother, who was taken to Japan for forced labor during the Japanese colonial period, and settled in Japan.
Han Chang Woo eventually overcame contempt and poverty, and studied like crazy before entering the Faculty of Economics at Hosei University in Tokyo, which is a prestigious institution. However, he never dreamed of getting a job after graduation. At that time, even Japanese graduates could not find a job, so naturally there was no place for him, a Korean. Instead, he took over the pachinko parlor run by his brother-in-law in the small town of Mineyama. His relationship with pachinko began in 1952.
After taking over the store, Han Chang Woo intentionally made the pachinko machine’s odds a bit higher, spreading rumors that his pachinko parior has higher winning chances and attracting customers. Despite a quick failure in the bowling business, Han Chang Woo managed to rebound and expand his pachinko business to an impressive scale.
Chairman Han Chang Woo began to see that it was right for Japanese pachinko to move away from the negative image of a gambling house and move toward a modern, wholesome leisure culture. After that, all revenues and expenses were computerized in real time and submitted to the Japanese tax authorities, continuing efforts to remove the negative image of pachinko.
While Han Chang Woo is currently of Japanese nationality, he protested against the Japanese government in the past, claiming he would not be naturalized unless he was allowed to have a Korean name.
Regardless of his nationality, Han Chang Woo has not lost his Korean roots in Korea and sees nationality and ethnicity separately. As a result, the pachinko industry, which is closely related to Koreans in Japan, has also not lost its Korean roots and sees nationality and ethnicity separately.
Then, as Apple TV+’s “Pachinko” re-examined the pachinko industry, light was shed on the discrimination experienced by Korean residents in Japan, as well as the resentment they had to swallow.
There are a lot of people in Japan calling “Pachinko” a “scam” and “fictional”, but these are probably people who have never walked a step in the shoes of Korean-Japanese, and have been ignorant of these experiences.