More Problems with ‘Pachinko’

Historical confusion abounds in Apple TV+ adaptation of popular novel

Roughly adjacent to the airing of the season premiere, Apple+ TV confirmed a second season of Pachinko. This is good news for fans who may have been left scratching their heads at the show’s finale, which had the not-especially-intuitive ending points of our 30s-era protagonist Sunja beginning to sell her kimchi on the street and our 80s-era protagonist rushing his stepsister/ex-girlfriend to the United States for the very best in AIDS treatment.

Showrunner Soo Hugh claims they pitched Pachinko part on using Godfather-style jump cuts between time and place, and really, Pachinko’s target audience is so specifically highbrow (it being an Apple+ TV show) it’s easy to see why that might work to the show’s benefit, even as it remains unclear how popular this show really is. People who read the book, probably. K-drama fans have been surprisingly indifferent, and who knows when the show’s biggest draw, Lee Min-ho, will have time to film since he’s signed up for the space tourist romantic comedy Ask The Stars. Lee Min-ho’s character has little enough presence in Pachinko that hypothetical future seasons of Pachinko don’t exactly need his full attention. That’s not really a good sign, though, when a show’s most bankable star has such inconsistent screentime he doesn’t even get a coherent arc in the context of a full season.

Lee Min-ho’s character Hansu does, sort of, get an arc in the seventh episode of Pachinko which devotes itself almost entirely to his pre-Yakuza life in the lead-up to the Great Kanto Earthquake. This episode does not do Pachinko any favors in the historical accuracy department. By complete accident, the Pachinko team manages to dramatize the Imperial Japanese apologist version of the Great Kanto Earthquake.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Great Kanto Earthquake–it was a major natural disaster in 1923 that occurred in Osaka. The event is notorious in Japanese history because fascist elements of the Japanese government used it successfully to scapegoat various political undesirables as enemies of the Japanese nation-state. Ethnic Koreans were the most prominent such group.

Pachinko
The season finale of ‘Pachinko,’ on Apple+ TV.

You’re probably wondering how any possible depiction of this event could be apologism for Japanese fascism. Well, the excuse used by the Japanese far-right-wing to this day for this event is that there was no official coordination for this crime against humanity. The way their story goes, random Korean-hating Japanese citizens just took it on themselves to butcher people because the government wasn’t strong enough to stop them.

That’s basically what Pachinko shows us on-screen- well, without the part about a strong government being necessary to save the day. This narrative choice particularly shocked me because one of my favorite South Korean films also deals with the massacres conducted in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake. Anarchist From Colony tells the story of Park Yeol, a Korean anarchist and independence activist, who falsely takes credit for an unrelated political assassination to bring international attention to the cause of Korean nationalism. The film details an absurd escalation of events, as a maverick Japanese general simply makes up crimes of Korean perfidy as an outraged fellow general protests, not because the fellow general is a good person, but because he realizes that just making things up for short-sighted political goals is an incredibly bad idea.

That’s the story of fascism in a nutshell. But the eighth episode of Pachinko held a bigger surprise, when the show reveals a more sinister villain than either Japanese fascists or the Japanese upper class. I am referring, of course, to Japanese communists. In a startling departure from the book, the Pachinko show changes Isak’s reason for their imprisonment by the Japanese government. Originally Isak, a dedicated Christian, went to jail for defiance of Shinto ritual. In the television version Japanese Communists, who have never done any serious work in their life, trick Isak into supporting their doomed cause.

This is genuinely one of the most cynical political messages I can remember seeing in recent memory. Korea has a long communist tradition. The degree to which Zainichi Koreans were politically active in general were why the Japanese Empire scapegoated them for the Great Kanto Earthquake in the first place. You might also have heard of a country called North Korea, which hails from that same Communist tradition, and disproves the facile theory that Communism was just a crazy idea lazy Japanese people came up with to destroy Korean unity. Even in modern-day Japan, juche sympathetic Zainichi Koreans hold outsized political influence because they’ve fought tooth and nail for civil rights like being allowed to have their own schools.

The straight-up erasure of such an important part of Zainichi Korean history is shocking for Pachinko given the show’s pretensions at telling their story. Zainichi Koreans broadly fall into two categories. The Juche-adjacent ones strongly assert their ethnic identities and constantly call the Japanese government to task for state-sanctioned racism. Other Zainichis focus on assimilation and tend to consider themselves Japanese citizens, and bristle at the idea that they aren’t really Japanese in the same way Korean-Americans would get mad if you suggested they’re not really American. As a production dominated largely by Korean-Americans, Pachinko fails to appreciate the irony in this mainly because Korean-Americans are so used to defining themselves as oppositional to Japanese-Americans it doesn’t even occur to them that their American gaze is leading them to make the entirely wrong analogy in terms of racism.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Pachinko also goes out of its way to have a shockingly rose-colored view of the United States in general. The seventh episode presents a pre-Yakuza Hansu as having an opportunity to make a better life for himself in the United States, in the 1920s, by basically working as an indentured servant with no legal status in an era of American history that was not kind to persons of Asian descent. This is unambiguously a far more dangerous and exploitative career choice than the one that brought Hansu’s father to Japan in the first place, since at least in Japan they had citizenship and access to known support networks. The show also features similar, subtler moments, such as with the AIDS subplot, or Solomon bonding with a rogue Japanese financier in English, establishing how neither of them really fit in to proper Japanese culture.

I’m still not sure what exactly Pachinko thinks proper Japanese culture is. Hanna’s anguished speech about how people like her and Solomon can never fit in seems to imply a class element, but then we find out that class solidarity is a lie thanks to the thirties-era Japanese Communists. The weirdly positive depiction of Hansu’s Yakuza mentor likewise seems to suggest that crime is good, kind of, since as deviant behavior, crime is naturally oppositional to racism, which is mainstream behavior.

Beyond racial essentialism, there’s no real hint of what it actually means to be Korean, which isn’t surprising. Since Pachinko effectively erases the contributions of political ideologues, nationalist intellectuals, and devout Christians from the story of the Japanese Occupation, no actual historical figure from the time period can really serve as a role model. This is what a complete lack of focus on materialist factors to the Japanese Occupation does to a show’s ideology.

Pachinko goes so far in its rosy depiction of Americans it never even mentions that the Japanese were motivated primarily by their entirely justified fear of the Western powers, whose colonialist blueprint they were deliberately emulating. Yet Pachinko does manage to find time to imply that Japanese women are whores. I counted four Japanese women in this show that it describes that way, impressive given how two of them are new characters that weren’t even in the book.

I don’t think the people who made Pachinko were intentionally being racist any more than they were intentionally repeating Imperial Japanese apologist talking points. But their own experiences and the stories they want to tell cover too narrowly their understanding of the relevant history. The motivation is noble, but any cursory serious reading of how Pachinko addresses it’s subject matter is horribly problematic in ways that would be quite obvious if this was a story about Korean-Americans rather than Zainichi Koreans. On the thirtieth anniversary of the Los Angeles riots that wrecked Koreatown, imagine a TV show that dramatized the event depicting African-Americans as just the natural enemies of Korean-Americans without any mention of the economic structure of Los Angeles communities, or even a cursory mention of  the inciting event that caused the riot in the first place.

The same people lauding Pachinko as a great piece of work would, rightly, condemn such a fictionalization as engaging in the very same racist tropes it cluelessly sought to debunk. Pachinko tells us point-blank that Zainichi Koreans are not and can never be Japanese–a direct slap in the face to actual Zainichi Koreans who have to struggle against Japanese nationalists who make the exact same claim. The story of Zainichi Koreans is a great one, seen in snippets in the real-life interviews that close out the show, and deserves better than Pachinko.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

2 thoughts on “More Problems with ‘Pachinko’

  • May 27, 2022 at 5:53 pm
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    Why does the author think that the show intends that Japanese Communists to be divisive villains? On the contrary, I think that the Communism angle was thrown to infuse the story with a more explicit theme of class consciousness.

    Reply
    • May 28, 2022 at 1:47 pm
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      The reference is so brief it’s possible you’re right. I’m doubtful this is the case, though, given the context. Sunja almost immediately attacks the Japanese Communists for getting her husband thrown in jail, and then the police rush in before they even have a chance to defend themselves. The implication is clearly that Isak was tricked into trusting class solidarity against his own best interests. Whether this is because the Japanese communists are foolish or Japanese fascists are too all-powerful to resist, the message either way is that ideology is bad news, and only racial solidarity with other Koreans can be trusted.

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