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Pachinko is a 2017 epic historical novel by Min Jin Lee, a Korean-American author. Pachinko follows multiple generations of a Korean family, following them from a seaside fishing village in Yeongdo, Korea to Osaka, Japan and beyond. The main character, Sunja, is born to a poor, but hardworking couple, Hoonie and Yangjin, in Yeongdo; they run a boardinghouse to get by. After Hoonie's death when Sunja is still a teenager, she and her mother continue to run the boardinghouse, taking in a lodger called Baek Isak, a sickly Protestant minister passing through town. Sunja enters a relationship with a local fishmonger, Koh Hansu, and becomes pregnant with his child. Though he offers to put her up and support Sunja, their child, and her mother, Sunja spurns him out of a mixture of pride and fear. Isak, after learning of Sunja's situation from her mother during a confessional moment while walking along the beach, decides to marry her and save her from a lifetime of shame and to give her child his name. He takes her with him to Osaka and their lives are forever changed.

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Pachinko was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award. It is the first adult novel written in English that explores Japanese-Korean culture. The novel spans the bulk of the 20th century, and it touches on subjects including, but not limited to, family, masculinity, poverty, success, colonialism, war, female beauty, romantic relationships, marriage, religion/faith, sacrifice, survival, class, sexuality, identity, patriotism, et cetera.

The series will be adapted into a television show by Apple TV.


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Pachinko contains examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Justified to some extent since all the adults are working hard to ensure that the family can support itself, but Noa's (and Mozasu's) issues at school—being taunted by the Japanese students and patronized by his teachers for being Korean—are never really acknowledged by Sunja, Yoseb, and Kyunghee.
    • Isak is the only one who head-on asks Noa about how he is treated at school.
    • Kyunghee makes Noa a special lunch (despite the extra cost) because he is made fun of so much by the other students for how his Korean food smells.

  • Almost Dead Guy:
    • Isak, when he is released from prison, is near death. Though it is unclear how long he lives after being released and returning to their home in Osaka, there is one exchange between him and Noa in which he encourages Noa to go to school (instead of staying home from school that day now that Isak is home—Noa has not seen him in years and has never really had time with both of his parents around) because when Isak was younger, he had wished to attend school but could not because he was sickly.
    • Yoseb is in critical condition for about half the novel after getting injured at Nagasaki.
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    • Hansu exaggerates that he is dying to Sunja when they meet again while she is picking up Solomon from school. He does this to get her on his side enough to let him come over to her home.

  • Amicable Exes: Sunja and Hansu, sort of, even though they are never married. Early on, the novel explains from Hansu's point of view that he could never walk away from a woman who had borne him children, which partially explains why he will not (officially) leave his wife and daughters for Sunja. However, throughout the novel, this is shown to be true as Hansu is loyal to Sunja and their son Noa. In their many interactions, Hansu has clearly tried to protect Noa, his only son, Sunja and, by extension, the rest of her family. She and Hansu have some discussions, many of which are not nearly as awful as one would expect them to be after what has transpired between them early on. At one point, Hansu even says that he and Sunja are "old friends".

  • Anyone Can Die: It's more surprising who lives the longest versus who dies the quickest.
    • Dies by the end of the novel: Hoonie's parents, very early on. Hoonie, very early on. Isak, early on. Noa commits suicide after Sunja and Hansu find him. Kim Changho has likely died in North Korea from starvation or something else. Yoseb, later in the book. Yangjin dies sometime after Yoseb despite being the oldest character who has probably endured the hardest life overall.
    • Alive by the end of the novel: Sunja, Kyunghee, Mozasu, Solomon, and various minor characters. Hansu is technically on his deathbed by the end of the novel, but it is not stated that he is actually dead.

  • Arranged Marriage: Koh Hansu and his wife. Hansu's powerful, wealthy Japanese father-in-law adopted him as his son so that Hansu could take over his business despite Hansu's being a Korean. Nonetheless, his father-in-law felt that Hansu was different and better, so he wanted Hansu to marry his daughter. This is also the case for Haruki, the childhood friend of Mozasu, who marries one of his mother's employees.

  • The Beard: Haruki, the childhood friend of Mosazu, and his wife.

  • Beauty = Goodness: Isak, Kyunghee, and Noa.

  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Between Sunja and Hansu throughout the bulk of the novel; their early relationship colors the entire tone of their interactions. Also between Kyunghee and Kim Changho, who is in love with her. She loves him, too, in a way, but will not leave her husband, Yoseb. He gets so frustrated and heartbroken by this that he leaves the family in Osaka to travel to North Korea, where he believes that there is a new, better world—and to distance himself from her to avoid further pain.

  • The Bible: Biblical allusions (and even some very clear references) are shown throughout the book and through characterizations. This makes sense as Isak is a Protestant minister.

  • Bittersweet Ending: Yes

  • Broken Bird: Noa. Noa had aspired to be a Self Made Man and went to university in the 1960s. When he discovers that he had only managed university because his mother was friends with a Yakuza, it breaks him and he abandons his family and takes on the identity of Nobuo Ban, a meek pachinko game operator. Sunja tracks him down and begs for reconciliation: he agrees, but after she leaves he shoots himself. e genuinely loved his family, but it destroyed him to know that he would never escape his identity as a minority member in Japan.

  • Both Sides Have a Point: Every character has shades of good and evil. Ultimately, they are neither good nor bad; they're just trying to survive as best they can.
    • Sunja is a hardworking, simple woman who strives to do anything to protect and support her family. However, she is faced with many difficult choices and makes many decisions that could be seen as good or bad, such as:
      • Rejecting Hansu when she is carrying his child—Sunja has good reasons for this, but some of it does have to do with pride. Her decision to reject him means that she will live out her life as an unwed mother, which would bring shame onto her mother's boardinghouse and likely compromise its business. However, Isak saves her from this.
      • Letting Hansu pay for Noa's Waseda tuition—Sunja feels very conflicted about this. She does not want him to be involved in her life, especially Noa's, but she also knows that Noa has worked so hard to be a good, model student and person his entire life. The only thing he really wants to do is attend Waseda. The only thing standing in the way of that happening is her inability to afford it, so she feels that she cannot outright refuse Hansu's help. In the long run, this destroys the family.
    • Hansu is a Korean who grew up very poor. He has become very successful because of his business skills and his efficiency and emotional detachment. He does not pretend to be a good man, but he does not exactly see himself as a bad man. He is a survivor trying to take care of the people he cares about. But he also expects things in return.
      • In particular, his motivations for supporting the main family are mixed. Part of him sincerely wants to ensure that his son has the best future possible by making sure his family does not fall apart and that he can attend school, but another part of him does expect to control the family in return for the security he has ensured them.
    • Yoseb does not want Kyunghee to work. He does not want to be looked down upon by other men because his wife is working as this would imply that he cannot support her adequately. However, the family needs the money, so Yoseb realizes that they are too desperate to prevent Kyunghee from helping the family earn.
    • Yangjin has a particularly revealing moment towards the end. She calls out Sunja for ruining Noa even before he was born because she had gotten involved with Hansu. She also claims that she has been mistreated by Sunja—though Yangjin is senile, ill, and tired when this argument is taking place, so even she inwardly realizes that this accusation is unfair and has hurt Sunja—because Sunja abandoned her when she married Isak and moved to Osaka, and again when Sunja left Yangjin with Kyunghee to raise Solomon after Mozasu's wife, Yumi, died.
    • Noa and Akiko have an ongoing argument related to his being Korean. Akiko seems to think that she is open-minded because she has essentially deigned to date him, but Noa does not want to be seen as Korean. He just wants to fit in and be himself. He does not see the point in frequently addressing his ethnicity. Ultimately, Akiko comes off as a rude, privileged person who sees Noa as an accessory to prove just how "progressive" she is.
      • A situation similar to this occurs between Solomon and his American girlfriend, who is far more enraged by the treatment of Koreans in Japan than Solomon is. He has come to accept it, more or less, and knows that not all Japanese are bad and not all Koreans are good. He cannot make the broad generalizations that she does about the Koreans and Japanese.

  • Can't Take Criticism: Hansu, to some extent. Sunja calls him out for his manipulative nature and for never stopping until he gets what he wants. He seems unmoved by this.

  • Chick Magnet: Isak is this, though he doesn't act on it, to the two girls employed by Yangjin to help around the boardinghouse. Sunja also realizes how kind and handsome he is, but she is less outspoken about it. Hansu could also fit this trope.

  • Childhood Friend Romance: Haruki harbors a secret crush on Mozasu when they are young.

  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: Isak has been this since childhood, according to Yoseb. This is clearest when he chooses to marry Sunja despite her not being a virgin and being pregnant with another man's child.

  • Chubby Mama, Skinny Papa: It is made clear that Isak is elegant and slender while Sunja is broad and plain.

  • The Clan: Multiple subsets of characters including, but not limited to, the following:
    • Hoonie's parents, Hoonie (and his dead siblings)
    • Hoonie (until he dies), Yangjin, Sunja
    • Sunja, Isak, Yoseb, Kyunghee
    • Sunja, Isak (until he dies), Yoseb, Kyunghee, Noa, Mosazu
    • Sunja, Yoseb (until he dies), Kyunghee, Noa, Mozasu, Kim Changho (until he leaves), Yangjin

  • Condescending Compassion: Akiko to Noa.

  • Confirmed Bachelor: Isak at first. When he arrives at Sunja's family's boardinghouse in Yeongdo, he is single, and much is made of how elegant and attractive he looks. However, he was unmarried mainly because he has been sickly his entire life, so most of his time was spent indoors with tutors and his family, so he never really had an opportunity to meet women. Additionally, he had never been expected to live long, so his family never pressured him to wed, and Isak did not want to make a woman a young widow when he died. This fate ultimately befalls Sunja.

  • Control Freak: Hansu to Sunja and Noa (and everyone else in her family, to some extent). Hansu goes over Sunja's head with Noa at one point when Noa is trying to get into Waseda University. Noa and Hansu, it is more or less stated, had already spoken about Hansu's paying for Noa's tuition by the time Sunja learns that Hansu wants to do so when they get sushi together.

  • Cool Uncle: Yoseb to Noa and Mozasu.

  • Cultural Posturing: Many of Noa and Mozasu's teachers uphold Japanese culture as paramount, and they insult the Korean culture. They endure teasing at school for being Korean as well. Multiple characters insult Koreans/Korean culture throughout the novel.

  • Curves in All the Right Places: Hansu sees this in Sunja.

  • The Cynic: Yoseb, particularly with regard to Hansu's motivations for being involved with Noa's schooling.

  • Dead Sparks: After Nagasaki, this is what gradually happens to Yoseb and Kyunghee. This eventually happens to Sunja and Hansu. Sunja gets over her unresolved love for Hansu as time goes on.

  • Delinquents: Mozasu

  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Young Mozasu until Sunja asks Goro to take Mozasu under his wing, and Goro declares that he will make Mozasu a pachinko parlor employee and later young Solomon after he realizes that the Japanese-run bank where he is initially employed was just using him, thus forcing him to realize that he won't be accepted in any legitimate business despite his education.

  • Does Not Know How to Say Thanks: Sunja does not thank Hansu after he saves her from the rowdy Japanese boys early on in the novel until later. She does not thank him later on in the book when she ends up realizing that he is the reason why she and her family have made it this far, financially, because of their past. Her pride is somewhat hurt, but she also fears his lingering influence in her children's lives.

  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Sunja and Yoseb feel this way towards Hansu, though they are mostly helpless to resist his aid during most of the novel.

  • Downer Ending: Sort of. The novel ends on a bittersweet note. Overall, the things that have happened mean that Sunja has lost quite a bit, but she still finds a way to be a bit more optimistic about her life.

  • Emancipated Child: Noa, after he learns that Hansu is his biological father.

  • Entitled Bastard: Hansu, though he helps the family a lot, is this.
    • Entitled to Have You: Hansu feels this way towards Sunja and Noa. With Noa, he feels entitled to control his life and support his interests because Noa is his only son and a bright academic. Hansu wants to use his money to make his son's dreams come true even though Noa does not know they are related for the bulk of the novel. With Sunja, he feels that she should be nicer to him because their initial relationship was consensual, he has treated her and her family well overall, and believes they are friends in a sense. However, she wants nothing to do with him.

  • Enraged by Idiocy: Hansu viciously beats up his date who is likely a prostitute or escort after she interrupts him during a funeral. He states that he hates stupid girls.

  • Establishing Character Moment: Almost everyone's characterization is shown early on in their introduction.
    • Hoonie, Yangjin, and Sunja are shown to be simple, hardworking people by their work ethic and modest origins.
      • Yangjin has grown up especially poor.
      • Sunja in particular is shown to be withdrawn, which is in accordance with much of her behavior during the rest of the novel.
    • Isak is shown to be polite, eloquent, and admired by all.
    • Hansu is shown to be wealthy, powerful, and manipulative. He is also shown to have a fearlessness and a strong sense of justice according to his own rules. (Early on, he defends Sunja from a group of rowdy Japanese boys despite his being Korean, meaning that the boys could have gotten him into trouble.) However, Hansu's initial characterization is the most elusive of all the characters.
    • Yoseb is shown to be hardworking, roguish, strict, and demanding—but for good reasons. He understands survival.
    • Kyunghee is shown to be kind, hospitable, domestic, and refined.
    • Goro is shown to be good-natured.
    • Akiko is shown to be a bit of a firecracker.

  • Everyone Can See It: Multiple characters comment on Kim Changho's attraction to Kyunghee. Akiko and Yoseb both see that Hansu is Noa's father because of their physical resemblance. Akiko sees it so clearly that she alerts Noa to their physical similarity and inadvertently ruins him.

  • Family Business: By the end of the novel, the pachinko parlor business seems to be this for Mozasu and Solomon. Pachinko parlors serve as a means of employment for most Korean-Japanese as they are one of few profitable businesses that Koreans can join.

  • Family Man: Hoonie, Isak, Yoseb, Noa, Mozasu, Goro, Kim Changho—and Hansu, in a way. In a novel that certainly focuses on the struggles of its women and the poverty forcing these women to take on the roles of breadwinners in lieu of/in addition to their male relations, it would be easy to say that men are vilified or emasculated. However, the primary male characters are all shown to be hardworking, strong, self-sacrificing people whose ultimate loyalties lie with their wives, siblings, parents, children, and close friends who may as well be blood relations.

  • Fatal Attraction: Sunja and Hansu. Noa and Akiko, his college girlfriend who ends up inadvertently revealing that Hansu is his father. She is also a wealthy racist, though she believes that she is open-minded. Solomon and Hanna, who ends up taking his money and ditching him when he is a teenager.

  • Fatal Flaw: Pride is a fatal flaw for multiple characters.

  • Financial Abuse: Yoseb in particular suspects that this will end up being the nature of Noa and Hansu's relationship.

  • Five-Man Band: Multiple subsets of characters, such as:
    • Sunja, Yoseb, Kyunghee, Noa, Mozasu
    • Sunja, Kyunghee, Noa, Mozasu, Kim Changho

  • Fourth Date Marriage: Isak and Sunja. Isak has only been at the boardinghouse a few weeks, during which time he and Sunja barely speak, before he and her mother, Yangjin, have a frank discussion about Sunja's pregnancy and the fact that she cannot marry the father. Isak decides to save Sunja by proposing marriage to her out of the goodness of his heart and because she and Yangjin were so good to him while he has been staying at their home. (He was ill when he showed up, and he was mostly bedridden at first.) Isak and Sunja do not know much about each other when they marry as a result.

  • Friend to All Children: Goro has a soft spot for Totoyama and her sons, Haruki and Daisuke. He also takes young Mozasu under his wing. Later, when Solomon needs help to make a business deal at his first job, Goro comes through for him to negotiate a real estate sale.

  • Friendship as Courtship: Presumably this is what happened between Yoseb and Kyunghee. Yoseb and Kyunghee's families knew each other, so he and she grew up together and ended up marrying. Again with Kyunghee, this would almost be the case for her and Kim Changho, who is attracted to her upon their first meeting. Their time together working in the restaurant and later at the farm solidifies their friendship and potential affection. However, they never act upon their mutual attraction—Kyunghee's attraction is less clear than his, but she does love him—and never marry.

  • Generation Xerox: Noa looks like Hansu. Hansu even states that Noa has his ambition. However, Noa aspires to be and behaves much more like Isak, who was a scholar. Mozasu has Isak's looks, such as his height, except around his face, which Sunja believes is more like hers. Despite being Isak's biological son, Mozasu has little of Isak's academic inclination.

  • Glorified Sperm Donor: Hansu is the opposite of this. He takes an active, albeit aloof, role in Noa's life to ensure that he has a shot at a future that even Hansu could never have. Unfortunately, this ends up backfiring in the worst way.

  • Good Parents: Hoonie's parents. Yangjin and Hoonie to Sunja. Sunja and Isak are these, ultimately, to Noa and Mozasu. Mozasu is this to Solomon.

  • Happily Married: Hoonie's parents. Hoonie and Yangjin. Yoseb and Kyunghee at first. When Yoseb is injured after the destruction of Nagasaki, their marriage suffers as he is cantankerous and mostly bedridden. He ends up—somewhat understandably—a furious drunkard, according to Yangjin. Also, Mozasu and Yumi, and later, after Yumi dies, Mosazu and Etsuko, though it is unclear if they actually marry.

  • Happy Marriage Charade: When Sunja goes to Hansu's home, she finds his wife is there. His wife is callous to her, and it is revealed that she is likely unhappy with her marriage to Hansu. It has been established by then that Hansu is also disappointed in his marriage. Nonetheless, they remain married.

  • The Hilarious Table: Briefly, this is essentially the case when Hansu brings a comic book to Noa and Mozasu at the farm. Kyunghee, the only adult besides Yoseb who can read Japanese—Yangjin and Sunja can barely write their names in Korean, and they cannot read/write/barely speak Japanese—reads the comic book, and Yangjin, who listens in, catches onto their laughter.

  • His Own Worst Enemy: Hansu, Isak, Sunja (after the worst happens late in the book), Noa (sort of), Mozasu (before Goro takes him under his wing).

  • Honor Before Reason: Isak when he ends up being arrested by the Japanese with his colleagues because one of them was praying instead of worshipping the Japanese emperor.

  • Honorable Marriage Proposal: Isak and Sunja. Isak does this to save Sunja because he does not believe that she and her child should suffer and because he wants to help Yanjin and Sunja, who were so good to him while he was ill at their boardinghouse. He also grew up assuming that he would not live long, thus would never have a child.

  • Hopeless Suitor: Kim Changho

  • Hot Guy, Ugly Wife: Isak and Sunja. Isak is described as being attractive, tall, slender, and elegant. Sunja, however, is described as being short, broad, plain, and weathered for her age due to her more working-class lifestyle. Much is made of Sunja's looks throughout the novel—she is self-conscious of them at times and beleives that aesthetically, she is not exactly a prize. Nonetheless, Hansu finds her attractive, even more so than his own wife, who is more conventionally beautiful.

  • Housewife: Most of the women. However, as circumstances become more and more dire, this changes to a more balanced situation. Yoseb forbids Kyunghee, who is highborn like him, from working as he feels that it is his job as the man to be the sole provider. Soon they realize that they need more money that Yoseb's pride cannot stop her from working. She and Sunja make kimchi for Kim Changho's restaurant and earn money for the household. However, Kyunghee ultimately follows her husband's wishes as much as she possibly can, especially early on.

  • Humans Are Flawed: Every character.

  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Kim Changho loves Kyunghee, but he realizes that she will not betray Yoseb and be with him. While this makes him sad, Kim Changho also realizes that her fidelity is one of the qualities which he most appreciates about her, and if she cheated on Yoseb or wished that Yoseb would die sooner so that she could be with him, that she would be less worthy of his love. Ultimately, he leaves her and the rest of the family to go to North Korea.

  • I Work Alone: Sunja and later Noa.

  • Implausible Deniability: Yoseb and Kyunghee suspect that Hansu is Noa's father when they meet him because of their physical resemblance and because of Hansu's unusual influence in their lives. However, they do not bring it up to Sunja (or anyone else—except when Yoseb asks Hansu the question when they are at the farm) because they do not want to humiliate her.

  • Inciting Incident: Sunja's pregnancy with Hansu's child thrusts the plot in motion.

  • Incompatible Orientation: Though he does not seem to know that Haruki is gay and is/was in love with him, Mozasu would never be able to be romantically involved with him. This is also the case for Haruki and his wife's marriage.

  • Insecure Love Interest: Sunja is this to both Hansu and Isak. Kim Changho is this to Kyunghee, to some extent. Noa is this to Akiko in college and later to his wife because in both cases, his Korean identity makes him either overcompensate or become frustrated and defeated. Etsuko is this to Mozasu because she knows her history has shamed her entire family, and she does not really understand why he loves her when most people have rejected her.

  • Internalized Categorism: Noa is a bright, kind, and eager scholar who wants to fit in with his surroundings. Because of his desire for success and to become an academic, he ends up resenting and/or feeling mixed his Korean ethnicity. His desire to be accepted in mainstream society and "pass" as a Japanese man end up destroying him from within because he cannot reconcile his two identities.

  • It's All About Me: Sunja accuses Hansu of this.

  • Just Friends: Kyunghee and Kim Changho are ultimately this.

  • Kids Are Cruel: Noa ultimately does this to Sunja and Hansu—and Kyunghee and Yoseb, who are also like parents to him, in a sense—when he runs away and ceases contact with them. His decision to commit suicide after Hansu and Sunja find him years later destroys them.

  • Lack of Empathy: Hansu is this at times, but considering his magnanimous behavior—despite his motivations—this is not a complete characterization of him.

  • Lazy Husband: Subverted by all the men. None of them can stand feeling like they are unable to support their wives and children. All of the men toil to ensure the security of their families as best they can.

  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Yoseb and Kyunghee have no children. This is a sore spot in their marriage. It is also why Kyunghee is especially excited to welcome Sunja into their Osaka home. She takes an active role in Noa and Mozasu's lives as a sort of second mother. Yoseb is their father figure as well.

  • Lean and Mean: Teenaged Mozasu

  • The Load: Yoseb, at the end. Yangjin is the opposite of this. In a very scathing exchange with Sunja at the end of the novel, she reinforces that despite being much older than everyone else, she was never a burden, that she always pulled her own weight, never took more than her share, and supported her family.

  • Loser Protagonist: Multiple characters.

  • Love Epiphany: Sunja and Isak. Sunja only seems to realize this in a concrete way after Isak dies. She regrets not trying harder to love him fully while he was alive.

  • Love Will Lead You Back: After she reveals that she is pregnant to Hansu, he offers to buy her a home and support her, the child, and her mother, but he cannot marry her. She is insulted and heartbroken, so she runs from him. She continues to visit their secret meeting place at the beach after this, and she is disappointed when he is not there. Sunja still harbors feelings for Hansu, especially early on in her marriage to Isak. She continues to note that Hansu remains attractive during their subsequent meetings throughout the novel.

  • Loving a Shadow: Sunja, when she is young, towards Hansu.

  • Lust: Hansu

  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Though there are instances where mixed Korean and Japanese children are mentioned, but considering the sociopolitical climate of the era, it is unlikely that miscegenation between the races was looked upon lightly.

  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Sunja is this to Hansu in the beginning. Hanna is this to Solomon at first.

  • Manipulative Bastard: Hansu and Solomon's boss at the bank.

  • Marriage Before Romance: Hoonie and Yangjin. Isak and Sunja. Sunja, arguably, never truly falls in love with Isak—or at least she never realizes it herself—until after he dies. At first, despite his magnanimous gesture of goodwill to her, Sunja never gives herself over to Isak entirely because she is still pining (in a way) for Hansu, who had won her over during their time together, even if it was mostly youthful lust and ignorance. Sunja, as an adult, wishes that she had taken more time to get to know Isak, who tried so hard to understand her, but her love at the time for Hansu left little room for Isak. Still, she realizes that if love has anything to do with sacrifice, then Isak must have loved her for he made the ultimate sacrifice at the time, and she understands that she loved him, too.

  • Marriage of Convenience: Hansu and his wife. Isak and Sunja.

  • Marry for Love: Presumably love had more to do with Yoseb and Kyunghee's marriage than most marriages of the time. Kyunghee almost has this with Kim Changho. Yangjin even points this out during the later part of the book.

  • Masculine Girl Feminine Guy: Though Isak does take on the role of earner, a conventionally masculine role, it is clear that Sunja is more than capable of surviving in adverse circumstances, something that he is not very good at. Her simpler, hardworking upbringing has made her much hardier. His sickliness and wealth meant that he spent time indoors and became a scholar rather than a man accustomed to physical labor.

  • The Missus and the Ex: Sunja and Hansu's wife, almost, except for the fact that Sunja is not romantically involved with Hansu by the time she meets his wife.

  • The Mistress: Sunja and many other women whom Hansu dates.

  • Nice Guy: Almost all the men. Hoonie, Isak, Noa, Mozasu, Solomon, Goro, Haruki.

  • No Accounting for Taste: Isak and Sunja, though there is a reason. Haruki and his wife. Haruki is gay, and his wife may entertain the idea of being with a woman. The reason they are married has more to do with his mother.

  • Nobility Marries Money: Subverted with Hansu and his wife.

  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Subverted with Yangjin and Hoonie's parents, who are more concerned that she will be able to take care of their son after they die. Subverted again with Yangjin and Isak; she is grateful to him for marrying Sunja. Subverted again with Sunja and her sons' wives. She never meets Noa's wife, and Mosazu's wife, Yumi, notes that Sunja is quiet and withdrawn.

  • Old Man Marrying a Child: Isak, though not an old man, is probably a decade older than Sunja. Hansu, if he had married Sunja, would fit this trope a bit better.

  • The One That Got Away: This could arguably be Sunja and Hansu, except that by the end of the novel, it's clear that they are not suitable for each other in the long run. Still, for a long time, Sunja feels more connected to Hansu than to Isak. This could also be the case for Noa and Akiko. After their relationship ends on bad terms, Noa never falls for anyone as fast and hard as he did for her because of how she hurt him.

  • Parent-Child Team: This occurs by necessity as the family needs to earn as much money as possible to survive (although, with Mozasu and Solomon, the last generation, it is more about Solomon's wanting to work rather than wanting to avoid poverty as was the case for his father, grandmother, and great-grandmother's generations).

  • The Patriarch: Hoonie, Yoseb, arguably

  • Plain Jane: Sunja.

  • The Quiet One: Sunja and Noa.

  • Rapid Aging: Sunja notes that she looks older than Kyunghee even though Kyunghee is more than a decade older than she is. This is due to her doing physical labor for much longer and because Kyunghee took better care to protect her skin from the sun when they lived on the farm during the war.

  • Replacement Goldfish: Etsuko becomes Mozasu's new love after Yumi dies.

  • Replacement Sibling: Hoonie was the only surviving child of his parents' marriage. Sunja is the youngest and only surviving child of Hoonie and Yangjin's marriage.

  • Rich Bitch: Hansu's wife, at least to Sunja and her household staff. The wife and sisters of the farmer who lets Sunja and her family live on his property if they work. Akiko.

  • Romantic Runner-Up: Kim Changho and Isak, though Isak is more clearly loved by Sunja (and they are married, unlike Kim Changho) despite her initial and lingering love for Hansu.

  • Secret Other Family: After he abandons the family, Noa starts his own family and does not alert Sunja, Mozasu, Kyunghee, etc. about them.

  • Secretly Selfish: Yoseb suspects Hansu of this.

  • Second Love: Isak to Sunja. Etsuko to Mozasu. Kim Changho to Kyunghee (almost).

  • Seduction-Proof Marriage: Sunja and Isak. When Noa learns that Isak is not his biological father, but that it is Hansu, he immediately believes that Sunja had cheated on Isak with Hansu. She explains that this is not the case.

  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Isak and the boarders in Yangjin and Sunja's home. Isak is more refined and aristocratic compared to the fishermen that live there.

  • Sexless Marriage: Hansu and his wife.

  • Shed the Family Name: Noa does this after he runs away because he has learned that Hansu is his father. He changes his name to Nobuo Boku, his Japanese name, slightly modified.

  • Sibling Team: Yoseb and Isak. Noa and Mozasu. Kyunghee and Sunja are like this, though not biologically.

  • Silver Fox: Hansu, as noted by Sunja during one of their later encounters.

  • Smitten Teenage Girl: Sunja to Hansu, at first.

  • Strong Family Resemblance: Noa and Hansu. Mozasu has traits that resemble both Isak and Sunja.

  • Struggling Single Mother: Sunja, even though she has the help of Kyunghee, Yoseb, Yangjin, and Kim Changho, is this as she endeavors to survive in poverty under the Japanese government. At one point, she notes that while her brother- and sister-in-law love her children and do not kick her out after Isak is arrested and later dies that they do not share the same parental pride in Noa and Mozasu that she does because the boys are not really their children.

  • Stupid Good: Yoseb feels this way about Isak. Yoseb cautions him early on that he cannot afford to be good and giving to everyone now that he has a family to care for.

  • Successful Sibling Syndrome: To some extent, this is Mozasu and Noa when they are young. However, they do not clash over this difference.

  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: The way certain deaths are mentioned in the novel makes them seem very abrupt and usually unexpected.
    • Isak's death, while not exactly surprising considering what has happened, is brushed over with a time jump. It is clear that he has come home to die, and it is not clear how soon after returning home that he dies.
    • Noa's death is unexpected. Though it is clear that he has made conscious efforts to hide his Korean lineage, his death is shocking after Sunja runs out of the car to speak with him after Hansu takes her there so that she can see that he is still alive. The shame of his Korean identity overwhelms him so much at that point that after she and Hansu leave, he ends up shooting himself.

  • Taking Advantage of Generosity: Subverted by Sunja and the rest of her family towards Hansu. They do not want to take advantage of his willingness to help them despite their dire circumstances.

  • Tangled Family Tree: Noa feels conflicted and betrayed when he realizes that Hansu is his biological father, not Isak.

  • The Team:
    • Sunja is the survivor of the group throughout the entire novel, the only one who truly knows how to endure and overcome struggle. She is the one who sells in the hawker market to support the family.
    • Kyunghee is more refined and gentler than Sunja because she grew up wealthier, but she is a good homemaker. She prepares much of the kimchi and candies that Sunja sells in the market. Kyunghee admits to being afraid of selling in the marketplace.
    • Yoseb is the main breadwinner at first as a mechanic—and he continues to earn for awhile. He is the father figure to Sunja's sons while Isak is away in jail, and after Isak dies. He makes many of the decisions for the family.
    • Noa and Mozasu help their mother and aunt cook/sell the candies and kimchi. They are the reason that the women and Yoseb work so hard because they want the boys to become educated so that they can get better jobs and support themselves and the family.
    • Isak, while he is alive, is the source of joy for Yoseb, has saved Sunja, and always tries to understand and show love and compassion towards others. In the one encounter that he shares with Noa, Isak asks him if school is difficult due to Noa's being a Korean in a class full of Japanese who look down on him. Sunja is startled by this question because it had never occurred to her to ask Noa about his experience at school.
    • Kim Changho is much like Yoseb, another male role model and another earner for the family as a whole. He also provides Kyunghee with a bit of an escape from the drudgery of their lives when they chat on the way home one night.
    • Hansu, albeit aloof relative to everyone else, is also a member, arguably, as he is the budget. He is the reason that Kim Changho hired Sunja and Kyunghee to work in the restaurant near the train station. He knew that Sunja needed money, but she would never ask him, so he arranged to ensure that she had a job to earn money to support herself and Noa—and everyone else, by extension.

  • They Died Because of You: This eats away at Sunja, who blames herself for Noa's death because she ran out to see him while he was headed out for his lunch break at work despite Hansu's cautioning her to not ambush him like that.

  • Thicker Than Water: No matter what happens, the primary characters stay together in the long run.
    • At the very end, Sunja learns from a groundskeeper that Noa continued to visit Isak's grave every year even after he abandoned the family when he learned that Hansu was his biological father. This gives her some sense of closure as she realizes that Noa never stopped honoring his father's (Isak's) memory despite his disappointment in the truth. Sunja, at the time when Noa learned the truth, was very hurt when Noa called Isak "Baek Isak" instead of "father."

  • Three Successful Generations: If surviving against the odds counts as success, then this is true for all five generations represented in this novel.
    • (1) Hoonie's parents, (2) Hoonie and Yangjin, (3) Sunja and Isak, (and Yoseb and Kyunghee), (4) Noa and Mozasu, (5) Solomon.

  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Isak

  • Toxic Friend Influence: Hanna to Solomon. Hansu to Sunja and her family.

  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Noa's death is partially the result of Sunja's impulsiveness when she runs out of Hansu's car to see him because it has been so long and she misses him.

  • Troubled but Cute: Hanna to Solomon.

  • Turn Out Like His Father: Noa has similar traits to both Hansu and Isak.

  • The Unapologetic: Hansu does not feel like he should apologize for how things turned out with Noa. He insists that he only wanted Noa to go to school the entire time he got involved in his life. To be fair, Sunja's blame is a bit misdirected at him in the moment when they meet for the last time.

  • Understanding Boyfriend: Solomon to Hanna, though he is never officially her boyfriend. Noa tries to be this to Akiko until he reaches his breaking point. Isak is this to Sunja (although he is her husband). Kim Changho is this to Kyunghee, though they are not in a romantic relationship.

  • The Unfettered: Multiple characters do anything within their means to get by.

  • Unpleasant Parent Reveal: When Noa learns that Hansu is his biological father, the entire family dynamic changes and has serious consequences in the long run.

  • Unrequited Love Lasts Forever: Sunja still has feelings for Hansu long after they are together, though they lessen over time. Hansu still harbors a sense of loyalty to her, though it is not quite love.

  • Unwanted Spouse: Hansu and his wife.

  • What if the Baby is Like Me: When Hansu initially finds out that Sunja is pregnant, he is overjoyed and is prepared to spend any amount of money to ensure that she is taken care of so that their child will be taken care of. However, he also explains that he cannot marry her because he has a wife and three daughters in Japan. Sunja is hurt by this and does not want to settle as his mistress. Beyond her pride though, Sunja also fears that Hansu's generosity may go away if the child is born with a deformity like her father, Hoonie. Yangjin even notes to Isak at one point that she never expected Sunja to marry because most families do not want Hoonie's genetic defects in their bloodlines. Sunja knows that Hansu is expecting a healthy baby boy, and she fears that if she has a girl or an unhealthy child that he will not take care of her—and without a marriage to make him stay legally responsible for the child, she would end up a single, poor, unwed mother. This fear is part of why she rejects Hansu's offer to set her up.

  • Working with the Ex: Sunja and Hansu. Throughout the novel, Hansu helps out Sunja, which often means that she has to cooperate with him for the good of her family. This is most clearly illustrated when Noa gets into Waseda University, and the only thing stopping him is his family's ability to pay. Hansu is eager to pay for his tuition, but Sunja is hesitant—and Yoseb tells her to refuse Hansu's money—to accept it because of her pride. However, she wants Noa to go to school, especially after working so hard, and ultimately does not refuse Hansu's aid.

  • World War II: Part of the novel takes place during WWII. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is referenced. Overall, the novel gives insight of the conflicted feelings that many Koreans in Japan have about the war. They want Japan to win only because if Japan loses, then that means the Koreans will suffer even more because of the infrastructure-related and financial crises that will ensue. The novel also references that many farmers/laborers/able-bodied men were drafted, leaving farms understaffed. The novel also includes aspects related to war profiteering.

  • "Well Done, Dad!" Guy: Hansu wants to be a good father to Noa despite not being able to tell Noa who he really is. Noa eventually finds out that Hansu is his father, and he ceases all contact with him and repays his Waseda tuition to Hansu because he wants to try to wash his hands of any association with a yakuza, a gangster.

  • Wrong Guy First: Sunja falls in love with Hansu at the beginning of the novel. Though he comes through for her multiple times, she believes that he is a controlling, manipulative person. She eventually realizes that she loves Isak.

  • You're Not My Type: At the beginning, Sunja is still emotionally attached to Hansu, so her marriage to Isak suffers a bit.
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