It is a sweeping tale of immigrant resilience, identity and belonging, and historical trauma that reverberates through generations. But although Pachinko’s themes are universal, they are rooted in a specific history, an important chapter of which is in danger of fading out.
This fact makes the final minutes of the season especially fascinating.
The eight-episode season, which chronicles how Japanese colonialism shaped the lives of Sonja and her descendants, ends with documentary footage of Sonja’s real life — Korean women who moved to Japan between 1910 and 1945 and remained there after World War II. The resulting interviews with these first-generation women offer a glimpse into that period not found in the history books.
“This was a group of people whose stories weren’t considered important enough to be recorded or recorded,” show director Su Hyo told CNN recently. “There isn’t a lot of photographic evidence, especially from that first generation. And that told me this is a story worth telling.”
The eight women briefly described at the end of “Pachinko” are all over 90—one of whom is over 100. They faced countless hardships and systemic discrimination in the country they now call home, but, as the season finale says, they endured. However, Hugh said, many of them felt that Life was not noteworthy.
Fearing that the women’s stories would get lost over time, Hugh felt the need to include their voices in the series. She wanted to honor their experiences for the world to see.
The movie “Pachinko” tells a painful history
The heroine of “Pachinko” Sunja leaves her village in 1930s Korea for Japan after unexpected circumstances lead her to marry a man bound for Osaka. When I arrived, I discovered that the life of Koreans in Japan is very much one of struggle and sacrifice.
For many Koreans of this generation, the songha experience is familiar.
“I came here at eleven and started working at the age of thirteen,” Chu Nam-Sun, one of the Korean women interviewed on the series, says in the documentary. “I grew up in grief. So it’s hard for me to be kind to others. I wonder if it was because of the way I was raised.”
When she began interviewing first-generation Zainichi women 25 years ago, she realized she was learning about a history rarely written about: what women do every day to survive.
“They were really painting a picture of immigrant lives and daily struggles,” said Kim Wachutka, whose book Hidden Treasures: Lives of the First Generation of Korean Women in Japan became a must-read for Pachinko. “And their daily suffering was not just about the home. The majority of the women worked outside the home.”
Just as Sonja sells kimchi in the markets to keep her family afloat, the women meet Kim-Wachutka Through her research she went to great lengths during the colonial period of Japan to make a living. They resorted to making illegal alcohol and traveled to the countryside in search of rice they could sell on the black market. Whatever skills they had were used.
“In all these women’s stories, I see a lot of sonja in pachinko,” she said.
So when Hugh came up with the idea to interview some of these women for an adaptation, Kim-Wachutka happily agreed. It was important to her that viewers see the similarities between the show’s characters and the real people who lived through that history.
Women like Senja struggled and saved us
Despite Japan’s hostile treatment of Korean immigrants, Songha remains in the country even after the end of her rule over Korea.
For successive generations of the Sonja family, including the series’ other central character Solomon, Japan is their home – though they are often forced to question whether they really belong.
While the majority of Koreans in Japan returned home after World War II, the women Kim-Wachutka met at the end of “Pachinko” are among the 600,000 Koreans who remained.
“I can’t go to Korea,” Cho Nam-sun told Kim Wachutka in a mixture of Japanese and Korean. “I can’t go to my country, so this is my hometown now.”
“I don’t like saying this, but my kids couldn’t live in Korea,” Kang Boon Do, 93, said at the time of her interview. “So I made sure they integrated into Japanese society.”
The life of the first generation of women who were interviewed at the end of “Pachinko” was marked by struggle, but this is not all that distinguishes them. Ri Chang-Won points out how proud she is of her son and grandchildren. Chu Nam-Sun is shown browsing a photo album, marveling at what time those memories were like. However, she did not look back.
“I did not find difficulties in the life I chose for myself,” she adds. “I made my own way, my own way, so I have absolutely no regrets about the path I chose and my path.”
Their accounts help us calculate the past and the present
By sharing these stories with the world, Hugh said she wanted to make sure the women had agency and didn’t feel used to the show. In the end, she said, several described the interviewing experience as a form of healing.
A particularly revealing moment comes at the end of the footage, when Kim-Wachutka comments on Ri Chang-Won’s bright smile. Ri doubled down on laughter, as if surprised to receive such a compliment. When she finally regained her composure, she spoke again.
“I’m sure it was boring,” she says of her story, “but thank you for listening.”
Stories of first-generation Zainichi women, such as Sunja’s journey in “Pachinko,” open up important conversations about race, oppression, and reconciliation — not only as they relate to Koreans in Japan but in societies around the world, Kim-Wachutka said. She said listening to their stories can help us account for the grievances of the past, and possibly avoid repetition.