The ‘Pachinko’ finale highlights the real-life women whose stories aren’t found in history books

It is a sweeping story of immigrant resilience, of identity and belonging, of historical trauma that resonates across generations. But while its themes are universal, “Pachinko” is rooted in a specific story, a critical chapter of which is in danger of disappearing.

That reality makes the final minutes of the season especially noteworthy.

The eight-episode season, which chronicles how Japanese colonialism shapes the lives of Sunja and her descendants, ends with documentary footage of real-life Sunjas: Korean women who moved to Japan between 1910 and 1945 and stayed there after leaving. the Second World War. 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 record or record,” showrunner Soo Hugh recently told CNN. “There’s not as much photographic evidence, especially from that first generation. That told me this was a story worth telling.”

The eight women briefly described at the end of “Pachinko” are nearly all in their 90s; one has surpassed 100. They faced countless hardships and systemic discrimination in the country they now call home, but, as the season-ending sequence says, they stuck it out. However, Hugh said, many of them had been made feel that their lives were not remarkable.

Fearful that the women’s stories would be lost to time, Hugh felt the need to include their voices in the series. She wanted to honor her experiences for the world to see.

‘Pachinko’ captures a painful story

“Pachinko” star Sunja leaves her village in 1930s Korea for Japan after unforeseen circumstances lead her to marry a man headed for Osaka. When she arrives, she discovers that life for Koreans in Japan is largely a life of struggle and sacrifice.

For many Koreans of that generation, Sunja’s experience is familiar.

As Japan sought to expand its empire in East Asia, Koreans immigrated to Japan in large numbers. Some moved to their settler’s land in search of economic and educational opportunities; others didn’t have much of a choice about it. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were scripted as workers during Japan’s war efforts and forced to work long hours to low wagewhile some Korean women forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese army. Along with back-breaking work and poor housing, Koreans found racist and discriminatory treatment.

“I came here at 11 and started working at 13,” says Chu Nam-Sun, one of the Korean women interviewed for the series, in footage from the documentary. “I grew up sad. So it’s hard for me to be kind to other people. I wonder if that’s because of how I grew up.”

Koreans who immigrated to Japan during colonial rule, as well as their descendants, are known in Japanese as Zainichi, which translates to “residing in Japan”. Jackie Kim-Wachutka, a researcher who consulted on the show and conducted the interviews at the end of the season, has spent decades documenting the experiences of Korean Zainichi women.

When she began interviewing first-generation Zainichi women 25 years ago, she realized she was learning about a story that was rarely written about: what ordinary women did to survive.

“They were really painting a canvas of immigrant life and daily struggles,” said Kim-Wachutka, whose book “Hidden Treasures: Lives of First-Generation Korean Women in Japan” became required reading for the writers’ room at “Pachinko”. “And their daily struggles weren’t just for their home. Most of the women worked outside the home.”

Sunja (Minha Kim) and her mother (Inji Jeong) go through the difficulties of life in Japanese-occupied Korea.

Just as Sunja sells kimchi in markets to keep her family afloat, the women Kim-Wachutka met through his research he did his best during Japan’s colonial period to make a living. They resorted to smuggling alcohol and traveled to the countryside in search of rice that they could sell on the black market. Whatever abilities they had, they were put to use.

“In all of these women’s stories, I see a lot of Sunja in ‘Pachinko,'” she said.

So when Hugh approached her with the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčinterviewing some of these women for the adaptation, Kim-Wachutka gladly agreed. It was important to her that viewers see the parallels between the characters on the show and the real people who lived through that story.

Women like Sunja fought and survived

Despite Japan’s hostile treatment of Korean immigrants, Sunja remains in the country even after its rule over Korea ends.

For successive generations of Sunja’s family, including the series’ other central character, Solomon, Japan is home, though they often question whether they really belong.

Although Sunja and her family find life difficult for Koreans in Japan, they stay and raise their children there.

While most Koreans in Japan returned to their homeland after World War II, the women Kim-Wachutka interviews at the end of “Pachinko” are among the estimated 600,000 Koreans who stayed behind.

“I can’t go to Korea,” Chu Nam-Sun tells Kim-Wachutka in mixed Japanese and Korean. “I can’t go to my country, so this is my hometown now.”

The Koreans who remained in Japan did so for various reasons, Rennie Moon wrote in a 2010 Article for SPICE Digest at Stanford University. Some families had finally achieved some stability and did not want to risk starting over, others felt that their children had integrated into Japanese culture, and still others simply could not afford the return trip.

“I don’t like to say this, but my children wouldn’t be able to live in Korea,” says Kang Bun-Do, 93 at the time of the interview. “So I made sure they were assimilated into Japanese society.”

While Koreans in Japan were considered Japanese citizens under colonial rule, that changed after World War II, making them stateless. In the decades that followed the war, they were the subject of numerous exclusion policies due to their perceived status as foreigners, forcing many Koreans to choose between “passing” as Japanese to avoid discrimination or asserting their Korean identity despite the inherent challenges.
Yuh-Jung Youn as older Sunja in
As Zainichi Koreans successfully fought to regain many of their rights in the 1970s and 1980s, blatant discrimination began to wane, John Lie wrote in a 2009 article. Article for the magazine “Education about Asia”. But although Japan since then He apologized for some of his actions during his colonial rule, racist attitudes towards Koreans to persist for this day.

The lives of the first-generation women interviewed at the end of “Pachinko” have been marked by struggle, but that’s not all that defines them. Ri Chang-Won alludes to how proud she is of her son and her grandchildren. Chu Nam-Sun is shown flipping through a photo album, marveling at the age of those memories. Still, she hasn’t looked back.

“There were no difficulties for me in the life I chose for myself,” he adds. “I made my own path, my own path, so I have no regrets at all about the path I chose and walked.”

Their stories help us consider the past and the present.

In sharing these stories with the world, Hugh said he wanted to make sure the women had agency and didn’t feel like they were being used for the show. And in the end, he said, many of them described the experience of being interviewed as a form of healing.

A particularly revealing moment comes at the end of the recording, when Kim-Wachutka comments on Ri Chang-Won’s bright smile. Ri doubles over with laughter, as if she is amazed to receive such a compliment. When she finally regains her composure, she speaks once more.

“I’m sure it must have been boring, but thanks for listening,” she says of her story.

The stories of first-generation Zainichi women, like Sunja’s journey in “Pachinko,” open important conversations about race, oppression, and reconciliation, not only as it relates to Koreans in Japan but in communities around the world. world, Kim- said Wachutka. Listening to her stories, she said, can help us recognize past injustices and perhaps prevent them from happening again.

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