20 Must-Read Books Like Pachinko (Asian-American Literature)

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a remarkable work of fiction published in 2017. In 2022, they adapted it into a Korean drama series. Pachinko tells the story of a Korean family’s journey through the tumultuous history of 20th-century Japan. It is known for its powerful portrayal of the life of a Korean immigrant living in Japan. 

20 Must-Read Books Like Pachinko (Asian-American Literature)

The story spans several generations, from the 1910s to the 1980s. It follows the family’s journey as they face struggles throughout their lives. Some of these challenges include war, discrimination, maltreatment, and poverty.

One reason people enjoy reading Pachinko is because of its powerful storytelling. Min Jin Lee does an excellent job of capturing the emotions and experiences of the characters, which draws readers in and keeps them engaged throughout the book. 

The drama, overseen by executive producer Soo Hugh, garnered much attention. Pachinko won various awards, including the Gotham Award For Best Breakthrough Series and the Critics Choice Award For Best Foreign Language Series

Lee wrote Pachinko after she lived in Japan from 2007 to 2011. When she was there, she interviewed many Zainichi Koreans – which refers to Korean residents of Japan who do not have Japanese citizenship. Many of them were pachinko owners and bar hostesses. This inspired her novel’s title, which symbolizes that the lives of Sunja and her family are a gamble.

If you’ve watched the series or read the book and found yourself resonating with the characters, then you will be excited to know about these book recommendations and Asian-American literature that are similar to Pachinko! 

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

The Island of Sea Women: A Novel

Like Pachinko, The Island of Sea Women explores the lives of people in Asian countries during periods of significant historical and cultural change. This book is set on the Korean island of Jeju and centers on the lives of two friends. 

Young-sook and Mi-ja are part of a community of women called the haeyneyo, who are trained as deep-sea divers. The story tackles their experiences during the Japanese occupation of Korea and more. The Island of Sea Women, unlike Pachinko, focuses on one woman’s narrative but spans several decades. This is a great read, as it covers many of the same historical events from a different perspective.

Black Flower by Young-ha Kim

Black Flower

In 1905, 1,033 Koreans went aboard a ship as contract laborers in Mexico. As these Koreans from all walks of life hope for a stable life on a new continent, trouble doesn’t stay away from them. 

Black Flower tells the story of the lives of men and women who have been lost to history. After completing their contracts in Mexico, they didn’t have enough money to go back to Korea. Read through the story and experience the characters as they fall in love, connect with their new surroundings, and hope for their future.  

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Crying in H Mart: A Memoir

Crying in H Mart is a debut memoir by Michelle Zauner. This novel explores the author’s search for identity. It also involves her relationship with her Korean mother and her experience with grief. Important moments in this book are linked to food, which is the key connection Zauner has with her mother. 

If you’ve ever experienced the grief of losing a loved one, especially a parent, you’ll definitely relate to the story. Zauner takes refuge in preparing Korean dishes as she navigates the strangeness and loneliness of loss. Unlike Pachinko, it happens in modern times. But like Pachinko, it touches on significant experiences of Korean-American identity. 

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Kim Jiyoung is a South Korean housewife and stay-at-home mother. This novel – which has also been adapted into a Korean movie, tackles issues such as depression, discrimination, and gender inequality. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 became a cultural phenomenon that sparked discourse about women’s rights. 

Although Pachinko and Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 have their differences with regard to specific issues faced in the story, they still share a common interest. These two books examine the various encounters that Koreans have when residing in different cultural settings. Both have powerful portrayals of deeply human characters. 

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

Forgotten Country

Forgotten Country is Catherine Chung’s debut novel. It tells the story of a Korean-American family as they face struggles with culture, identity, and belonging. Chung’s beautiful writing throughout the story helps bring it to life. The novel portrays the nuances of the characters and how they aren’t defined by their cultural identity but by their own experiences. 

Forgotten Country tackles important themes. Some of these include family, identity, memory, and other reflections on the human experience. It explores immigrant experiences that show us the importance of one’s heritage. Not only that, but it also shows the impact of war on communities. If you’re looking for a good read like Pachinko, this novel is a great choice.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a coming-of-age story, where a young Vietnamese-American writer, named Little Dog, writes a letter for his mother, who can’t read. Throughout his childhood, he was abused by his mother. This novel explores themes such as trauma, migration, and the power of storytelling. 

Like Pachinko, it also explores themes of identity, belonging, and immigrant experiences. Both books also show great portrayals of complex characters in their struggles to navigate challenges. 

Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim

Beasts of a Little Land: A Novel

Another monumental historical fiction novel like Pachinko is Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim. This novel spans several decades. It narrates Kim’s experiences as an adult reconnecting with her Korean identity. 

Although Pachinko and Beasts of a Little Land cover different contexts, both books offer important insights into the living experiences of Koreans as they search for identity and belonging. This novel is a more personal reflection on identity compared to Pachinko. 

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

If I Had Your Face: A Novel

Frances Cha’s debut novel, set in contemporary Seoul, talks about the wonderful journey of four young women as they set foot in the world. Although the novel’s context differs from Pachinko’s as it focuses more on Korean women living in different countries. 

If I Had Your Face deals with themes of discrimination and marginalization. But unlike Pachinko, it is more concerned with the challenges young women face, like beauty standards and economic inequality.

As you read this, you’ll feel supportive of the women as they build a friendship that helps them get through every stage in their lives.

Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

Green Island: A Novel

Green Island is a historical fiction that explores the lives of Korean immigrants. Unlike Pachinko, the story is set in Taiwan and follows the life of a Taiwanese family with Korean roots. 

This novel is a beautifully lyrical narrative with magical realism elements incorporated into it. It touches on love, betrayal, and family. Reading this book leaves you with a question to ponder: “How far can you go for those you love?”

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

White Chrysanthemum

Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum is a historical fiction novel set during World War II. This story is about two Korean sisters who were separated as one was kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. 

A tear-jerking and intimate story that will make your heart break and give you hope, White Chrysanthemum delves into themes of family, love, sacrifice, and survival. This novel shows us how sister love is strong enough to triumph over the evils people face in war. 

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After Mom: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries)

Pachinko explores multiple generations and follows a Korean family, it explores themes of identity, prejudice, and the immigrant experience. Meanwhile, Please Look After Mom is a more intimate novel that focuses on the dynamic of a single family. The novel tells the story of a family’s search for their missing mother, who disappeared in a crowded subway station in Seoul. The novel is narrated from multiple perspectives and reflects on their memories. 

Through their search, the family realizes the sacrifices and hardships that their mother endured. The impact of her absence on their lives is also evident. This is a beautiful read that explores themes of family, sacrifice, and the complexities of relationships.

The Loneliest Americans by Jay Caspian Kang

The Loneliest Americans

The Loneliest Americans, like Pachinko, explore the experiences of Asian immigrants. This novel takes place in the United States, where Kang’s family immigrated from South Korea. It reflects on Kang’s experiences growing up in a predominantly white community. 

There he faces many challenges and is met with the reality of how Asian Americans are often marginalized and treated as outsiders. This book is a collection of essays that highlights an immigrant’s struggle to find a sense of belonging.

Shoko’s Smile by Choi Eunyong

Shoko's Smile: Stories

Shoko’s Smile and Pachinko both explore the themes of identity, cultural heritage, and the impact of historical events on an individual. Shoko’s Smile follows the story of a friendship between a Korean and a Japanese who both love music. The novel is set in the aftermath of World War II. 

This book is a collection of short stories where the characters range in age but share a longing for connection. This novel is a refreshing read as it unpacks the dilemmas of youth, depression, and loss.

The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck

Living Reed: A Novel of Korea

This historical novel by Buck is set in the nineteenth century until the end of World War II. This turbulent period captures the colonization of Japan. The novel explores the lives of several generations struggling to adapt to the modern world. 

Like Pachinko, The Living Reed is a moving novel that offer insightful perspectives on the experiences of Korean people. With themes of identity, family, and belonging, both depict a great portrayal of the depth of their characters. These novels encapsulate the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

How We Disappeared by Jing-jing Lee

How We Disappeared

How We Disappeared is set in Singapore – during and after the 1942 Japanese invasion. In this novel, author Jing-jing Lee explores the experiences of Asian people during a significant historical upheaval. 

Though these two books differ in historical setting and narrative structure, both novels deal with themes of trauma, memory, and identity. They also provide brilliant insight on marginalization and oppression. 

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

This novel isn’t fiction, but rather nonfiction that aims to be historical. It tells the story of three generations of women in a family. The book offers a powerful and personal perspective on the political changes that took place in China during the 20th century. 

Similar to Pachinko, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China delves into women’s stories and their part in Asian history. This novel has received critical acclaim and is appreciated by many readers around the world. With its unique perspective on Chinese history and culture, the deep and insightful memoir is definitely a good read.

Go: A Coming of Age Novel by Takami Nieda

Go: A Coming of Age Novel

Similar to Pachinko,  Go: A Coming of Age Novel also received a film adaptation that won every major award in Japan in 2002. This novel is set in Japan. It follows the life of a young boy as he navigates adolescence and learns about life. Although it doesn’t tackle the same issues and problems as Pachinko, it is still worth reading if you want to read something about family, identity, and social change. 

The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin

The Court Dancer: A Novel

The Court Dancer is a novel by Kyung-Sook Shin, the author of Please Look After Mom. This is set in late 19th century Korea and Imperial Japan. This was during the final years of the Joseon Dynasty. The story focuses on the life of Yi Jin, who is a court dancer who was taken to Japan when she caught the eye of a Japanese diplomat. 

Throughout the novel, we will encounter the experiences of her new life. The Court Dancer explores themes of identity, cultural conflict, and personal transformation.

Human Acts by Han Kang

Human Acts: A Novel

Human Acts, a novel by Han Kang, explores the aftermath of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. This was a violent student-led pro-democracy movement that the military in South Korea brutally suppressed. The story begins with Dong-ho being killed during the protests. 

The story progresses as we learn about the experiences of his family, friends, and several other characters. The novel explores themes of trauma, memory, and how personal and political violence intersect. It can be a haunting read as you realize the heavy costs of political repression.

Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Free Food for Millionaires

Last but not least, this final book recommendation comes from the author of Pachinko herself, Min Jin Lee. Free Food for Millionaires is set in the 1990s in New York. Althought it might seem different, it still touches on the same themes as Pachinko. The novel explores themes of identity, family, and social mobility. 

Free Food for Millionaires follows the life of Casey Han, the daughter of Korean immigrants, as she strives for personal growth. As the novel progresses, you will see how Casey struggles to reconcile her Korean heritage and her American upbringing. 

Final Thoughts

By this time, I hope you’ve found new books to add to your to-read list. As you go on a journey to read Asian-American literature, let these recommendations become your roadmap. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the significance of Pachinko?

The game “Pachinko” is a representation of the immigrant experience in Japan. Many of the immigrants worked in pachinko parlors, and it also stands as a metaphor. Like life, the game is unpredictable, and the players must navigate through a lot to win.

What is considered Asian American literature?

Asian-American literature is composed of works of fiction, non-fiction, and other forms of writing written by Asian authors in the United States. These works often explore the experiences of Asian Americans and the issues they’ve faced.

Is Pachinko a hard read?

No, but it may vary from reader to reader. For most, it is easy-to-read and highly emotive, and it has great insights into the history of Japanese-Korean relations.

What are aspects of Asian American literature?

Common aspects often present in Asian American literature include identity, immigration and diaspora, family and community, and racism and discrimination.

Is pachinko Kdrama based on a true story?

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, is a historical fiction novel. Fiction books aren’t based on true stories. Although, the story includes significant experiences that many Asian-Americans have.

What is the importance of Asian literature?

Asian literature helps broaden readers’ perspectives and understanding of the world. It provides an opportunity for Asian writers to be represented and tell their own stories. Not only that, but it also promotes cross-cultural dialogue and empathy.

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Lisette Lao