How 'Pachinko' educates audiences on the painful history between Japan and Korea: 'What can we do about our past?'

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·6 min read
Minha Kim and Lee Minho star in the Apple TV+ drama, Pachinko. (Photo: Courtesy Apple TV+)
Korean stars Minha Kim and Lee Min-ho are part of the ensemble cast of the new Apple TV+ drama Pachinko. (Photo: Courtesy Apple TV+)

Now that HBO's The Gilded Age has closed its ornate doors for the season, it's time for binge-watchers to find their next period drama obsession. Enter Pachinko, a sprawling familial saga that's premiering on Apple TV+ on March 25. Based on the bestselling novel by Min Jin Lee, the eight-episode limited series is also the streaming service's first Korean-language drama with an enormous cast that includes some of South Korea's biggest stars. Pachinko's decades-spanning narrative begins in 1910 with Japan's annexation of Korea, and follows four generations of one family over the ensuing eighty years as they confront the immediate prejudices and lasting legacy of that period.

It's a painful chapter in East Asian history that isn't often taught in American schools, or some Korean schools for that matter. Veteran South Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung — who plays the older version of the show's central heroine, Sunja — was born in Kaesong in 1947, two years after the end of World War II brought about the end of Japan's colonial rule over her native country. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, the Oscar-winning star of Minari says that she didn't hear very much about the occupation in her history classes.

Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung stars in Pachinko. (Photo: Courtesy Apple TV+)
Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung stars in Pachinko. (Photo: Courtesy Apple TV+)

"Mostly, I heard about it through my mother, because she was born in 1924, so she was alive when Korea was colonized by Japan," Youn says, adding that it's a subject many Koreans would rather leave in the past given the stories of violence, rape and cultural erasure that were so prevalent during that time. "To me, it's already happened. Some Korean people are embarrassed and ashamed about it, but we don't have to do that. What can we do about our past?"

Contemporary generations of Koreans are similarly reluctant to dwell on the colonial era. Born in 1987 — four decades removed from Youn's school days — superstar actor and singer Lee Min-ho remembers being taught about the Japanese occupation, but says it always felt very distant.

"We would learn about our modern history and our relationship with Japan as well," he remarks through an interpreter. "But nowadays people lead very busy lives, and they don't really have the time to think about their past. It was the same for me: I didn't have much leisure to ponder on the past. Pachinko has given me the opportunity to delve deeper into the history."

As Pachinko unfolds, Sunja relocates from her small seaside village in Korea to Osaka, Japan, and becomes part of the country's Zainichi population — the name given to the generations of Koreans that emigrated to Japan during the occupation. (Jeon Yu-na plays Sunja as a young girl, while Kim Min-ha portrays the teenage version.) That immigrant experience wound up being the gateway into the story for the Korean-American members of the show's creative team, including creator Soo Hugh, executive producer Theresa Kang-Lowe and filmmaker Justin Chon, who directed four of the season's eight episodes. (After Yang director, Konogada, helmed the other half.)

"I knew about the Koreans that had gone to Japan, but I didn't know the full extent of the Zainichi history," Hugh says. "I mean, so much of history is taught in facts and figures and dates, right? As much as you learn about them, you don't ever learn about the human element. That's the eye-opening thing for me here — to dive into the actual stories."

Much like Youn, Chon grew up with someone who was able to provide those firsthand stories of life under Japanese rule. "My grandmother told me about some of these times," says the director, who was born and raised in California and got his start in the entertainment industry as the teen star of such films as Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior and the Twilight series. "She was born in the 1910s and grew up speaking Japanese fluently. That was one of the reasons I desired to do this project — to learn more about even my own heritage."

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 16: Lee Min-ho (L) and Justin Chon (R) attend the after party for  the global premiere of Apple's
Lee Min-ho (l) and Justin Chon (r) attend at the global premiere of Pachinko in Los Angeles. (Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

The colonization of Korea is an equally fraught subject in Japan. In 2010, the country's prime minister, Naoto Kan, apologized to Korea on the 100th anniversary of the Japanese occupation. But the nation's political leaders have been slower to acknowledge some of the specific abuses that occurred during that era, particularly the crimes committed against Korean "comfort women" by the Japanese military. While Japan and South Korea reached an agreement in 2015 that included an official apology and compensation for those victims of sexual slavery, it proved to be far from a panacea.

The Pachinko cast and creative team make it very clear that the series — which will be available to stream in Japan — isn't intended as a political statement. Instead, Kang-Lowe says she hopes that Japanese viewers respond to it as a "human story" with universal themes. "It's really about everyday choices that people make and the grand choices that we're making, and how that affects one another," she notes. "We took a lot of great care to make it feel authentic, based on historical research."

Hugh adds that while the two nations share a "fraught history," the series has a chance to move beyond the "us versus them" mindset that can allow old wounds to fester. "The most important thing I've discovered through making this show is that the past matters — that's really easy to forget. Until we deal with it, we relive the same problems, and we make the same mistakes."

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 16: (L-R) Jin Ha, Youn Yuh-jung, Kaho Minami, Jimmi Simpson, Anna Sawai, Minha Kim, Lee Min-ho, Jung Eun-chae, Steve Sanghyun Noh, Inji Jeong and Soji Arai attend the red carpet event for the global premiere of Apple's
The cast of Pachinko attend the global premiere of the Apple TV+ drama in Los Angeles. (Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

As two of South Korea's most recognizable stars, both Youn and Min-ho are eager to see how Pachinko will be received by a global audience particularly after Squid Game became an international streaming phenomenon on Netflix. "All of a sudden, all the world is paying attention to us," Youn says, with a laugh. "It's nice that we can share this story together."

"It's just a truly global time," agrees Min-ho, who has appeared in Korean-made adaptations of Japanese manga series and also starred in the blockbuster Chinese-Korean co-production Bounty Hunters. "There's so much different content that's worked together by different countries. I take more time now to choose [my projects] regardless of where they're being produced, and I focus the most on whether the story is a strong one. I hope that the global audience really connects with Pachinko and the authenticity of it."

Pachinko premieres Friday, March 25 on Apple TV+.