Pachinko opens in the early years of the twentieth century with a poor married couple who open a boarding house near Busan in Korea. They have a daughter, Sunja, who bears a child to a dandy fish-broker called Hansu, who, it turns out, is already wed, so she ends up marrying a kindly pastor, Isak, and moving to Japan to live with him and his brother and his brother’s wife.
Sunja gives birth to Noa, and later to Isak’s son Mozasu. The book follows her and her children’s lives through the Second World War and eventually up to the late 1980s, through poverty and hardship, to relative success and happiness, for some. Noa’s parentage becomes an increasingly important issue for him, and Hansu’s role as a catalyst in the story becomes more and more important, leading to a shocking denouement.