How Do You Live?, written by Genzaburo Yoshino, is a Japanese classic first published in 1937. On its face, it is a coming-of-age story about fifteen-year-old Copper, a talented Tokyo schoolboy under the looming shadow of World War Two. Together with a close-knit group of friends, he faces the timeless challenges of growing up.
Bruno Navasky’s new English-language translation of How Do You Live? has generated a great deal of interest, especially with the hoped-for release of a Studio Ghibli adaptation in 2023 or 2024. Without Hayao Miyazaki’s endorsement, though, it’s difficult to imagine the book would have been published in English at all.
How Do You Live? doesn’t fit into contemporary publishing categories by either genre or audience. In the forward, Newbery-Award-winning author Neil Gaman describes it as alternately
a book-length essay about how we live our lives, interrupted by the story of a pre-war schoolboy in Japan dealing with friendship and bullying
a story about growing up, bravery, cowardice, social class and finding out who you are, interrupted by essays about scientific thought and personal ethics.
Yoshino himself was a philosopher by training. He conceived of How Do You Live? not so much as a novel as a manual of ethics and liberal-mindedness. Between episodes from Copper’s life narrated in the omniscient third person, his uncle writes first-person letters to Copper about the lessons Copper can draw from his experiences. Copper’s uncle wants to help him grow into a thoughtful and moral adult, and these letters are the heart of the novel:
When it comes to English, geometry, algebra—even someone like me could teach you these. However, people come together and build this world, and they live their different lives in it individually, and I cannot teach you what that means or what value it has. That is something you must discover on your own as you get older—and even after that, when you are grown, you will have to study this and seek out the answers for yourself.
Although it’s being published by Algonquin Young Readers, How Do You Live? fit doesn’t neatly into a typical publishing age bracket either. By plot and structure, the book is most like contemporary middle grade fiction. But Navasky’s translation comes in at about a US ninth grade reading level—it is about as hard to read as Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. The difficulty puts it out of reach for most middle-grade readers reading independently.
Nevertheless, the lessons of How Do You Live? make it an important, worthwhile, and surprisingly of-the-moment novel. For a novel published in Japan in 1937, How Do You Live? is remarkably anti-militaristic and even anti-authoritarian. The central external conflict in the largely-episodic book is the rise in bullying by older students in the judo club in the name of “school spirit”. Yoshino explicitly links their attitude to broader trends in Japanese society:
“Make no mistake,” [members of the judo team] insisted, “once they enter society, students with no love of school will surely become citizens with no love of country. People who don’t love their country are traitors. Therefore, we can say that students who don’t love their school are traitors in training. We must discipline any such fledgling traitors.”
Copper and his friends realize the older students are petty tyrants, especially when they choose to direct their attention against one of the poorest students at the school. With the encouragement of Copper’s uncle and a friend’s older sister, they plan to stand together against their oppressors, even though they know they’re going to lose. It is what their individual consciences demand of them.
Today, members of the intended audience of How Do You Live? are unlikely to read the book on their own. But despite the lack of driving narrative, it would make a thoughtful read-aloud for parents to share with their children. As a reflection on how individuals must respond to rising nationalism and totalitarianism, it is perhaps as timely now as it was in 1937.