How Do You Live?
by Yoshino Genzaburo
Translated from the Japanese
by Bruno Navasky Algonquin Young Readers
First published as 君たちはどう生きるか
Fiction / Middle Grade
This is my second book for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15.
Like Neil Gaiman (as he explains in the introduction), I decided to read this classic Japanese middle grade book, because Miyazaki decided to come out of retirement to make an anime on it, his favorite children’s book. I wanted to read How Do You Live? before watching the movie.
Actually as Miyazaki does everything by hand, it’s going to take a while to finish. Will it be out in 2023? It could also take much longer.
How Do You Live? was written in 1937 by a Japanese author, so this book has not much in common with contemporary American middle grade books.
So if you are used to that genre, you may find it boring maybe, as it also contains ethics, philosophy, science, art, cooking (how to make tofu!), history (on Napoleon! I didn’t know that the first Japanese civil laws were established on the Napoleonic Code), and many other things.
It is a very precious book though, which so much wisdom (including against school bullies!) and fun too!
I loved the main character, Copper (and why he got this name!) and his friends.
He is 15, both mischievous and wise, or on his way to wisdom. His after passed away when he was 13. He lives with his Mum, and often visits his uncle who lives very close. Chapters alternate between Copper’s adventures, and passages written by his uncle in a notebook for him to read later.
Copper is very close to a few friends. Together they have fun and try to help each other. Well, they try, but some circumstance can make it very challenging.
So many times, I caught myself imagining what Miyazaki would do with the descriptions, like with the following passages:
Trolleys looked as small as toys, and their roofs were slick with rain.
The farthest of these were gradually caught up in a haze of rain and at last became silhouettes floating between the sky and the vague dullness of the monochrome mist.
Framed by the trees in the garden, the roofs of the neighboring houses were just barely visible through the wide-open sliding shoji doors at the end of the hall, and over the fence was the bright-blue autumn sky. Across the sky, clouds as light as spun silk flowed slowly by, their shapes shifting as they went. Copper lay there absentmindedly, while off in the distance a train rolled by, its sound playing dreamily in his ears.
Many passages felt like they had been written for Miyazaki to feature!
How Do You Live? is about self-discovery (and that can be close to torture at times) and self-knowledge, like a Japanese variation on the Greek aphorism γνῶθι σεαυτόν, “Know Thyself”, actually quoted in the book.
If your regrets help you to really learn an essential thing about being human, that experience won’t have been wasted on you.
A part of it was really neat, when thanks to powdered-milk (!), Copper discovers how we are all interconnected.
The book contains many reflections on society and how to grow up in it as a good person. It is ultimately about the questions we need to ask ourselves, about the way we live our lives, and how we take responsibility for our actions.
We are all human beings, so if we can’t all live a life that is really human, something is wrong. A society that doesn’t allow that is wrong.
I read that Yoshino spent much of his life working as an advocate for peace and international cooperation, which is totally in keeping with the deep content of this novel.
I will let you with the last words:
And now I think I want to ask all of you a question. How will you live?
VERDICT: Japanese variation on “Know Thyself”. Classic middle grade novel full of wisdom. If we were to apply all its advice, the world would definitely be a better place. The first step is to read the book!
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
Would you know of any other book along those lines
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