How Do You Live?

Genzaburō Yoshino
Translated by Bruno Navasky
Algonquin Young Readers ($17.95)

by John Colburn and Aki Shibata

How Do You Live?, the first English translation of a classic Japanese novel, portrays the life of protagonist “Copper” Jun’ichi, a fifteen-year-old student in pre-war Tokyo, as he tries to understand how to move in the world with courage and integrity—how to grow up. His father has passed away, and he begins his first year of high school with his uncle and mother to guide him through his many questions.

Originally published in Japan in 1937 as part of a series of educational books for young people, How Do You Live? was part of a conscious effort to steer Japanese children toward a more humanistic way of thinking and away from (then-common) military-oriented propaganda. One of the many Japanese students who read How Do You Live? was now-revered anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki, who has recently come out of retirement to create a new film based on the book. Miyazaki, now 81 years old, is still months or possibly years away from completing the hand-drawn feature. This creates a perfect opportunity to read the book first, before seeing how the novel’s portrayal of the complex inner lives of young people is translated into Miyazaki’s world.

What follows is a dialogic review between John Colburn, who read How Do You Live? in its new English translation by Bruno Navasky, and Aki Shibata, who read the book in its original Japanese.

JC: As I was reading How Do You Live?, I kept thinking of how it was intentionally meant to provide a less propagandistic coming of age story for young people. In flagrant defiance of a common trope, the main character, Copper, doesn't perform a traditional heroic act—in fact, he fails to be heroic. So in some senses the book asks the reader not only how to live, but what to do when you fail? 

AS: Yes, it’s not heroic or individualistic—an important part of this book for me is the way it shows how good it feels as a young person to have a friend. I think Japanese culture is against examining that, especially for boys.

JC: Gender is an issue. Copper gets guidance about humility from both his mother and his uncle: he receives this guidance via written notes from his uncle, but when he's sick in bed, his mother tells him her own story of a small failure—a very intimate moment.

AS: I really enjoyed that part, because throughout the book, I was frustrated by the lack of women’s perspectives. Still, Copper deeply respects and loves his mother; the story she tells him is small, but the impact was formative for her and it becomes so for Copper as well. And that moment when Copper realizes his mother is sharing these stories not to manipulate or move him, but to care for him—that moment is so sweet.

JC: The book shows how small things can be big for children. The interior life of young people can be very dramatic. When Copper is thinking of ways to get around returning to school and facing up to his failure, he considers various lies he could tell. Still, he needs to run through these thoughts when he's lying sick in bed—and that's when the guidance of his uncle and mother comes in, right when he can do something with it.

AS: One of my favorite moments was when Copper took off his blanket during his fever so he would die! I thought back to myself as a child, moments when I thought, ‘I'm not going to eat anymore; I’m bad and I deserve to die.’ Andthen by dinner time, I’d be so hungry I’d think I must be dying! Copper thinks similarly about abandoning his blanket—the feeling of intensity came through. In the internal life of young people, experiencing a moment that makes you want to take dramatic action is a necessary part of learning how to live.

JC: I was struck by how deftly Yoshino focuses on how to transform feelings of shame into wisdom—how to grow from failure. The story starts with Copper feeling small while looking out at all the people in Tokyo, but realizing they're all interconnected, and that idea becomes personal when he connects with his friends at school. The process of staying connected, that's how you transform shame—you connect to other people in an honest way. And based on this focus on the drama of childhood friendship and ethics, I can see why Miyazaki would want to film this book.

AS: Yes, because he wants to do good for children, and depicting the purity of friendship is one way to do that. It's a little bit unusual since he doesn’t often portray a boy as his protagonist. Maybe in Ponyo. But by the end of How Do You Live?, I was very invested in the female characters in this book—for example, I loved the mom in the tofu shop. She is no-nonsense, but also very loving. And Mizutani’s sister is smart and knows how to speak up for herself—an unusual depiction of a woman in that era. And of course, Copper’s mom is a single mother. All the women in this story are strong and outspoken, and it's very carefully done. I would imagine this book was originally read by boys more than girls, because going to school at the upper level didn’t become mandatory for girls in Japan until after 1945.

JC: So even though the book is centered on how young men form bonds that have integrity, portraying the female characters with strength would have stood out at the time.

AS: Yes, I think so.

JC: That’s great. I also like that the novel’s characters are so vulnerable—willing to communicate what they don't understand. They have a sense of mystery about the world, and they want to learn. I was thinking that many of the people who read this book today, especially in translation, are going to be fans of Miyazaki, and thinking also that the film version of the story may be very different.

AS: I'm sure it will. Like The Little Mermaid compared to Ponyo.

JC: That was a big transformation! And that's the fun part of reading a book first and then seeing what happens in a filmmaker’s imagination. But I also think this book would be great to use in education classes—to have people studying to become teachers consider what's being taught in this novel.

AS: Yes, as we touched on earlier, this book doesn’t promote a strong sense of independence—it’s more about interdependence.

JC: Right: Copper has a vision of everyone being interconnected at the beginning of the book, as well as later, when he sees the way out of feeling dread about himself is to become connected to people again. The book identifies isolation as both a national and individual problem. You went through the Japanese educational system—do you think it's more geared towards interdependence and relationship building or toward individualism and “being right”?

AS: Japanese education tells you what's right and what's wrong, but that doesn’t mean it promotes independence. I think we are very afraid of individualistic thought as a nation. We even have a saying that if you are the nail that sticks up, you’ll be hammered down; everybody says, “don't be the nail that sticks up.” And Japanese education communicates that by regulations. You need to wear your uniform this way. You need to come at exactly this time, otherwise we'll close the gate. You don't have a right to come in. That's not interdependence, it's uniformity: You start to learn it's easier to be like the person next to you.

This is why it’s so important that Copper asks good questions, and I would hope that young people who read this book would be inspired to question like him. And what a caring thing for his uncle to leave him a journal in which to do that questioning!

JC: By the end, Copper can project himself as a person with an interior to express, and that's part of the path to adulthood—to begin to have a dialogue with yourself about what's right and what's not right. I mean, the English title is How Do You Live?

AS: It charms me to think that this book from 1938, written in Japan, will be read by an international audience today. That is something very sweet to feel as a Japanese person.

JC: Is How Do you Live? getting extra buzz now in Tokyo because everyone hopes Miyazaki is going to finish the film soon?

AS: No, remember he's finishing one minute a month. They only have 36 minutes finished.

JC: It's like a race against time. Perhaps there are fears that it's going to be an unfinished film.

AS: That would weirdly coincide with the fact that the original author, Yuzo Yamamoto, became ill and couldn't finish the book, so Genzaburō Yoshino took over.

JC: And here we are, more than eighty years later, reading the book and waiting for the film, hoping that Miyazaki will finish.

AS: In Japanese, the character for “wait” is made of two parts— “to go” and “temple.” So to wait is to go to the temple.

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