How Do You Live?: A Japanese Classic with Timeless Lessons

Written by Alison Fincher

Have you ever wondered how we truly live our lives? “How Do You Live?” by Genzaburo Yoshino, a Japanese classic first published in 1937, delves deep into the coming-of-age journey of fifteen-year-old Copper, a talented Tokyo schoolboy, set against the backdrop of World War Two. Together with his close-knit group of friends, Copper confronts the timeless challenges of growing up.

A Unique Translation and Studio Ghibli’s Influence

Bruno Navasky’s new English-language translation of “How Do You Live?” has piqued significant interest, fueled by the anticipated Studio Ghibli adaptation slated for release in 2023 or 2024. It’s worth noting that without the endorsement of renowned filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, the book’s publication in English may have been unlikely.

A Book that Defies Categories

“How Do You Live?” defies contemporary publishing categories in both genre and audience. In the forward, Newbery-Award-winning author Neil Gaman aptly describes it as not just a coming-of-age story, but 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,” or “a story about growing up, bravery, cowardice, social class, and finding out who you are, interrupted by essays about scientific thought and personal ethics.”

How Do You Live?, Genzaburo Yoshino, Bruno Navasky (trans) (Algonquin , October 2021; Rider, April 2021)
Image Source: skywuxia.com

Ethics and Lessons for Life

Yoshino, a trained philosopher, envisions “How Do You Live?” not just as a novel, but as a manual of ethics and liberal-mindedness. Interwoven with tales from Copper’s life, narrated in the omniscient third person, are intimate first-person letters from Copper’s uncle, imparting invaluable life lessons. Copper’s uncle wishes to guide him toward thoughtful and moral adulthood, making these letters the heart of the novel. As Copper’s uncle writes, “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.”

Challenges for Young Readers

Although published by Algonquin Young Readers, “How Do You Live?” does not neatly fit into a typical age bracket. While the plot and structure align with contemporary middle grade fiction, Navasky’s translation presents a challenge, with a reading level comparable to Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” As a result, it may prove daunting for most middle-grade readers to tackle independently.

An Unexpectedly Relevant Novel

Despite its origins in 1937 Japan, “How Do You Live?” remains an incredibly important and relevant work. The novel stands as an emblem of anti-militarism and anti-authoritarianism, defying the prevailing sentiments of its time. Copper and his friends face the rise of bullying by older students in the judo club, who cloak their actions in the name of “school spirit.” Yoshino explicitly links their behavior to broader societal trends, highlighting the importance of individual conscience. The young protagonists, encouraged by Copper’s uncle and a friend’s older sister, must stand united against their oppressors, even though they know defeat is inevitable.

A Timely Reflection

While today’s intended audience may be hesitant to pick up “How Do You Live?” on their own, the novel offers a thoughtful opportunity for parents to engage in meaningful discussions with their children. As a reflection on how individuals must respond to rising nationalism and totalitarianism, the book holds just as much relevance now as it did in 1937.

Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction. Read Japanese Literature is her podcast about Japanese literature and some of its best works.


To know more about “How Do You Live?” and Genzaburo Yoshino’s powerful narrative, visit skywuxia.com.

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