Review: How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino

How Do You Live? [1937/82/2021] – ★★★★★

This classic Japanese YA book is now being adapted into an animation by Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away (2001)) since it was his favourite childhood book. This story focuses on a naturally inquisitive high-school student Junichi Honda (nicknamed “Copper”) and his three friends: quiet Mizutani, outspoken Kitami and kind Uragawa. With his uncle acting as a guide, Copper learns important life lessons and discovers things that would enable him to become a better human being in future. We are shown little episodes in Copper’s life as the boy starts to understand the importance of friendship, kindness, thankfulness and acceptance, and the wrongs of bullying, cowardice and discrimination. Often compared to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince [1943], How Do You Live? is an unforgettable book with a heart and a soul.

In an often typical Japanese literary style, there is hardly any “action” narrative in Yoshino’s book. Rather, the main “action” takes place inside Copper as he finds himself at “moral crossroads” in his life, forced to make decisions, and matures, learning certain things in life which can only be understood through experience. One such life lesson concerns the importance of humility and the need to be thankful for small things in one’s life. Copper’s uncle explains to our hero how there is a general human tendency to view oneself at the very centre of the world. This view is mistaken. We are all people who think, feel and dream, and are all connected to each other in a multitude of different ways, even if we do not see this directly. Only by thinking “globally” and from the point of view of other people, can we understand this life’s true nature, as well as become better human beings, making a positive impact on this world. Everything is inter-connected in nature and society, and no matter how small a thing or a person is, or how small their actions, its/their impact can still be felt on others/environment.

There are incidents of bullying and injustice in Copper’s school, and the boy learns to develop integrity and remain true to himself and his true feelings: “we have to work to nurture that which is good and beautiful in our own hearts” [Yoshino/Navasky, Rider Publications, 1937/2021: 227]; The most basic step in these matters is to start with the moments of real feeling in your life, when your heart is truly moved, and to think about the meaning of those. The things that you feel most deeply, from the very bottom of your heart, will never deceive you in the slightest. And so at all times, in all things, whatever feelings you may have, consider these carefully” [Yoshino/Navasky, 1937/2021: 48]. Having courage and never losing hope are some of the ingredients enabling one to persevere, as Mizutani’s sister explains: “…people can forget their fear if a heroic spirit burns within them. Courage grows in a person, higher than any barrier, and then even your precious life becomes less precious…when I think how sometimes people can be brave enough to overcome any fear, any hardship, it gives me a feeling I can hardly describe. To charge right at the things that are painful and difficult, break through to the other side, and take pleasure in that – don’t you think that’s truly fantastic? The greater the suffering, the greater the joy in overcoming it…I think that’s what a heroic spirit is all about” [Yoshino/Navasky, 1937/2021: 141].

Copper also learns much about poverty and the importance of not judging others by their clothes, houses and bank accounts as these do not translate how good, honest or even talented a person is, especially in a society that rewards boastfulness, unlimited confidence and self-promotion over integrity, kindness and simplicity: “the true worth of a person doesn’t depend on that person’s clothes or house or food”; “in today’s world, the people who will be in the most trouble if they get hurt are the people who are in the greatest danger if getting hurt” [Yoshino/Navasky, 1937/2021: 18, 221]. Copper’s friend Uragawa has little time for school-work since he is poor and has to work in his family’s business that sells tofu. Upon learning this, Copper feels pity for his friend, but also starts developing an enormous respect for him since Uragawa is already becoming a real man, helping his family. A related message is that we should not shun away from pain and suffering, but understand them so we can do better to avoid them in future since they form part and parcel of that thing called life: “it is thanks to sadness, hardship and pain that we come to know what a true human being is” [Yoshino/Navasky, 1937/2021: 231].

Translated from the Japanese by Bruno Navasky and with a foreword by Neil Gaiman, How Do You Live is a powerful little book. In that magical Japanese literary style, the book combines profundity with simplicity to produce a morality tale for all ages.

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