How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino is an important book. It’s a book that I wish I had read when I was younger. I think it would have helped me with quite a few things that caused me to suffer. I think this will be true for most people too. That isn’t to say that there is only something here for younger audiences. Everyone can take something from this novel. It is lovely. It’s a lovely and positive book that celebrates humanity and how one might grow to be a better person. We’re never too young for lessons like that and this book is suffused with them.
How Do You Live was published in 1937 and this year marks the very first time it has been translated into English and published very kindly by Random House in a beautiful hard cover edition. It is a best seller in Japan and has been beloved for decades and now English speaking audiences can find out for themselves why.
How Do You Live follows the life and learnings of a young man named Honda Junichi. We chart his life and discoveries as a teenager in an increasingly militaristic Japan. The book takes two perspectives – the first is that of Junichi or Copper, a nickname that quickly becomes his moniker – the second is that of Copper’s Uncle who fulfils the roles of father figure, elder brother and spiritual guide.
The book weaves between events in Copper’s life as they occur and his Uncle’s journal. The journal is written to Copper and filled with wisdom, analysis and teachings in reference to the things that he has experienced. His uncle’s love and respect for Copper is plain, as is his admiration for his budding intelligence and empathy. It’s clear that he wishes for Copper to live a good life and to fully realise what it is to be a good person.
The result of these segments is a meditation on life and learning through the lens of a young man and all of the turbulence and melancholy of one’s teenage years. His uncle’s advice is critical without being negative, it’s supportive and nurturing while also piercing, but most of all it is true. The truth in the story is so redolent because of their faith in each other. It’s honest and true and brave.
The book is a baring of ones soul. Nothing is hidden, it is all revealed in its beauty and ugliness. Copper is a precocious and intelligent boy but he is not without his flaws. The book reveals a few of them, almost painfully at times. The virtue lies in his realisation of them, his Uncle’s sage advice, and Coppers willingness to face it. The book is perfect in its imperfections.
One thing that I’ll take away from this book and hopefully take to heart is the message that no matter how badly you may feel in a moment of regret, be it of an action or words, the other party or parties will have forgotten or forgiven it long before you will. There are a few moments in the book that beautifully illustrate this and it felt like a gift to me. Nobody will ever be harder on you than you are on yourself. It’s good to be reminded of that.
This book is filled with little moments like that.
I didn’t know how badly I needed to read a book like this, or how badly I needed to forgive myself for the innumerable things that I’ve lashed myself over that were, in the end, negligible or inconsequential. Copper’s uncle would suggest that we aren’t defined by mistakes. We are instead defined by what we do after we make them. In that is one of the keys to being a good person, I think.
It should come as no surprise that this book was a childhood favourite of Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli and will soon become a Ghibli Film. The Ghibli tradition of heart and warmth will fit this story perfectly. Miyazaki has stated that he is making the film for his Grandson, almost as an epitaph to remain after he is gone. This film will remain with the world in legacy, as Yoshino Genzaburo’s book did before him. It’s a wonderful tribute.
Having read this now I feel a responsibility to spread word of it in my own small way. If one more person reads this book because of my post I’d consider it an honour.