Monday, April 30, 2018

This Is Not 1937 :: 'How Do You Live?'

Of course I would stop by bookstores for a browse. They're such happy places. I'm thrilled by the range of books in a language that our local bookstores don't fully carry, and I don't have to put in a request to Kinokuniya Singapore to bring them in. Non-English hard copy books is the one luxury I'd allow, instead of buying them as e-books. When I made time to stop by MaruzenKinokuniya and Books Toranomon for a browse.

Picked up a book on the shelf proclaiming 'bestsellers'. Yoshino Genzaburo's (1899-1991) 'How Do You Live?' (published in 1937); 吉野 源三郎 の小説『君たちはどう生きるか』. It's part of a series of 16 books, and this last one in the series was written for junior high school children, with the aim of developing their social awareness. The series is co-wrriten and co-edited by Yuzo Yamamoto (山本 有三), except this last one, because he died. I'd have very likely read the children's version years ago, but I have no recollection of its storyline or understood the full meaning of the book.

This book and its ilk was suppressed during its era for its socialist and liberal angles, and criticism of Imperial Japan and her military government. The 1930s were a period of growing nationalism in Japan. (We know what that led to in 1940s.) It's supposed to contain alternative concepts and constructs, providing a different narrative from the nationalistic slant of textbooks in that generation. Apparently Studio Ghibli has picked up this book to be made into a film for a release in two to three years. No wonder there's a resurgence of interest in this book.

Protagonist 15-year-old Junichi Honda (本田 潤一) is bright, smart and popular. His nickname 'Copel' is inspired by Renaissance astronomer Nicholas Copernicus. His bank executive father died, his mother works as a maid, and he moved in with his Uncle who just graduated from law school. His school is attended by the offspring of wealthy and powerful families, and school conversation and subjects taught often involved summer resorts, ski runs, Ginza and its fancy malls and lifestyles. Copel also has three close friends- Mizutani, Urakawa, and Kitami. Predictably, these three boys also hail from different familiy backgrounds- the business wealthy, a struggling and impoverished large family, and the military elite. The story develops through little notes written to Copel by his Uncle, and the letters between the young boys. And hence, the angst of growing up, finding one's place in society. 'How do we live' becomes more of a 'how do we want to live', against the backdrop of societal pressures.

I understand that there're a few editions of this book, each given a different focus by its publisher- Iwanami Shoten published it as an adult book in 1982, Shinchosha and Poplar published it respectively in 1956 and 1967 as a children's book. The edition I bought is intended to be a standalone new edition published in 2017 by Magazine House. I should have bought the manga version illustrated by Shoichi Haga (羽賀翔一)! Way fewer words, more illustrations. Hahaha.

1937 marked the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in Beiping (now Beijing) leading to the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the start of that ridiculous notion of the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It was also the period when the Peace Preservation Law of 1894 morphed into the strict Public Security Preservation Law of 1925. This is an easy book to go through (never mind that I didn't fully comprehend some of the poetic aspects of the language), but its themes and notions are mind-boggling, although it was written in 1930s and I'm reading this with hindsight and new eyes, and in a new social context in 2018, and without the uhhh shackles of Japanese traditions. When I finished it, I wasn't really sure that it was meant to be a children's book. Or rather, if this was/is what children read, then they are really more politically aware and socially conscious than the children I know in my social circles.

No comments: