Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Akutagawa, Ryunosuke, pseud. of Chōkōdō Shujin, 1892-1927, Japanese author. One of Japan's finest short-story writers, he derived many of his tales from historical Japanese sources, but told them with psychological insights in an individualistic style. "Rashomon"(1915) and "In a Grove" (1921) were made into the classic 1950 film Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa. His later writings, largely autobiographical fiction, were not successful, and this lack of popular response may have contributed to his suicide.
; (March 1, 1892 - July 24, 1927) was a Japanese writer active in Taishō period Japan. He is regarded as the "Father of the Japanese short story", and is noted for his superb style and finely detailed stories that explore the darker side of human nature.

Early life

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was born in the Kyōbashi district of Tokyo, the third child and only son of father Toshizō Niihara and mother Fuku Niihara (née Akutagawa). He was named "Ryūnosuke" ("Dragon Son") because he was allegedly born in the Year of the Dragon, in the Month of the Dragon, on the Day of the Dragon, and at the Hour of the Dragon. His mother went insane shortly after his birth, so he was adopted and raised by his maternal uncle, Akutagawa Dōshō, from whom he received the Akutagawa family name. He was interested in classical Chinese literature from an early age, as well as the works of Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki, both of whom were popular when he was growing up.

He entered the First High School in 1910, developing relationships with classmates such as Kan Kikuchi, Kume Masao, Yamamoto Yūzō, and Tsuchiya Bunmei, all of whom would later become famous authors. He began writing after entering Tokyo Imperial University in 1913, where he studied English literature.

While still a student he proposed marriage to a childhood friend, Yayoi Yoshida, but his adoptive family did not approve the union. In 1916 he became engaged to Fumi Tsukamoto, whom he married in 1918. They had three children: Hiroshi Akutagawa (1920-1981) was a famous actor, Takashi Akutagawa (1922-1945) was killed, as a student draftee, in Burma, and Yasushi Akutagawa (1925-1989) was a famous composer.

After graduation, he taught briefly at the Naval Engineering School in Yokosuka, Kanagawa as an English language instructor, before deciding to devote his full efforts to writing.

Literary career

In 1914, Akutagawa and his former high school friends revived the literary journal Shinshichō ("New Currents of Thought"), publishing translations of William Butler Yeats and Anatole France along with their own works.

Akutagawa published his first short story Rashōmon the following year in the literary magazine Teikoku Bungaku ("Imperial Literature"), while still a student. The story, based on a twelfth-century tale, with a sharp twist of psychological drama, was largely unnoticed by the literary world, except by noted author Natsume Sōseki. Encouraged by the praise, Akutagawa thereafter considered himself Sōseki's disciple, and began visiting the author for his literary circle meetings every Thursday. It was also at this time that he started writing haiku under the haigo (or pen-name) Gaki.

These meetings led to Hana ("The Nose", 1916), which was published in Shinshicho, and again highly praised by Sōseki. Akutagawa followed with a series of short stories set in Heian period, Edo period or early Meiji period Japan, and were based on the themes of the ugliness of egoism and the value of art. These stories reinterpreted classical works and historical incidents from a distinctly modern standpoint.

Noted examples of these stories include: Gesaku zanmai ("A Life Devoted to Gesaku", 1917) and Kareno-shō ("Gleanings from a Withered Field", 1918), Jigoku hen ("Hell Screen", 1918); Hokōnin no shi ("The Death of a Christian", 1918), and Butōkai ("The Ball", 1920).

Akutagawa was a strong opponent of naturalism, which had dominated Japanese fiction in the early 1900s. He continued to borrow themes from old tales, and giving them a complex modern interpretation, however the success of stories like Mikan ("Mandarin Oranges", 1919) and Aki ("Autumn", 1920) prompted him to turn increasingly towards more modern settings.

In 1921, at the crest of his popularity, Akutagawa interrupted his writing career to spend four months in China, as a reporter for the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun. The trip was stressful and he suffered from various illnesses, from which his health would never recover. Shortly after his return he published his most famous tale, Yabu no naka ("In a Grove", 1922).

Later life

The final phase of Akutagawa's literary career was marked by his deteriorating physical and mental health. Much of his work during this period is distinctly autobiographical, some even taken directly from his diaries. His works during this period, especially Daidōji Shinsuke no hansei ("The Early Life of Daidōji Shinsuke", 1925) and Tenkibo ("Death Register", 1926) are introspective and reflect Akutagawa's increasing depression and sense of uneasiness with his deteriorating mental state.

Despite his poor condition, he did engage in a spirited debate against famed author Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. Akutagawa attacked Tanizaki by claiming that lyricism was more important than structure in a story.

Akutagawa's final works: Kappa (1927), a satire based on a creature from Japanese folklore, Haguruma ("Cogwheel", 1927), a horror story based on a sensitive mind that is gradually losing its hold on reality, Aru ahō no isshō ("A Fool's Life"), and the Bungeiteki na, amari ni bungeiteki na ("Literary, Much Too Literary", 1927) reveal much of his final psychological state.

Towards the end of his life, Akutagawa began suffering from visual hallucinations and nervousness over fear that he had inherited his mother's mental disorder. In 1927 he tried to take his own life, together with a friend of his wife, but the attempt failed. He finally committed suicide by taking an overdose of Veronal, which had been given to him by Saito Mokichi on July 24 of the same year. His dying words in his will claimed he felt a . He was only 35 years old.


Akutagawa wrote no full-length novels, focusing instead on short stories of which he wrote over 150 during his brief life. Akira Kurosawa directed the film Rashōmon (1950) based on Akutagawa's stories; the majority of the action in the film was actually an adaptation of In a Bamboo Grove.

In 1935, Akutagawa's lifelong friend Kan Kikuchi established Japan's most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, in his honor. The prize is awarded annually to promising new writers.

Selected works

Year Japanese Title English Title
1914 老年 Rōnen Old Age
羅生門 Rashōmon Rashōmon
1916 Hana The Nose
芋粥 Imogayu Yam Gruel
手巾 Hankechi The Hankerchief
煙草と悪魔 Tabako to Akuma Tobacco and the Devil
1917 尾形了斎覚え書 Ogata Ryosai Oboe gaki Dr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum
戯作三昧 Gesakuzanmai Absorbed in writing popular novels
1918 蜘蛛の糸 Kumo no Ito The Spider's Thread
地獄変 Jigokuhen Hell Screen
枯野抄 Kareno shou A commentary on the desolate field for Bashou
邪宗門 Jashūmon Jashūmon
奉教人の死 Hōkyōnin no Shi The Martyr
1919 魔術 Majutsu Magic
Ryū Dragon: the Old Potter's Tale
1920 舞踏会 Butou Kai A ball
Aki Autumn
南京の基督 Nankin no Kirisuto Christ in Nanking
杜子春 Toshishun Tu Tze-chun
アグニの神 Aguni no Kami God of Aguni
1921 山鴫 YamaShigi A snipe
上海游記 Shanhai Yuki A report on the journey of Shanghai
1922 藪の中 Yabu no Naka In a Grove
将軍 Shogun The general
トロッコ Torokko A Lorry
1923 保吉の手帳から Yasukichi no Techou kara From Yasukichi's notebook
1924 一塊の土 Ikkai no Tsuchi A clod of earth
1925 大導寺信輔の半生 Daidoji Shinsuke no Hansei Daidoji Shinsuke: The Early Years
侏儒の言葉 Shuju no Kotoba Aphorisms by a pygmy
1926 点鬼簿 Tenkibo Death Register
1927 玄鶴山房 Genkaku Sanbō Genkaku's room
河童 Kappa Kappa
文芸的な、余りに文芸的な Bungeiteki na, amarini Bungeiteki na Literary, All-Too-Literary
歯車 Haguruma Spinning Gears
或阿呆の一生 Aru Ahō no Isshō A Fool's Life
西方の人 Saihō no Hito The Man of the West

Selected works in translation

  • Fool's Life. Trans. Will Peterson Grossman (1970). ISBN 0670323500
  • Kappa. Trans. Geoffery Bownas. Peter Owen Publishers (2006) ISBN 0720612004
  • Hell Screen. Trans. H W Norman. Greenwood Press. (1970) ISBN 0837130174
  • Mandarins. Trans. Charles de Wolf. Archipelago Books (2007) ISBN 0-9778576-0-3
  • Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories. Trans. Jay Rubin. Penguin Classics (2004). ISBN 0143039849
  • TuTze-Chun. Kodansha International (1965). ASIN B0006BMQ7I
  • La fille au chapeau rouge. Trans. Lalloz ed.Picquier (1980). in ISBN 978-2877302005 (French edition)



  • Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West. Columbia University Press; (1998). ISBN 0231114354
  • Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford University Press (1971). ISBN 0804709041
  • Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories - the Chronology Chapter, Trans. Jay Rubin. Penguin Classics (2004). ISBN 0143039846


  • Nakada, Masatoshi. Akutagawa Ryunosuke: Shosetsuka to haijin. Kanae Shobo (2000). ISBN 4907846037
  • Shibata, Takaji. Akutagawa Ryunosuke to Eibungaku. Yashio Shuppansha (1993). ISBN 4896500911
  • Takeuchi, Hiroshi. Akutagawa Ryunosuke no keiei goroku. PHP Kenkyujo (1983). ISBN 4569210260
  • Tomoda, Etsuo. Shoki Akutagawa Ryunosuke ron. Kanrin Shobo (1984). ISBN 490642449X

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