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.
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).
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.
|Year||Japanese Title||English Title|
|1914||老年 Rōnen||Old Age|
|1916||鼻 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|
|奉教人の死 Hōkyōnin no Shi||The Martyr|
|龍 Ryū||Dragon: the Old Potter's Tale|
|1920||舞踏会 Butou Kai||A ball|
|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|
|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|