Born in the city of Shingū in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, Nakagami was of burakumin ancestry. He was the first member of his village to be educated under the new compulsory education system “people thought that I was very bright because I could read my own name”. He moved to Tokyo age 19 in 1965, took on various manual handling jobs including a baggage handler at Tokyo airport, which also allowed him to continue his passions of jazz and writing.
In June 2006: "[a] poem card (shikishi) on which novelist Nakagami Kenji inscribed an original haiku has been found in the possession of haiku poet Ibaraki Kazuo of Nara Prefecture. The haiku was composed on June 3, 1990, at a party after a lecture given by Nosaka Akiyuki in the city of Shingū, Nara, to commemorate the founding of Kumano University. The poem reads Akiyuki ga / kiku gen no koe / natsu fuyō (Akiyuki / listening to phantom-like voices-- / a summer cotton rose)."
Many of his works are set in the Kumano region of the Kii Peninsula where he grew up under difficult circumstances. When Nakagami won the Akutagawa Prize in 1975 for The Cape (岬 Misaki), he became the first author born in the post-war period to win this prize. He is considered one of the most important postwar writers in Japan, and one of the only ones of prominence to reveal the dark side of a racist Japanese society. A number of Nakagami's short stories have been translated into English and other languages, including The Cape and Snakelust (蛇淫 Ja'in). He also won the Mainichi Publishing Culture Award for his yet untranslated story Karekinada (枯木灘 The Sea of Withered Trees).
Major works available in English
- Karlsson, Mats (2001), The Kumano Saga of Nakagami Kenji, Stockholm: Stockholms Universitet.
- Nakagami, Kenji (1984), “The Immortal” (trans. Harbison, Mark) in Gessel, Van C. & Matsumoto, Tomone (eds.) (1985), The Showa Anthology – Modern Japanese Short Stories, New York: Kodansha International. ISBN 4-7700-1708-1
- Rankin, Andrew (trans., ed.)(1999), Snakelust, Tokyo: Kodansha. ISBN 4-7700-2354-5
- -- (containing “The Mountain Ascetic”, “The Wind and the Light”, “Snakelust”, “Makeup”, “Crimson Waterfall”, “A Tale of a Demon” and “Gravity's Capital”)
- Zimmerman, Eve (trans., ed.)(1999), The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto, Berkeley California: Stone Bridge Press. ISBN 1-880656-39-6
- -- (containing “The Cape”, “House on Fire” and “Red Hair”)
- Small biography
- Small biography in French
- Kenji Nakagami's grave (English)
- Kenji Nakagami at J'Lit Books from Japan (English)
- Synopsis of The Kareki Sea (Karekinada) at JLPP (Japanese Literature Publishing Project) (English)