Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

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Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
Born1 March 1892
Tokyo, Japan
Died24 July 1927
Tokyo, Japan
Genreshort stories

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke); (March 1, 1892 - July 24, 1927) was a Japanese writer active in Taisho 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

Akutagawa was born in the Kyobashi district of Tokyo, the son of a milkman (Toshizō Shinbara). He later claimed that he was named "Ryūnosuke" ("Dragon Son") because he was 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, although an examination of the calendar indicates that this was not actually the case. His mother (Fuku Shinbara) went insane shortly after his birth, so he was adopted and raised by his maternal uncle, Akutagawa Dosho, 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 Ogai and Natsume Sōseki, both of whom were popular when he was growing up.

A set photograph of 1919. The second from the left is Ryunosuke Akutagawa. At the far left is Kan Kikuchi.

He entered the First High School in 1910, developing relationships with classmates such as Kikuchi Kan, 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 in World War II, 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 fantasy from late Heian period Japan, 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 Tanizaki Junichiro. 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 it gradually losing its hold on reality, Aru ahō no isshō ("A Fool's Life), and the Bungekiteki na, amari ni bungekiteki 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 "vague uneasiness" 「ぼんやりとした不安」 (Bon'yaritoshita fuan). 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 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
1915 羅生門 Rashōmon Rashōmon
1916 Hana The Nose
芋粥 Imogayu Yam Gruel
煙草と悪魔 Tabako to Akuma
1917 戯作三昧 Gesakuzanmai
1918 蜘蛛の糸 Kumo no Ito The Spider’s Thread
地獄変 Jigokuhen Hell Screen
邪宗門 Jashūmon
1919 魔術 Majutsu
1920 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
1921 藪の中 Yabu no Naka In a Grove
1922 トロッコ Torokko
1927 玄鶴山房 Genkakusanbō
侏儒の言葉 Shuju no Kotoba
文芸的な、あまりに文芸的な Bungeiteki na, amarini Bungeiteki na
河童 Kappa Kappa
歯車 Haguruma Cogwheel
或る阿呆の一生 Aru Ahō no Isshō Fool's Life
西方の人 Seihō no Hito The Man of the West

Selected works in English

  • 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



  • 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-10: 0804709041


  • 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

External links