Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, 1 March 1892 – 24 July 1927), art name Chōkōdō Shujin (澄江堂主人),[2] was a Japanese writer active in the Taishō period in Japan. He is regarded as the "Father of the Japanese short story" and Japan's premier literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him.[3] He died by suicide at the age of 35 through an overdose of barbital.[4]

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
BornRyūnosuke Nīhara
(1892-03-01)1 March 1892
Kyōbashi, Tokyo, Japan
Died24 July 1927(1927-07-24) (aged 35)
Tokyo, Japan
GenreShort stories
Literary movementModernism [1]
Notable works"In a Grove"


Children3 (including Yasushi Akutagawa)

Early life

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was born in the Kyōbashi district of Tokyo, the third child and only son of father Toshizō Nīhara and mother Fuku Akutagawa. He was named "Ryūnosuke" ("Son [of] Dragon") 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. His mother experienced a mental illness shortly after his birth, so he was adopted and raised by his maternal uncle, Dōshō Akutagawa, from whom he received the Akutagawa family name. He was interested in classical Chinese literature from an early age, as well as in the works of Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki.

He entered the First High School in 1910, developing relationships with classmates such as Kan Kikuchi, Kume Masao, Yūzō Yamamoto, and Tsuchiya Bunmei, all of whom would later become 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 an actor, Takashi Akutagawa (1922–1945) was killed as a student draftee in Burma, and Yasushi Akutagawa (1925–1989) was a 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 second 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, was not well received by Akutagawa's friends, who criticized it extensively. Nonetheless, Akutagawa gathered the courage to visit his idol, Natsume Sōseki, in December 1915 for Sōseki's weekly literary circles, in November, he published his short story Rashomon on Teikoku Mongaku, a literary magazine[2] In early 1916 he published Hana ("The Nose", 1916), which attracted a letter of praise from Sōseki and secured Akutagawa his first taste of fame.[5]

It was also at this time that he started writing haiku under the haigo (or pen-name) Gaki. Akutagawa followed with a series of short stories set in Heian period, Edo period or early Meiji period Japan. These stories reinterpreted classical works and historical incidents. 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); Hōkyōnin no shi ("The Death of a Christian", 1918), and Butōkai ("The Ball", 1920). Akutagawa was a strong opponent of naturalism. He published Mikan ("Mandarin Oranges", 1919) and Aki ("Autumn", 1920) which have more modern settings.

In 1921, 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 Yabu no naka ("In a Grove", 1922). During the trip, Akutagawa visited numerous cities of southeastern China including Nanjing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou. Before his travel, he wrote a short story "The Christ of Nanjing"; concerning the Chinese Christian community; according to his own imagination of Nanjing influenced by Classical Chinese literature.[6]


Akutagawa's stories were influenced by his belief that the practice of literature should be universal and can bring together western and Japanese cultures. This can be seen in the way that Akutagawa uses existing works from a variety of cultures and time periods and either rewrites the story with modern sensibilities or creates new stories using ideas from multiple sources. Culture and the formation of a cultural identity is also a major theme in several of Akutagawa's works. In these stories, he explores the formation of cultural identity during periods in history where Japan was most open to outside influences. An example of this is his story Hōkyōnin no Shi ("The Martyr", 1918) which is set in the early missionary period.

The portrayal of women in Akutagawa's stories was shaped by the influence of three women who acted as a mother for Akutagawa. Most significantly his biological mother Fuku, from whom he worried about inheriting her mental illness. Though he did not spend much time with Fuku he identified strongly with her, believing that if at any moment he might go mad life was meaningless. His aunt Fuki played the most significant role in his upbringing. Fuki controlled much of Akutagawa's life, demanding much of his attention especially as she grew older. Women that appear in Akutagawa's stories, much like the women he identified as mothers, were mostly written as dominating, aggressive, deceitful, and selfish. Conversely, men were often represented as the victims of such women, such as in Kesa to Morito ("Kesa and Morito", 1918), in which the leading female character attempts to control the actions of both her lover and husband.

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 include Daidōji Shinsuke no hansei ("The Early Life of Daidōji Shinsuke", 1925) and Tenkibo ("Death Register", 1926).

Akutagawa had a highly publicized dispute with Jun'ichirō Tanizaki over the importance of structure versus lyricism in story. Akutagawa argued that structure, how the story was told, was more important than the content or plot of the story, whereas Tanizaki argued the opposite.

Akutagawa's final works include Kappa (1927), a satire based on a creature from Japanese folklore, Haguruma ("Spinning Gears", 1927), Aru ahō no isshō ("A Fool's Life"), and Bungeiteki na, amari ni bungeiteki na ("Literary, All Too Literary", 1927).

Towards the end of his life, Akutagawa began suffering from visual hallucinations and anxiety over the fear that he had inherited his mother's mental disorder. In 1927 he attempted suicide, together with a friend of his wife, but the attempt failed. He finally died by suicide by taking an overdose of Veronal, which had been given to him by Saito Mokichi on 24 July of the same year. His dying words in his will claimed he felt a "vague insecurity" (ぼんやりした不安, bon'yari shita fuan) about the future.[7] He was 35 years old.


Akutagawa wrote over 150 short stories during his brief life.[8] Akira Kurosawa's classic 1950 film Rashōmon retells Akutagawa's "In a Grove". The title and the frame scenes set in the Rashomon Gate are taken from Akutagawa's "Rashōmon".[9] Ukrainian composer Victoria Poleva wrote the ballet Gagaku (1994), based on Akutagawa's "Hell Screen". Japanese composer Mayako Kubo wrote an opera named Rashomon, based on Akutagawa's story. The German version premiered in Graz, Austria in 1996, and the Japanese version in Tokyo in 2002.

In 1935, Akutagawa's lifelong friend Kan Kikuchi established the literary award for promising new writers, the Akutagawa Prize, in his honor.

Selected works

Year Japanese title English title English translation
1914老年 RōnenOld Age
1915羅生門 RashōmonRashōmon
1916HanaThe Nose
芋粥 ImogayuYam Gruel
手巾 HankechiThe Handkerchief
煙草と悪魔 Tabako to AkumaTobacco and the Devil
1917尾形了斎覚え書 Ogata Ryosai Oboe gakiDr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum
戯作三昧 GesakuzanmaiAbsorbed in writing popular novels
首が落ちた話 Kubi ga ochita hanashiThe Story of a Head That Fell Off2004, Jay Rubin
1918蜘蛛の糸 Kumo no ItoThe Spider's Thread
地獄変 JigokuhenHell ScreenJay Rubin
枯野抄 Kareno shōA commentary on the desolate field for Bashou
邪宗門 JashūmonJashūmon
奉教人の死 Hōkyōnin no ShiThe Martyr
1919魔術 MajutsuMagic
RyūDragon: the Old Potter's Tale
1920舞踏会 Butou KaiA ball
南京の基督 Nankin no KirisutoChrist in Nanking
杜子春 ToshishunTu Tze-chun
アグニの神 Aguni no KamiGod of Aguni
1921山鴫 YamaShigiA snipe
秋山図 ShuzanzuAutumn Mountain
上海游記 Shanhai YūkiA report on the journey of Shanghai
1922藪の中 Yabu no NakaIn a Grove, also In a Bamboo Grove
将軍 ShōgunThe General
トロッコ TorokkoA Lorry
1923保吉の手帳から Yasukichi no Techō karaFrom Yasukichi's notebook
1924一塊の土 Ikkai no TsuchiA clod of earth
1925大導寺信輔の半生 Daidōji Shinsuke no HanseiDaidōji Shinsuke: The Early Years
侏儒の言葉 Shuju no KotobaAphorisms by a pygmy
1926点鬼簿 TenkiboDeath Register
1927玄鶴山房 Genkaku SanbōGenkaku's room
河童 KappaKappa
文芸的な、余りに文芸的な Bungeiteki na, amarini Bungeiteki naLiterary, All-Too-Literary
歯車 HagurumaSpinning Gears
或阿呆の一生 Aru Ahō no IsshōFool's Life
西方の人 Saihō no HitoThe Man of the West
或旧友へ送る手記 Aru Kyūyū e Okuru ShukiA Note to a Certain Old Friend

Selected works in translation

  • Tales of Grotesque and Curious. Trans. Glenn W. Shaw. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1930.
Tobacco and the devil.--The nose.--The handkerchief.--Rashōmon.--Lice.--The spider's thread.--The wine worm.--The badger.--The ball.--The pipe.--Mōri Sensei.
  • "The Christ of Nanking" (Nankyo no Kirisuto). Trans. Ivan Morris. In The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Volume 1: From Rsotriation to Occupation, 1868-1945. New York: Columbia University Press (2005).
  • Fool's Life. Trans. Will Peterson Grossman (1970). ISBN 0-670-32350-0
  • Kappa. Trans. Geoffrey Bownas. Peter Owen Publishers (2006) ISBN 0-7206-1200-4
  • Hell Screen. Trans. H W Norman. Greenwood Press. (1970) ISBN 0-8371-3017-4
  • 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 0-14-303984-9
  • Travels in China (Shina yuki). Trans. Joshua Fogel. Chinese Studies in History 30, no. 4 (1997).
  • TuTze-Chun. Kodansha International (1965). ASIN B0006BMQ7I
  • La fille au chapeau rouge. Trans. Lalloz ed. Picquier (1980). in ISBN 978-2-87730-200-5 (French edition)
  • "পটচিত্র : নরক ও অন্যান্য গল্প"। অনুবাদ শেখর মৈত্র, আনন্দ পাবলিশার্স প্রাইভেট লিমিটেড (২০১২), ISBN 978-93-5040-154-5 (Bangla/Bengali edition).


  1. "Akutagawa Ryunosuke and the Taisho Modernists". aboutjapan.japansociety.org. About Japan. Retrieved 8 June 2019.
  2. 戸部原, 文三 (2015). 一冊で名作がわかる 芥川龍之介(KKロングセラーズ). PHP研究所. ISBN 978-4-8454-0785-9.
  3. Jewel, Mark. "Japanese Literary Awards" "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-04-02. Retrieved 2015-03-28.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link). Retrieved 2014-06-25.
  4. Books: Misanthrope from Japon Monday, Time Magazine. Dec. 29, 1952
  5. Keene, Donald (1984). Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 558–562. ISBN 978-0-03-062814-6.
  6. 関口, 安義 (2007). 世界文学としての芥川龍之介. Tokyo: 新日本出版社. p. 223. ISBN 9784406050470.
  7. "芥川龍之介 或旧友へ送る手記". www.aozora.gr.jp.
  8. Peace, David (27 March 2018). "There'd be dragons". The Times Literary Supplement. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  9. Arita, Eriko, "Ryunosuke Akutagawa in focus", Japan Times, 18 March 2012, p. 8.


  • Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West. Columbia University Press; (1998). ISBN 0-231-11435-4
  • Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford University Press (1971). ISBN 0-8047-0904-1
  • Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories - the Chronology Chapter, Trans. Jay Rubin. Penguin Classics (2007). ISBN 978-0-14-303984-6


  • Nakada, Masatoshi. Akutagawa Ryunosuke: Shosetsuka to haijin. Kanae Shobo (2000). ISBN 4-907846-03-7
  • Shibata, Takaji. Akutagawa Ryunosuke to Eibungaku. Yashio Shuppansha (1993). ISBN 4-89650-091-1
  • Takeuchi, Hiroshi. Akutagawa Ryunosuke no keiei goroku. PHP Kenkyujo (1983). ISBN 4-569-21026-0
  • Tomoda, Etsuo. Shoki Akutagawa Ryunosuke ron. Kanrin Shobo (1984). ISBN 4-906424-49-X
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