Akutagawa Ryunosuke

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Pseudonym for Niihara Ryūnosuke. Nationality: Japanese. Born: Tokyo, 1 March 1892. Education: Tokyo Imperial University, degree in English, 1913-16. Family: Married Tsukamoto Fumi in 1918; three sons. Career: Literary staff member, Shinshicho (New Thought) magazine, 1914, 1916-17; English teacher, Naval Engineering College, Yokosuka, 1916-19; literary staff member, Osaka Mainichi, 1919; full-time writer, from 1919. Died: 24 July 1927 (suicide).



Shū [Selected Works], edited by Nakamura Shin'ichirō. 1928; 2 vols., 1953.

Zenshū [Complete Works]. 10 vols., 1934-35; 20 vols., 1954-57; 8 vols., 1964-65; 11 vols., 1967-69.

Sakuhin shū, edited by Hori Tatsuo, Kuzumaki Yoshitoshi, and Akutagawa Hiroshi. 1949.

Bungaku tokuhon, edited by Yoshida Sei ichi. 1955.

Ō chōmono zenshū. 2 vols., 1960.

Miteikō shū, edited by Kuzumaki Yoshitoshi. 1968.

Jihitsu miteikō zufo, edited by Tsunoda Chūzō. 1971.

Short Stories

Hana [The Nose]. 1916.

Imogayu [Yam Gruel]. 1916.

Rashōmon [name of Kyoto gateway]. 1917; as Rashomon and Other Stories, 1952; as Rashomon, 1969.

Tabako to akuma [Tobacco and the Devil]. 1917.

Jigokuhen. 1918; as Hell Screen ("Jigokuhen") and Other Stories, 1948.

Hōhyōnin no shi. 1918.

Kesa to Moritō. 1918.

Kairaishi [The Puppeteer]. 1919.

Kagedōro [Street of Shadows]. 1920.

Yabu no naka. 1921; as In a Grove, 1969.

Yarai no hana [Flowers from the Night Before]. 1921.

Sara no hana [Flowers in a Dish]. 1922.

Shunpuku [The Trying Winds of Spring]. 1923.

Kōjakufū [May Breeze from the South]. 1924.

Aru ahō no isshō. 1927; as A Fool's Life, illustrated by Tanaka Ryohei, 1970.

Tales Grotesque and Curious. 1930.

Japanese Short Stories, illustrated by Masakazu Kuwata. 1961; revised edition, 1962.

Exotic Japanese Stories, illustrated by Masakazu Kuwata. 1964.

Hell Screen, Cogwheels, and A Fool's Life. 1987.


Kappa [name of a mythical creature]. 1922; translated as Kappa, 1947; as Kappa: A Novel, 1970.


Kushu [Poems]. 1976.


Toshishun. 1920; translated as Tu Tze-chun (for children), illustrated by Naoko Matsubara, 1965.

Shina-yuki [Notes on a Chinese Journey]. 1925.

Ume, uma uguisu [The Plum, the Horse, and the Nightingale]. 1926.

Bunkeitekina, amari ni bunkeitekina [Literary, All Too Literary]. 1927.

Shuju no kotoba (essays). 1968.




in An Introduction by Beongcheon Yu, 1972; in The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature by Hisaaki Yamanouchi, 1978.

Critical Studies:

Akutagawa, edited and translated by Akio Inove, 1961; "Akutagawa: The Literature of Defeatism" by T. Arima, in The Failure of Freedom, 1969; "Akutagawa and the Negative Ideal" by Howard Hibbert, in Personality in Japanese History, edited by Albert Craig and Donald Shively, 1970; An Introduction by Beongcheon Yu, 1972; in Modern Japanese Writers by Makoto Ueda, 1976; "From Tale to Short Story: Akutagawa's 'Toshishun' and its Chinese Origins," in Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature by Noriko Mizuta Lippit, 1980; in Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era: Fiction by Donald Keene, 1984; A Comparative Study of Sherwood Anderson and Ryū nosuke Akutagawa: Their Concepts of Grotesquerie by Hiromi Tsuchiya, 1996; Figures of Writing/Figures of Self: Akutagawa Ryū nosuke's Passage from Imagination to Madness by Pamela Jo Abee-Taulli, 1997; Chinese Themes in the Short Stories and Journals of Akutagawa Ryū nosuke by Mei-hua Chen, 1997; Japanese Modernism and the Destruction of Literary Form: The Writings of Akutagawa, Yokomitsu, and Kawabata by Seiji Mizuta Lippit, 1997.

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By its very brevity the short story is a difficult form. Limited in character and situation, it aims at a single effect. For interest it demands a tight structure and an arresting style that tends toward the lyrical. Its words must be carefully chosen, and its sentences must be well constructed. The modern short story arose in Japan in the second decade of the twentieth century in deviation from the current naturalism whose predominant form had become the shishōsetsu, or "I-novel," that centered around an author's life. It was pioneered by the masterly work of Shiga Naoya (1883-1971), author of the carefully crafted short story Kinosaki nite (1917, "At Kinosaki"). In his wake the younger Akutagawa Ryūnosuke brought the Japanese short story to maturity by his intelligence, imagination, and close attention to style and form. Indeed, his accomplishment made the short story recognized as an important part of Japanese literature.

Akutagawa's education was twofold. He was brought up well grounded in Japanese history and culture and during his writing career was often inspired by his reading of the eleventh-century Konjaku monogatari (Tales of Long Ago); its sequel, the Ujishui monogatari (Tales of Uji); and the thirteenth-century Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike). His favorite Japanese poet was the seventeenth-century Basho, haiku poet par excellence. At the age of ten he began to study English and Classical (literary) Chinese (wen yen). And he read some of the Chinese prose fiction written in "refined vernacular" (ch'ing-pa pai-hua): Lo Kuanchung's fourteenth-century San Kuo chih yen I (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and Ts'ao Hsüeh-chin's eighteenth-century Hung-lou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber), both novels, and P'u Sung-ling's eighteenth-century short stories in the Liao Chai chih I (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio). By the same token, Akutagawa became knowledgeable in respect to English and Continental literatures. He attended the Imperial University of Tokyo as an English major, and for graduation he submitted the thesis Wiriamu Morisu kenkyu (A Study of William Morris). Of English-language writers, he knew Poe, Bierce, O. Henry, Swift, Browning, Wilde, Yeats, and Shaw. Of the Continental writers, he knew Villon, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Flaubert, Mérimée, Maupassant, Loti, France, Huymans, Goethe, Heine, Nietzsche, Strindberg, and Kafka. Of the Russians, he knew Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, and Chekhov. Poe and Baudelaire made lasting impressions on him. He took Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" to heart. Of Baudelaire he wrote in Aru ahō no isshō, (A Fool's Life): "Life is not worth a single line of Baudelaire." The above listings are by no means exhaustive. The important point is that as a writer Akutagawa was able to take sustenance from the best of the Eastern and the Western literary traditions as he strove to create a modernist Japanese literature.

Akutagawa's fiction can be divided into three periods termed early (1915-19), middle (1920-24), and late (1925-27), including some posthumous publications. The character of Akutagawa's fiction changes significantly from one period to another, as does his state of mind. He writes stories both of ancient and modern times. His historical stories deal with "matter" (mono) of three different periods: the Late Heian (pre-feudal) period of imperial rule, or ochō-monō (1068-1185); the Late Muromachi and Early Tokugawa eras, or kirishitan-mono (c.1549-c.1639), when Christianity was being promoted by Jesuit missionary activity; and the Early Meiji period and time of the Meiji Enlightenment, or kaika-mono (1868-1912), an era of reform when Western ideas began to change the old Japan into a newly modernized nation. For instance, such stories as "Rashōmon" (1915, "Rashomon") and "Yabu no naka" (1921, "In a Grove") take place during the Late Heian period; "Tabako to Akuma" (1917, "Tobacco and the Devil") and "Hōkyōnin no shi" (1918, "The Martyr") occur during the Late Muromachi-Early Tokugawa era; and "Hina" ("The Dolls") and "Saigo Takamori" (1917), whose latter subject fought in the battle of Shiroyama, take place during the Early Meiji period. These history tales, then, contrast with Akutagawa's contemporary tales to form a kind of historical review from past to present.

By the end of Akutagawa's early period in 1919, he was regarded as the brightest star shining in the literary heaven since those of his teacher Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), author of the astonishing novel narrated by a cat, Wagahai wa neko de aru (I Am a Cat, 1905-06), and short fiction writer Shiga. Indeed, several of Akutagawa's stories of this period are among his masterpieces: "Rashomon" suggests that people have the morality they can afford. Eerie in atmosphere and gruesome in action, the story describes the night adventure of an unemployed servant inside the south gate of Kyoto while Japan is in the throes of an economic depression. Looking for a place to sleep, he climbs the stairs to the second tier to find an old hag stripping the heads of the dead disposed there of their hair. He attacks her, demanding an explanation. She argues that she does no wrong, for from the hair she makes wigs so that she may survive. Accepting her logic, he steals her clothes and departs. Akutagawa raises certain images—the decrepit gate, the jobless poor, the abandoned corpses, the pimple on the cheek of the servant, the stripping of the old woman—to a symbolic level to render firm support to the narrative.

"Jigokuhen" (1918, "Hell Screen") is one of Akutagawa's greatest stories. The story of an artist who is an evil genius yet who passionately loves his daughter, it is reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844), which it exceeds in its horror. A supreme painter, Yoshihide is ordered by his patron to paint a scene of hell on a screen. After shutting himself in his studio for several months, Yoshihide emerges to inform his lord that the painting is finished except for one scene—the depiction of a young lady being burned to death in a flaming carriage. In the interest of perfection, the artist requests that his patron furnish him an actual demonstration of such an event, and his lord agrees. When the demonstration takes place, Yoshihide is at first horrified to see by the light of the fire that the young lady is his daughter; but in a few seconds he undergoes a complete transformation, his face gleaming with aesthetic joy. If "Hell Screen" and "Rashomon" project horror and mystery, other fine stories of Akutagawa's early period are quite the opposite. "Hana" (1916, "The Nose") and "Imogayu" (1916, "Yam Gruel"), although also set in the past and dependent on dramatic irony for their effects, are comic grotesques somewhat in the mode of Poe's grotesques such as "Lionizing" and "Loss of Breath" (both 1835). Like "Lionizing," "The Nose" is a satire on social status, egoism, and vanity but also with surfeit, or what is too much. After feeling his enormous nose impedes his social acceptance, a Buddhist monk succeeds in reducing it to normal size, whereupon he becomes inordinately vain. Now his vanity repels everyone else. In "Yam Gruel" a Japanese petty official has an excessive fondness for a gruel made of rice porridge with yams. He wishes he could have as much as he wants. When a wealthy man gives him such an opportunity, he loses his appetite for yam gruel completely.

The stories of Akutagawa's middle period (1920-24) show that changes were taking place in his "heart-mind" that were revising his view of the relationship between art and life. The question that was troubling him was which should take precedence. To Akutagawa's character Yoshihide, art took precedence over human life. In another such story, Akutagawa's charming "Shuzanzu" (1920, "An Autumn Mountain"), two old Chinese scholars discuss a painting whose aesthetics they have not understood. Eventually together they experience a mutual flash of insight, an aesthetic satori. They clap their hands and their faces light up with joy—they have understood! But from this point life and nature begin to win out over beauty in Akutagawa's mind. An earlier indication of his reversal can be detected in "Mikan" (1919, "The Tangerines"). This story takes place aboard a train. A teenage country girl enters the compartment of the narrator. Her plain, countrified features and her ignorance in not knowing that her third-class ticket does not entitle her to ride second-class annoy him. In his mind she epitomizes the vulgarity of the lower classes. But at a railroad crossing three young boys in shabby clothes are waiting to wave to their departing sister. Leaning out of the window, she tosses several tangerines to them. The narrator is awakened and responds that "within a few minutes I felt life welling up within me." This grand feeling compensates him for the "absurdity" and "meaninglessness" of his existence. Finally, "Niwa" (1922, "The Garden") is a study of the relationships of nature, art, and human life. The beautiful formal garden of the Nakamura family has been neglected as the years go by, and family members die or leave home, except for the third son who is indifferent to it. The profligate second son returns home because he is slowly dying of consumption. He decides to restore the garden, now returned to nature, to its original formal beauty. He works hard each day to the point of exhaustion—eventually being aided by his teenage nephew—until the garden is nearly the work of art it was originally; but then he dies—with a smile of satisfaction on his face. Work, creativity, and struggle are the keys to a satisfactory life, Akutagawa seems to be saying.

Until his late period (1925-27) Akutagawa pretty well maintained his policy of self-detachment (kokuki) taught to him by his mentor Natsume Sōseki, who advised him to " sokuten kyoshi " ("follow Heaven and transcend the self"). By practicing this strategy Akutagawa was able to stay out of his own stories or to be present merely as an observer or compiler. He was also able to avoid the naturalism (shizen shugi) he opposed as well as the shishōsetsu (I-novel) he disliked. Early in his middle period he had begun questioning the authenticity of participant accounts of events as well as the testimony of eyewitnesses of the same events in his complex but fascinating story "In a Grove." This tale presents seven narrative points of view of the same event, including that of a dead man who speaks through a medium. This multiplicity of viewpoints anticipates Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930) by almost a decade. Alleged crimes of rape and murder involving three participants, a young samurai, his pretty wife, and a notorious bandit named Tajomaru are under investigation by the High Commissioner of Police. But the testimony of the witnesses, including the ghost of the dead samurai speaking through a medium, varies so widely and is so contradictory that no determination of the truth can be reached, so strong is the egotism and the self-interest of each witness. Hence in this story Akutagawa is asking: How can the objective be distinguished from the subjective? How can the truth be distinguished from fiction?

Akutagawa's early period was highly successful and contained "glory and splendor." After the completion of "Hell Screen," however, self-doubt began to disturb his mind. After "Tatsu" (1919, "The Dragon"), a tale showing how easy it is to fool the public with disinformation, he felt himself artistically dead. Nevertheless, during his middle period he wrote such fine stories as "An Autumn Mountain," "In a Grove," and "The Garden." But after his four-month visit to China in 1925, he returned broken in body and spirit. His former ability to maintain self-detachment—what John Keats called "negative capability"—was gone. He now wallowed in his own ego, his work becoming increasingly confessional in character—even to the point of morbidness and self-disgust. This process is seen occurring in "Anchu mondo" (1927, "Dialogue in Darkness"), "Haguruma" (1927, "Cogwheels"), and A Fool's Life. In the first, three voices confront the narrator in succession. The first condemns him for not having turned out successfully, the second congratulates him for his courage, and the third claims to be his father and urges him "to write unto death." The second story portrays a neurotic man's worries, fantasies, and hallucinations. For instance, he sees the image of an empty raincoat on several occasions that apparently foretells his brother-in-law's suicide. He also repeatedly experiences half-transparent, multiplying cogwheels constantly revolving in his mind. The third piece, A Fool's Life, is an autobiography presented as 51 tableaus depicting significant events in the life of a literary genius resembling Akutagawa. None of these pieces is actually a successful work of art.

Perhaps the finest story of Akutagawa's late period is his accomplished satire Kappa (completed 11 February 1927), done in the manner of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) or Anatole France's L'Ile des pîngouins (1908, Penguin Island). In this story a traveler visits Kappaland. Kappas are mythical amphibious creatures. Pygmy size, they have bobbed hair, faces like tigers, bodies scaled like fish that like those of chameleons change color to suit the environment, frog-like appendages, and a saucer-like depression on top of their heads that contains water providing them with power. The narrator of this tale is identified only as Patient No. 23, who is a resident of a mental asylum. Akutagawa explained that this work resulted from his " dégoût, " that is, his disgust and loathing of the world. His suicide was to end his descent from Parnassus. Despite his failures, Akutagawa has the right to be considered one of the foremost authors of Japan's modern era.

—Richard P. Benton

See the essays on "In a Grove" and "Rashomon."