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by Bamber Gascoigne

Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927)


Short-story writer, poet, and essayist, one of the first Japanese modernists translated into English. Akutagawa Ryonosuke published no full-length novel. He was a stylistic perfectionist, who often favored macabre themes. His short stories 'In a Grove' and 'Rashomon' inspired Akira Kurosawa's classic film from 1950. In 1935, the writer's friend Kikuchi Kan established the Akutagawa Prize, which is generally considered among the most prestigious Japanese literary awards for aspiring writers.

"Yes, sir. Certainly, it was I who found the body. This morning, as usual, I went to cut my daily quota of cedars, when I found the body in a grove in a hollow in the mountains. The exact location? About 150 meters off the Yamashina stage road. It's an out-of-the-way grove of bamboo and cedars." (from Rashomon and Other Stories, tr. by M. Kuwata, Takashi Kojima)

Akutagawa Ryonosuke was born in Tokyo into a family which had lived for generations in the shitamachi district of Tokyo, famous for its cultural traditions. At the time of his birth, Akutagawa's mother,  Fuku, was thirty-three. Shortly after his birth she became insane and died when Akutagawa was about ten. Niihara Toshizo, Akutagawa's father, was a dairyman. Because he was not able to take care of his son, Akutagawa was adopted by his uncle, Akutagawa Dosho, whose surname he assumed. The dominant female in his early life was his possessive maternal aunt Fuki. "I am not sure how I would have turned out without her," Akutagawa once said.

In 1913 Akutagawa entered the Tokyo Imperial University, where he studied English. His teacher, Soseki Natsume (d. 1916), became the young writer's mentor and he attended the Thursday Club meetings at Soseki's home. Akutagawa graduated in 1916 with a thesis on William Morris. Throughout his life, Akutagawa remained a voracious reader of the Western novels. 

While still at the university, Akutagawa started to write short fiction. His first literary work was a 1914 translation of Anatole France's Balthasar (1889). With his friends, Kikuchi Kan and Kumé Masao, he founded the literary magazine Shin Shicho, where he published 'Rashomon' (or 'The Rasho Gate,' 1915). The tale, set in 12th-century Kyoto, depicts a ruined city, where a former servant tries to survive and must choose between immorality and virtue. 

After graduating Akutagawa took up teaching at a naval school in Yokosuka and married Tsukamoto Fumiko. In his letters to his fiancee, Akutagawa emphasized that she should be as she is, an innocent, caring personality. "It is perfectly all right for you not to understand such a thing as literature." Primarily Akutagawa wanted devote himself entirely to literature and refused invitations to teach at the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto. Eventually he resigned to become a full-time contributor to the Osaka Mainichi newspaper. During his most active phase in 1921, Akutagawa traveled to China as a correspondent, but due to health problems he was not able to write any articles there.

Akutagawa created almost all his central works in the ten years before his suicide. His early short pieces were carefully plotted historical tales, but toward the end of his short life, he focused more on his own emotional state and contemporary settings. Akutagawa gained first fame with 'The Nose' (1916), which drew on Tales of Times Now Past (ca. 1107). In the Gogolian story a Buddhist monk troubled by his oversize, dangling nose.

European and Chinese literature was familiar for Akutagawa. He was a regular customer of Maruzen, Tokyo's foreign-language boohoo, and was interested in such writers as Strindberg, Mérimée, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, and Tolstoy, all of whom he read in English translations. Although he never visited West, his understanding of Western mind was profound.

In 'Cogwheels,' Akutagawa refers to two of his favorite authors: "On one of the shelves upstairs at Maruzen I found Strindberg's Tale and read a few pages while standing there. It describes experiences not unlike my own. And it had a yellow cover. I put it back and pulled out a thick book my hand happened to fall on. In it what should there be but an illustration of cogs with eyes and noses not unlike human beings! It was a collection of pictures by inmates of a lunatic asylum assembled by some German. Even in my depression, my spirit could be felt rising in rebellion and with the desperation of an addicted gambler kept opening book after book. Oddly enough, almost every book had clearly hidden stings in its sentences and illustrations. Every book? Even in Madame Bovary, which I had read many times before, I felt I was only the bourgeois Monsieur Bovary in the end." (New Directions: An International Anthology of Prose & Poetry 28, edited by J. Laughlin, 1974) In his autobiographical works Akutagawa also shows interest in the debate about socialism and social classes. Japanese sources for his stories include Konjaku monogatari, works of Tokigawa, early Meiji anecdotes, and Christian writing as in 'Kirishitohoro shonin-den,' about the former Saint Christopher.

Akutagawa's accuracy in his expression is seen in the way he describes sensations ("Only for an instant, on his dry lips he felt the touch of the butterfly wings. But years afterward, on his lips, the wing's imprinted dust still glittered."), everyday items ("An iron wine bottle. Some time or other this finely incised wine bottle had taught him the beauty of form."), and milieus ("Thirty years old, he had for some time been in love with a vacant lot. A ground of moss, on it broken bricks, fragments of roof tile. But in his eyes a landscape by Cezanne.") Poetic interpretation of his observations and nearly aristocratic aestheticism, connected Akutagawa to the feeling and attitudes of remote generations of writers. However, he was not blind to the struggle of his own generation, and its radicalism, which can be read from his essay 'What is Proletarian Literature', written in 1927. Akutagawa prognosed that the bourgeoisie will sooner or later yield their position to the proletariat.

The famous debate in 1927 between Akutagawa and Tanizaki Jun'ichirō  about "plotless novel" began when the latter remarked that he was coming to like novels with well-made  plots.  "To exclude the appeal of plot is to discard the special privilege of the novel form." Tanizaki dismissed fictional works that merely describe the author's personal life. Akutagawa  questioned the value of an "interesting plot" in favour of the "depth of poetic spirit". He argued that a novel without a story is the purest form of fiction, and moreover, "the novel without a proper story is not merely a novel depicting details of one's personal life. It  is, among all novels, the closest one to poetry."

Akutagawa wrote some 150 stories several of which have been filmed. 'Rashomon' together with 'In a Grove' ('Yabunonaka'), about a rape-and -murder case in tenth-century Kyoto, formed the basis for Akira Kurosawa's famous film, which was unsuccessfully remade in Hollywood in 1964 under the title 'Outrage'. Many of Akutagawa's earlier pieces were set in the ancient Japan, but he brought into them a modern psychological point of view. 'Autumn' (1920), 'The Garden' (1922), and 'The House of Genkaku' (1927) represented his move toward realism. Often he depicted dark undercurrents of the mind and favored macabre themes. In the feverish 'Hell Screen' Akutagawa examined creativity and asked the question, what happens if one is ready to break all moral rules to fulfil one's artistic goals, in this case to kill. The same idea of using a painter as a vehicle for horror, had been used by LeFanu and Poe.

The story is narrated in first person by a side character, an eyewitness of the events. Yoshihide, the protagonist, is a bad-tempered but great artist. His only daughter Yuzuki, gentle and devoted to his father, works as a maid for the Lord of Horikawa, who bids Yoshide to paint a picture of hell. The artist laborers day and night and his apprentices are in a constant state of terror because of his weird behavior. Finally he tells his lord that he cannot paint anything for which a model is lacking and one part remains unfinished: a carriage falls down through the sky. A court lady in it writhes in agony, her hair in disordered in the raging fire. After some days, the scene is arranged to the artist; a woman is burned but she is Yuzuki. "Then, wonderful to say, over the wrinkled face of this Yoshihide, who had seemed to suffer on a previous occasion the tortures of hell, over his face the light of an inexpressible ecstasy passed, and forgetful even of his lordship's presence he folded his arms and stood watching. It was almost as if he did not see his daughter dying in agony. Rather he seemed to delight in the beautiful color of the flames and the form of a woman in torment." A month later the Hell Screen is completed and Yoshihide hangs himself in his studio. "The first and most prevalent rumor was that he had burnt Yoshihide's daughter to death in resentment over thwarted love. But there was no doubt that it was the daimyo's purpose to punish the perversity of the artist, who was painting the Hell Screen, even if he had to kill someone to do so."

With a few exceptions, Akutagawa’s last pieces in which he examined his own work and place in the world as an artist, did not gain such success as his older tales. On his debate with Tanizaki he was on the losing side, but his arguments have not lost their relevance. Akutagawa committed suicide by taking an overdose of veronal on July 24, 1927, at the age of thirty-five. He fell into sleep reading the Bible. To many, his death signified the end of the era of intellectualism and aestheticism; accroding to Marxists critics, it was "one aspect of a collapsing bourgeoisie".

Paranoid and delusional, Akutagawa had suffered from visual hallucinations, believing, among othe things, that maggots were in his food. Six months before his death, Akutagawa's brother-in-law had killed himself to escape his debts; Akutagawa was expected to look after the family, a burden, for which he did not have the strength. In his suicide note, entitled 'A Note to a Certain Old Friend,' the author wrote: "The world I am now in is one of diseased nerves, lucid as ice. Such voluntary death must give us peace, if not happiness. Now that I am ready, I find nature more beautiful than ever, paradoxical as this may sound. I have seen, loved, and understood more than others." Akutagawa's autobiographical works include 'The Early Life of Daidoji Shinsuke' (1925), which was left unfinished, 'A Fool's Life' (1927), and 'Cogwheels' (1927). His last important work, Kappa (1927), depicted supernatural water creatures (kappa), familiar from folklore. In the satirical story, an upside-down version of Japanese life, an inmate in a mental asylum, Patient No 23, tells about his travels in an underground country, which he do no want to leave. Akutagawa wrote the story in less than two weeks, in a creative outburts before his death.

For further reading: Modern Japanese Literature by D. Keene (1956); Akutagawa Ryunosuke: His Concepts of Life and Art by K. Tsuruta (1968); 'Akutagawa Ryunosuke: The Literature of Defeatism' by T. Arima, in The Failure of Freedom (1969); Akutagawa: An Introduction by Beongsheon Yu (1972); 'Akutagawa, Ryunosuke,' in  World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature by Makoto Ueda (1976); The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature by H. Yamanouchi (1978); Akutagawa and Dazai: Instances of Literary Adaptation, ed. by James O'Brien (1988); Parallelisms in the Literary Vision of Sin by Tsutomu Takahashi (1997); 'The Defeat of Rationality and the Triumph of Mother "Chaos": Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's Journey' by Tsuruta Kinya, Japan Review, 11 (1999); Topographies of Japanese Modernism by Seiji Lippit (2002); Akutagawa and Dazai: Instances of Literary Adaptation by James O'Brien ( 2004); Holy Ghosts: the Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction by Rebecca Suter (2015); Rashomon Effects: Kurosawa, Rashomon and Their Legacies, edited by Blair Davis, Robert Anderson and Jan Walls (2015); Patient X: The Case-book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa by David Peace (2018); A Festival of Mysticism: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Narrative Form and the Politics of Subject Formation by Catherine Ames (2018) - Note: Special thanks to Sachin Gandhi who gave the idea for this page and helped with the quotations. - PL

Selected works:

  • 'Rashomon,' 1915 - Tales Grotesque and Curious (tr. Glenn W. Shaw, 1930; 2nd ed., 1938) / Rashomon and Other Stories (tr. Takashi Kojima, 1952) / Rashomon and Other Stories (tr. Glenn W. Shaw, 1964) / Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (introduction by Haruki Murakami, tr. Jay Rubin, 2004) - films: 1950, dir. by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki (based on the stories 'Rashomon' and 'Yabu no naka'); 1960, TV film, dir. by Sidney Lumet, play by Fay Kanin; 1961, TV film, dir. by Rudolph Cartier, adaptation by Fay Kanin; 1964, Outrage, dir. by Marin Ritt, starring Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Laurence Harvey, Edward G. Robinson
  • 'Hana,' 1916 - 'The Nose' (tr. G.W. Shaw, in Tales Grotesque and Curious, 1930; Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • 'Kiseru,' 1916 - 'The Pipe' (tr. Glenn W. Shaw, in Tales Grotesque and Curious, 1930)
  • 'Imogayu,' 1916 - 'Yam Gruel' (tr. Takashi Kojima, In Rashomon and Other Stories, 1952)
  • 'Hankechi,' 1916 - 'The Handkerchief' (tr. Glenn W. Shaw, in Tales Grotesque and Curious, 1930)
  • 'Tabako to Akuma,' 1916 - Tobacco and the Devil (tr. Glenn W. Shaw, in Tales Grotesque and Curious, 1930)
  • 'Ogata Kanzai no oboegaki,' 1917 - 'Ogata Ryosai's Memo' / 'Dr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum', in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (tr. by Jay Rubin, 2004)
  • 'Aru hi no Oishi Kuranosuke,' 1917 - 'A Day in the Life of Oishi Kuranosuke'
  • 'Gesaku zanmai,' 1917 - 'Absorbed in Letters'
  • 'Mujina,' 1917 - 'The Badger' (tr. Glenn W. Shaw, in Tales Grotesque and Curious, 1930)
  • 'Kubi ga ochita hanashi,' 1917 - 'The Story of a Head That Fell Off' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • 'Chugi,' 1917 - 'Loyalty' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • 'Kesa to Moritō,' 1918 - 'Kesa and Morito' ;  Kesa ja Morito (suom. Tuomas Anhava, teoksessa Yhdestoista "Hyvää yötä!": hetki lepoa kunnes nukutte, toim. Matti Qvist, 1959)
  • 'Karenosho,' 1918 - 'From Withered Fields'
  • 'Kumo no ito,' 1918 - 'The Spider's Thread' (tr. Glenn W. Shaw, in Tales Grotesque and Curious, 1930) / 'The Spider Thread' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004) - animation in 1946, dir. by Noburô Ôfuji
  • 'Jigoku hen,' 1918 - 'The Hell Screen' (tr. W. H. H. Norman, in Hell Screen ("Jigoku hen") and Other Stories, 1948; in Hell screen. Cogwheels. A Fool’s Life, with a foreword by Jorge Luis Borges, 1987; Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004) - film 1969, dir. by Shirô Toyoda, screenplay by Toshio Yasumi
  • 'Hokyonin no shi,' 1918 - 'Death of a Christian' / 'The Martyr' (tr. Takashi Kojima, In Rashomon and Other Stories, 1952)
  • 'Kirishitohoro shonin-den,' 1919 - 'The Story of St. Christopher'
  • 'Mikan,' 1919 - Mandarins (tr. Charles de Wolf, 2007)
  • 'Mori-sensei,' 1919 - 'Mori-sensei, (tr. G.W. Shaw, in Tales Grotesque and Curious, 1930)
  • 'Negi,' 1920 - 'Green Onions' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • 'Aki,' 1920 - 'Autumn'
  • 'Ruy,' 1919 - 'Dragon: The Old Potter's Tale' (tr. Takashi Kojima, in Rashomon and Other Stories, 1952)
  • 'Butokai,' 1920 - 'The Ball' (tr. Glenn W. Shaw, in Tales Grotesque and Curious, 1930)
  • Nankin no Kirisuto, 1920 - 'Christ in Nanking' - film 1995, Nan Jing de ji du, dir. by Tony Au, screenplay by Joyce Chan, starring Tony Leung Ka Fai, Yasuko Tomita
  • 'Toshishun,' 1920 - TuTze-Chun (tr. Dorothy Britton, with woodcuts by Naoko Matsubara, and an introd. by E. G. Seidensticker, 1965)
  • 'Koshoku', 1921 - 'Lechery'
  • 'O-gin,' 1922 - 'O-Gin' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • 'Yabu no naka,'1922 -' In a Grove' (tr. Takashi Kojima, in Rashomon and Other Stories, 1952) / 'In a Bamboo Grove' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004) ; 'Tiheikössä' (suom. teoksessa Shōsetsu: japanilaisia kertojia, toim. Veikko Polameri, 1983) - films: 1991, Iron Maze , dir. by Hiroaki Yoshida, starring Jeff Fahey, Bridget Fonda, Hiroaki Murakami, J.T. Walsh; 1996, dir. by Hisayasu Sato, screenplay by Takashi Natori
  • 'Hina,' 1923
  • Shuju no kotoba, 1923-1925
  • 'Kodomo no byoki,' 1923 - 'The Baby's Sickenss' (tr. Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • 'Bunsho', 1924 - 'The Writer's Craft' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • 'Uma no ashi,' 1925 - 'Horse Legs' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • 'Daidoji Shinsuke no hansei,' 1925 - 'The Early Life of Daidoji Shinsuke' / 'The Early Years' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • Ume, uma, uguisu, 1926
  • Tenkibo, 1925 - 'Death Register' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • 'Genkaku sanbo,' 1927 - 'The House of Genkaku'
  • Kappa, 1927 - Kappa (translated by Seiichi Shiojiri, 1951; Geoffrey Bownas, 1971; Allison Markin-Powell & Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda, 2023)
  • 'Haguruma,' 1927 - 'Cogwheels', (tr. in Hell screen. Cogwheels. A Fool’s Life, with a foreword by Jorge Luis Borges, 1987) / 'Spinning Wheels' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • Bungeiteki na, amari bungeiteki na, 1927
  • 'Aru ahö no issho,' 1927 - 'A Fool's Life' (tr. in Hell screen. Cogwheels. A Fool’s Life, with a foreword by Jorge Luis Borges, 1987; tr. Anthony Barnett & Toraiwa Naoko, 2007) / 'Life of a Stupid Man' (tr. Jay Rubin, in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004)
  • 'Seiho no hito,' 1927 - 'Man of the West'
  • Tales of Grotesque and Curious, 1930 (tr. Glen W. Shaw, 2nd ed., 1938)
  • Akutagawa Ryunosuke Zenshu, 1934-35 (10 vols.)
  • The Three Treasures and Other Stories for Children, 1944 (tr. Sasaki Takamasa)
  • Rashomon and Other Stories, 1952 (tr. Takashi Kojima)
  • Akutagawa Ryunosuke Zenshu, 1954-55 (20 vols.)
  • Japanese Short Stories, 1961 (trans. Takashi Kojima)
  • Rashomon and Other Stories, 1964 (tr. Glenn W. Shaw, publ. 1930 as Tales of Grotesque and Curious)
  • Akutagawa Ryunosuke Zenshu, 1964-65 (11 vols.)
  • Akutagawa Ryunosuke Zenshu, 1967-69 (11 vols.)
  • Exotic Japanese Short Stories, 1970 (tr. Takashi Kojima and John McVittie)
  • The Essential Akutagawa, 1999 (ed. by Seiji Lippit)
  • Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, 2004 (introduction by Haruki Murakami, tr. Jay Rubin)
  • The Beautiful and the Grotesque, 2010 (tr. Takashi Kojima and John McVittie, eds. John McVittie and Arthur Pell)
  • Cogwheels : And Other Stories, 2015 (translated by Howard Norman; illustrated by Naoko Matsubara)
  • Kappa, 2023 (New York: New Directions Publishing; translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin-Powell & Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda)

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