Akutagawa Ryunosuke: A Life of Intense and Fleeting Genius

Akutagawa Ryunosuke: A Life of Intense and Fleeting Genius

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Akutagawa Ryunosuke
A brilliant author. A tragic trajectory. A powerful legacy. Learn more about the writer whose works inspired one of Kurosawa's most famous films.

When I first started studying Japanese, I bought a book called Breaking into Japanese Literature by Giles Murray, which presents short stories by two authors who helped define modern Japanese literature: Natsume Soseki and Akutagawa Ryunosuke.

I was too intimidated when I first bought the book five years ago to dive too deeply into it. But I picked it up again lately and began reading Akutagawa’s In a Grove (藪の中; yabu no naka), a story about a murder told from seven different perspectives. If that sounds familiar, it’s because you probably know the story as Kurosawa Akira’s famous film Rashomon. (Kurosawa took the title and main symbol of Rashomon from another story by Akutagawa.) The story is typical of Akutagawa’s style: elliptical and haunting, it leaves the reader without any firm answers. As Dr. Murray wrote about the author in his book:

His stories are perfect expressions of the decadent aesthetic, with the gorgeous and the grotesque, the splendid and the sordid, intertwining in highly polished prose.

Regarded as a master of the short story, Akutagawa’s influence extends far beyond his short, tragic life span – a life lived in turmoil during tumultuous times.

Early Life

Akutagawa was born in 1892 in what is now the town of Asaichichou in Chuuei Ward in Tokyo. It was only a few decades earlier that the Shogunate had collapsed, and Japan embarked on a breakneck sprint toward modernization. 12 years later, Japan would defeat Russia in the Sino-Japanese War, and enter the world stage as the budding superpower of Asia. It was a time when the traditional and the modern were constantly in conflict, and Japan was redefining what it meant to be Japanese.

Almost as if crafted to match the times, Akutagawa’s early life was one of personal turmoil. His mother, Fuku, suffered from what is only described as “madness”, forcing relatives to take Akutagawa away form his birth home before his first birthday. His mother passed away when he was only 10 years old, leaving Akutagawa to lament in his autobiographical novel Tenkibo (点鬼簿):


My mother was demented. I never once felt a mother’s closeness from her.

On the positive side of this trauma, Akutagawa came under the heavy influence of his aunt, Fuki, a woman with a passion for education who passed the same education onto her nephew. This passion enabled Akutagawa to bypass entrance examinations and cruise into an elite high school, after which he entered the literature department of Tokyo Imperial University. Having had the privilege of being born into a literary-loving family, no one opposed Akutagawa’s plan to eschew a more traditional career path for the artist’s life.

It was at Tokyo Imperial University, at the tender age of 22, that Akutagawa made himself and his powerful literary style known to the world.

(JP) Link: Approaching The Life of Akutagawa Ryunosuke on the 90th Year After the Literary Master’s Passing

Literary Works

Akutagawa Ryunosuke - Rashomon
English translation of Rashomon from Liveright.

In college, Akutagawa fell in love with a childhood friend, Yoshida Yayoi. However, the relationship ended when Yayoi’s parents decided on the recommendation of a relative to marry her off to an army lieutenant. Depressed and heartbroken, Akutagawa channeled his feelings into his art.

One of his very first stories is still regarded today as a classic: Rashomon, the eponymous story that, along with In a Grove, inspired Kurosawa’s classic film. Based on stories from the Konjaku Monogatari (今昔物語), a collection of works from the Heian Era, the updated Rashomon paints an eerie scene of dead bodies witnessed by a servant who finds himself with nothing else to do.

Dr. Murray comments that part of the genius in Akutagawa’s approach is taking old stories like Rashomon and imparting a psychological depth and insight that was more in tune with Japan’s modern era. As an example, take Akutagawa’s description of the main character’s psychological state as he finds himself milling under the gate (Murray’s translation):

I wrote earlier that “A servant was waiting for the rain to stop.” But in fact the servant had nothing to do even after the rain stopped. Normally, of course, he would have returned to his master’s house. However, he had been discharged from the service of that master some four or five days before.

As I said earlier, the city of Kyoto was experiencing a multifaceted decline. The fact that the servant had been discharged by the master who had served him for so many years was no more than one insignificant, secondary effect of this overall decline. So perhaps rather than saying, “A servant was waiting for the rain to stop,” it would be more appropriate to say, “The rain-trapped servant had nowhere to go and was at the end of his tether.”

Rashomon became the title of Akutagawa’s first book of short stories. In 1916, Akutagawa published The Nose (鼻; hana), a powerful work that drew the attention of Natsume Soseki and others in Tokyo’s literary circles. Natsume and Ryunosuke developed a close teacher-student relationship; Ryunosuke would, for the rest of his life, refer to Natsume as “sensei”.

(JP) Link: Understand Akutagawa Ryunosuke in Five Minutes!

After teaching English at a naval school, Akutagawa quit in 1919 when he picked up an exclusive newspaper contract for fiction writing from the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun Publishing Company. In the same year, he found luck in love, marrying Tsukamoto Fumi. The two lived together in Kamakura in what one Web writer describes as “the happiest period in the author’s life.”

“At The End of His Tether”

Akutagawa Ryunosuke in 1927
Akutagawa Ryunosuke in 1927, the year of his death. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Unfortunately for Akutagawa (and for the world), the artist’s decline was as swift as his rise.

Akutagawa began to grow dissatisfied with the gap between his ideal of marriage and the reality. He had explicitly married Fumi on the philosophy that “知識や金のある女とは幸せになれない” (“A woman with knowledge and money can never be happy”). But, while admiring Fumi’s kindness, Akutagawa grew disgruntled that he didn’t have a partner off of whom he could bounce his ideas.

Gripped by this contradiction, Akutagawa had a brief affair with the poet Hide Shigeko. Akutagawa soured on the relationship when he discovered Hide had another lover. Hide, still smitten, referred to her next child as “Akutagawa’s kid.”

It was against this backdrop that, in 1921, Mainichi Shinbun sent Akutagawa to Shanghai. It was a fateful trip from which the author would never fully recover. The illness that Ryunosuke suffered on that trip affected him for the rest of his life. His literary output began to decline. He experimented with new art forms, but his experiments were never well received by the public. He suffer from insomnia. He began to worry in the intervening years that, like his mother, he too might be going mad.

In addition, in 1927, his sister’s home burned down, and he took on the burden of shouldering their debts and preventing his sister’s household from lapsing into poverty – a stress that must have worn heavy on him. In a letter to a friend, he described his despair in a sentence that has echoed for decades after his death:


I have nothing but a vague unease regarding my future.

On July 24th, 1927, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, like the servant in Rashomon, must have felt that he, too, was trapped by the rain and at the ender of his tether. The author took an overdose of sleeping medication and passed away. He was a mere 35 years young.


Akutagawa’s legacy, however, continues to live, as his writing continues to inspire and influence generations of Japanese authors who have come after him. Even people around the world who have otherwise never heard of him have felt his influence indirectly through Kurosawa’s work.

In 1934, in the magazine Bungei Shunjuu, author Kikuchi Kan, a close friend of Akutagawa’s, announced the creation of the Akutagawa Prize. In honor of the author’s early success, the prize was created to recognize the best new writers to emerge in the past year. The honor has been bestowed upon 159 times since Akutagawa’s death, and has honored numerous authors whose works have experienced great success, including but not limited to:

Wataya Risa – 130th Akutagawa Prize Winner for 蹴りたい背中 (I Want To Kick You In The Back)

Wataya Risa - I Want to Kick You in the Back

Matayoshi Naoki – 153rd Akutagawa Prize Winner for 花火 (Sparks) (not available in English translation for reasons unknown to me…)

Murata Sayaka – 155th Akutagawa Prize Winner for コンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman)

Murata Sayaka - Convenience Store Woman

Having read both Convenience Store Woman and several works by Wataya Risa, including I Wanna Kick You in the Back, I can see why both came up for the Akutagawa award. Like the late master, their stories are less stories and more portraits of people navigating each other’s idiosyncrasies – and struggling to understand and accept their own. Although Akutagawa’s contributions to world literature ended at an early age, his influence on those who came after him is undeniable.

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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