Biography of Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa proved to be one of Japan's most important intellectuals over his short career during the Taishō period. He is regarded as the "Father of the Japanese short story" and Japan's premier literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him. He died by his own hand at the age of 35 through an overdose of barbital (the same drug that Virginia Wolff attempted an early suicide with).

His first name, "Ryūnosuke" (“Son of Dragon”), was a tribute to the fact that 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 was also born with the last name "Niihara,” but when his mother went insane shortly after his birth, his maternal uncle, Akutagawa Dōshō, gave him his own name and raised him. Ryūnosuke was an introverted child, spending most of his time reading classical Chinese literature and works by Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki, an author he would approach at the onset of his literary career.

He studied English literature at the Tokyo Imperial University and published translations of William Butler Yeats and Anatole France in Shinshichō (“New Trends of Thought”), a revived literary journal. About a year afterward, he published his first short story, "Rashōmon,” which was not well received by his friends. However, his next published story, "The Nose," earned a letter of praise from Sōseki, his early childhood idol.

After graduation he continued to write many more works based on classical and historical texts, as well as writing haikus under the pen name "Gaki. After a short stint with the Naval Engineering School as an English instructor, he would go on to spend four months in China to report for the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun, a daily newspaper. His physical and mental health soured as a result of this trip and he never made a full recovery before the end of his life.

He had been worried about inheriting his mother's mental illness throughout his life and although his adopted mother, Fuki, played a more significant role in his life, he had always identified strongly with his biological mother. This theme of impending madness runs throughout many of his 150+ published works.

When he began suffering from visual hallucinations and nervousness, his fear was cemented. After a failed attempt at suicide with a friend of his wife's, he was successful shortly thereafter. His suicide note mentioned a "vague insecurity" about the future.

Although his works have suffered no small amount of unscholarly mistranslation and exoticism over the years (particularly in the 1950's), newer and better translations are becoming more widely distributed. Since his first publications, he has never gone out of print, and indeed his popularity is growing along with globalization.


Study Guides on Works by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

This selection of bleak stories features some of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s most acclaimed short works. Although they were not published together during his lifetime, they hold together as a collection of his earlier and most corrosively modernist...